Need a brain boost? How about the kids? You can supercharge everyone’s concentration and memory just by choosing the right foods. The power is in your hands, and on your plate.
Here’s the skinny. What you eat directly affects your brain. Studies show that eating certain foods can boost your mood, your IQ (whoopee!), and your memory, while keeping your mind more stable. Who doesn’t want that?! And, I don’t know one single parent who wouldn’t want that for their kids—the ability to solve problems more quickly and easily, improved concentration and memory, and better coordination and balance.
So what are these magical munchies? It comes down to three key things: neurotransmitters, vitamins and minerals, and fats.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that carry information in the brain. They are made up of amino acids, the building blocks of protein that are also found in meat, fish, and dairy. The three key neurotransmitters are acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin. Acetylcholine helps with memory and muscle movement, and is found in egg yolks, peanuts, wheat germ, meat, fish, dairy, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. Dopamine is involved in movement, attention, and learning, and is found in meat, dairy, fish, beans, nuts, and soy. Studies show that the dopamine from just 3-4 ounces of protein will help you feel energized and alert (how about that at 2:00 p.m.?!). Serotonin affects mood and appetite, and is found in pasta; starchy vegetables like corn, peas, and potatoes; and whole-grain cereals and breads.
Vitamins and minerals are also essential for the growth and proper function of the brain, and they are needed to convert those building-block amino acids into neurotransmitters. The most important vitamins for the brain are B-complex vitamins (found in dark leafy greens like chard, kale, and spinach; meat [including turkey]; lentils; potatoes; and fortified cereals), vitamin A (found in dark leafy greens; orange-red foods like mangoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and cantaloupe; dairy; and eggs), vitamin C (found in all vegetables and fruits, especially citrus and berries), and vitamin E (found in sunflower seeds, almonds, and olives). These vitamins not only produce energy, but they also have powerful antioxidant qualities that promote and preserve memory. In fact, the antioxidants in blueberries are so powerful that they help protect the brain from free-radical damage while improving cognitive function (meaning that you’ll think better!).
The most important minerals for brain energy and for transmitting messages are magnesium (found in pumpkin seeds, soybeans, and salmon), manganese (found in kale, chard, raspberries, pineapples, romaine lettuce, and spinach), sodium (salt—found in most foods), potassium (found in chard, yams, lima beans, soybeans, avocadoes, and spinach), and calcium (found in dairy products, sesame seeds, and dark leafy greens like spinach, mustard greens, collard greens, and turnip greens).
On to fats. The brain is more than 60% fat, and that fat plays a crucial role in sending messages regarding immune function, blood circulation, inflammation, memory, and mood. Omega-3 fatty acids are the primary building blocks for brain tissue and are essential for optimal brain performance. The best food sources of omega-3 fatty acids are flax, walnuts, and fatty/oily fish like salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, herring, mackerel, and anchovies.
So there’s your list of brain foods—as you can see, many foods fall under multiple headings, so be sure to include them in your regular diet (dark leafy greens, fruits and vegetables, dairy products, nuts and seeds, meat, poultry, fish, and beans). To get you started, here’s a simple “brain menu”:
Maple-Soy Glazed Salmon with Mandarin Oranges
4 (5-ounce) salmon fillets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1(1-ounce) can mandarin oranges in light syrup, drained
Preheat oven to 400º. Coat a shallow roasting pan with cooking spray. Arrange salmon fillets in pan and season with salt and pepper. Whisk together soy sauce and maple syrup, and pour over salmon. Arrange oranges on top of fillets. Roast 15 minutes, until fish is fork-tender.
Garlicky Spinach with Walnuts
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup walnut halves or pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 (10-ounce) bag baby spinach leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add walnuts, garlic, and shallots, and cook 1 minute, until walnuts are toasted, stirring frequently. Add spinach, and toss to coat with garlic and shallots. Cover pan and steam 1 to 2 minutes, until spinach wilts. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Blueberry-Ricotta Fool with Toasted Almonds
Note: You can substitute toasted pumpkin seeds for the almonds, if desired.
½ cup slivered almonds
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
Ground cinnamon, optional
Place almonds in a small dry skillet and set pan over medium heat. Cook 2 to 3 minutes, until almonds are golden brown, shaking the pan frequently. Set aside. Place blueberries, honey, lemon juice, and vanilla in a medium saucepan, and set pan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook 5 minutes, until blueberries break down. Remove from heat and fold in ricotta cheese. Spoon mixture into bowls, and top with almonds and cinnamon (if using).
Additional ideas to work “brain foods” into your diet:
- Make dark leafy greens the base of all salads.
- Add flaxseeds to salads and smoothies, or fold them into quick breads before baking.
- Sauté dark leafy greens like chard, turnip greens, spinach, and collard greens in olive oil with a little fresh garlic, and serve as a side dish with toasted nuts on top.
- Purée anchovies into your favorite pasta sauce or salad dressing.
- Roast trout (and/or other oily fish) with pineapple rounds or fresh mango arranged on top.
- Add chopped kale to soups and stews.
- Add fresh berries to all breakfast and dessert toppings.
- Serve tuna, turkey, and chicken salads in halved cantaloupe melon.
- Roast butternut squash and serve as a side dish, or use as a “bowl” for thick soups.
- Make pesto with fresh spinach and walnuts instead of basil and pine nuts.
- Snack on olives instead of potato chips (cure your salt craving and get vitamin E!).
- Enjoy a scrambled egg on whole-grain toast for breakfast. Top with reduced-fat cheese for added brain nutrients.
Please share your favorite brain food recipes with us too!