In addition to calories, you should also make sure you get good nutrients for your neurons through a balanced and varied diet. To ensure your brain gets what it needs there are certain foods you should add to your diet.
1. Oily fish (mackerel, sardines salmon) for brain maintenanceMore than 50% of brain mass is made up of lipids, and over 70% of these are fatty acids that belong to the well-known Omega 3 group. These fats are crucial to the production and maintenance of brain cells, preserving the fluidity of cell membrane.
They also play a part in neuron activity. Weakening brain function and memory trouble can often be traced back to a deficiency in Omega 31. Oily fish are one of the best sources of Omega 3, but if fish isn't to your taste, consider nut oils and rapeseed oil as equally rich alternatives.
2. Pulses (lentils, chick-peas) for brain energyThe brain is said to be glucose-dependent, which means it uses only glucose to function. It consumes more than 5g an hour, but doesn’t know how to store it. It therefore has to be regularly supplied your diet via the circulatory system. It has long been proven that the most difficult task within intellectual performance, the capacity to memorise, depends on the level of glucose in the blood2.
But beware of indulging in sugary foods and confectionery; though easy to snack on, they can lead to such strong fluctuations that your system can react violently and reduce blood sugar to below its normal level. The brain cannot tolerate this and the drop in blood sugar leads to fatigue and a shorter attention span.
The sugars that are said to be ‘complex’ and which have a low Glycaemic Index (GI) are therefore crucial. Pulses are rich in these ‘complex’ sugars, and their GI is one of the lowest. This really works to allow the regulation of glucose in the blood and its supply to the brain without creating a reaction of hyperglycaemia. If pulses aren’t to your taste either, consider wholegrain foods, especially cooked ‘al dente’.
3. Bananas for a calm brainRich in magnesium, which is essential in the transmission of nervous impulses, bananas are equally a source of Vitamin B6 (just one banana holds practically a quarter of the recommended daily amount). This vitamin is not only involved in the assimilation and use of magnesium in cells, but also in the metabolism of amino acids and the functioning of the nervous system through enabling the production of certain neurotransmitters, notably Serotonin and GABA (Gamma-amino butyric acid).
These two molecules seem to create the right state of mind for prudent, calm and measured behaviour. If you don’t like bananas, consider prunes or dried fruit instead.
4. Liver (veal, beef, chicken) for intelligenceThe brain accounts for around 20% of the body’s oxygen needs, and iron is needed to get oxygen to the brain by means of the blood’s haemoglobin. Liver is one of your diet’s assets guaranteed to contain this valuable metal. Equally, liver is one of the most important sources of Vitamin B. Since the mid 1980s, it has been shown that these vitamins, mainly B9, B12, B1 and B6, improve cognitive function and the results of intelligence tests. If you don’t like liver, consider ham, beef or nutritional yeast as a food supplement.
5. Red berries for happy brain cellsAll edible berries (blackcurrants, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries etc.) are veritable mines of Vitamin C (blackcurrants have twice as much concentration in Vitamin C as kiwi fruit, and three times as much as oranges). They have antioxidant micronutrients that make up their colour (anthocyanes, polyphenols, flavonoids…)
Together, they not only fight against free radicals which can affect nerve cells, notably brain cells, but also improve circulation and strengthen blood capillaries, which enable the best oxygenation of the brain. If you don’t like red berries, then go for kiwi fruit or garlic.
6. Shellfish for brain functionThough rich in Vitamin B12 and in protein (notably lysine, a precursor to dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter), it is mostly the oligo-elements in seafood and crustaceans (oysters, clams, shrimp etc.) that are good for brain function. Oligo-elements are crucial in order to fight and prevent stress and its inconveniences. Some of these can be described as ‘therapeutic weapons’ as they have a hand in fighting anxiety, mental fatigue and nervous disposition.
Manganese, copper, lithium, zinc and iodine have this effect too and can also be found in seafood. If you don’t like shellfish, consider eating wholemeal bread, algae (which has iodised salt as in table salt) or wheat germ.
7. Eggs for brain connectivityEggs contain lecithin and phospholipids, integral to the construction of brain cell membrane. In terms of feeding intellect, their value lies mainly in the quality of their proteins. Long used as points of reference when analysing the quality of other dietary proteins by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FOA), eggs are actually rich in amino acids, essential in the production of the principal neurotransmitters.
This is also the case with acetylcholine, a synthesis made from methionine and serine used in the process of memorisation, where noradrenalin (which stimulates learning) and its production rely on the presence of tyrosine and phenylaline, which are again found in the proteins in eggs. If you don’t like eggs, consider white fish as an alternative.
8. Spinach for good memoryAll leafy vegetables share a richness in Vitamin B9 (or folates), which is known to play an active role in the development of a foetus’ nervous tissue and also in the renewal of blood cells. One of the signs of Vitamin B9 deficiency is reduced awareness and memory deterioration3. This phenomenon, observed in people of advanced age with folate deficiency, can probably be explained by the fact that Vitamin B9 is needed for the maintenance of dendrites (arborisation of neurons, where B9 levels are high).
If you don’t like spinach, go for watercress, lamb’s lettuce, iceberg lettuce, broccoli or different types of herbs. Of these, rosemary is worth noting as it has certain flavonoids (notably apigenin) in its aroma, which possess stimulating properties affecting concentration and memory through encouraging cerebral blood flow.
9. Cocoa for brain stimulationIn Aztec times, cocoa was already considered a medicine. Later, Casanova, the legendary seducer of women, used chocolate as an aphrodisiac with the kind of effects we know well! Since then, the chemical analysis of cocoa paste has revealed many surprises; besides the important calorific benefits, the presence of molecules similar to caffeine (theobromine, theophylline) and amphetamines (phenylethylamine, tyramine) give chocolate its true power as a tonic and psycho-stimulant. At the same time, chocolate’s high magnesium content (330mg per 100g), and the molecules it contains which are similar to serotonin (the ‘relaxation’ hormone), account for its ‘anti-stress’ and anti-depressant effects.
But that’s not all! Scientists have demonstrated the positive role flavonoids present in cocoa play in encouraging better dilation of blood vessels4. These antioxidant compounds help fight free radicals and guard the brain’s activity. Beware of over-indulging, however. If you don’t like chocolate, drink tea (which also contains antioxidants) and weak coffee (for its caffeine and its psycho-stimulating effect5), but being mindful of excess and without indulging too much at the risk of cancelling out or even reversing the effects.
10. Avocado to keep the brain youngThe avocado is exceptionally rich in Vitamin E. This vitamin constitutes one of the most powerful antioxidants and protects the fatty tissues of the brain from ageing. If you don’t like avocado, consider oleaginous fruit instead (nuts, particularly hazelnuts etc.).
And don’t forget that, in order to become a real intellectual athlete, you must equally train your brain with special exercises (cerebral games, memory puzzles…). And you mustn’t neglect rest either (sleep is crucial for the brain’s regeneration…). In following this advice, you may not pick up that Nobel Prize, but you will have a brain that’s at the top of its game nonetheless!
1. Neurology. 2004, 62(2): 275-280
2. Psychopharmacol, 1993, 113: 83-8
3. JAMA, 1983, 249: 2917-21
4. J Hypertens. 2003 Dec; 21(12): 2281-6
5. J Psychopharmacol, 1991, 5: 120-8
Benefits of a Healthy DietIt may sound trite but it's true: If your diet lacks essential nutrients, it can decrease your ability to concentrate. Eating too much or too little can also interfere with your ability to focus. A heavy meal may make you feel lethargic, while too few calories can result in distracting hunger pangs.
Benefit your brain: Strive for a well-balanced diet full of a wide variety of healthy, wholesome foods.