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If you're like me, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about what you're going to eat. Here's some food for thought: The right foods can improve your concentration, fend off dementia, boost your energy and even help you remember things.
While most nutrition studies focus on hearts, bones and waistlines, there's a growing field of research around food and how it affects our brains. So, whether you're choosing breakfast foods to keep you alert during an early morning business meeting or want an afternoon snack idea to boost concentration powers, here's a round up of food news to feed your mind.
Get your folate
Found in orange juice, green vegetables, cantaloupe and whole grain foods including those enriched with folic acid such as breads, cereals, pasta and rice. Shown to improve alertness in adults, the B vitamin folate may be key in forming the brain's memory cells. (It's also critical in early pregnancy to prevent spinal cord birth defects.) Research shows that high blood folate levels help keep homocysteine levels in check. That's a good thing because high homocysteine levels are associated with increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. So, grabbing an orange juice and whole grain bagel may be a time saving "no-brainer" breakfast on the go but it's really good for your brain.
Feed your brain cells choline
Found in egg yolks, peanuts, soybeans and flaxseeds the nutrient choline helps support the brain's messenger service, called neurotransmitters. It's also linked to new memory cell production. But, according to Boston based nutrition consultant and registered dietitian Elizabeth Ward, who presented findings at the American Dietetic Association's 2008 Food and Nutrition Conference in Chicago, "It's a nutrient that's frequently under-consumed by those who need it most." Fewer than 10 percent of older children, men and women get the recommended amount of choline, Ward says. One egg, which contains 125 milligrams of choline, can help close the gap.
Add more antioxidants
If you're having trouble remembering or thinking clearly, toss a handful of blueberries in your yogurt for breakfast or order a spinach salad for lunch. Both contain high levels of antioxidants which may help protect cognitive function by fighting oxidative stress in our brains, according to nutrition research from Tufts University.
Take a sip of tea
Facing a big meeting or need to focus? Try a cup of tea. Tea contains an amino acid called theanine that helps calm us down so we can concentrate better and focus on the task at hand. Theanine is found in green, black and oolong teas.
If your brain feels a bit fuzzy or you feel irritable, you might just be thirsty. Dehydration can make you feel listless, lethargic and contribute to concentration problems. Maybe you don't need more caffeine to plow through the rest of the afternoon. Make sure to drink water throughout the day. The water in fresh fruit and vegetable snacks help hydrate, too.
Brain foods for kids
Children also need brain food. Breakfasts based on high-sugar food, in particular, can be a problem. High-sugar foods set kids up for a midmorning energy crash--just when they're likely to be in the middle of the more demanding classes, like math or reading.
Ideal breakfasts offer protein and complex carbs, which are digested more slowly. Such breakfasts not only keep kids' energy levels stable all morning, but also improve motor coordination, says Steven Zeisel, MD, a researcher at Duke University. Feed them a bowl of oatmeal. Researchers believe the high fiber, whole grain digests slowly, providing kids with a steady stream of energy.
And make sure they get the right amount of iron and zinc. Iron deficiency is the most common type of nutritional shortfall in American children, and the number one nutrition disorder in the world. And poor performance at school could be a symptom.
Even a minor deficiency can cause a decline in cognitive functioning, says Mary J. Kretsch, PhD, a researcher at the USDA-ARS Western Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, CA. Primarily, it seems to affect kids' ability to pay attention.
Lean beef is one of the best absorbed sources of iron there is. The amount of meat consumed matters less than you think. Kretsch says that adding even as little as 1 ounce of beef per day has been shown to make a big difference in the body's ability to absorb iron from other sources.
An added brain bonus: Beef packs plenty of zinc, and even minor zinc deficiencies have been shown to impair memory.
Eighty-five year-old Gloria Vanderbilt has a new erotic novel out. Justice John Paul Stevens, 89, continues to crank out opinions from his perch on the Supreme Court of the United States. And journalist Daniel Schorr, who will soon be 93, is still providing incisive commentaries on NPR.
So why is it that they and others like them in their ninth or tenth decades of life manage to stay sharp, while many of their peers decline mentally and succumb to dementia?
It's a question that scientists continue to ponder and debate. A new study in the journal Neurology offers a few clues. For eight years, researchers followed 2500 people in their 70s, repeatedly testing the subjects' cognitive abilities. They found that over time, about half performed slightly worse on tests, and 16 percent showed major decline. But about one-third experienced no decline or even improved their test scores.
The scientists looked for characteristics that distinguished the non-decliners from everyone else. Some of the factors are things we can't do much about: Those who stayed sharp tended to have more social support, be more literate, and have at least a ninth grade education. But other, controllable factors also appeared to play a role: People who weighed less, got regular moderate or vigorous exercise, and didn't smoke were more likely to maintain their cognitive skills, as were those who still worked or volunteered.
If you listen to ads and claims on the Web, you may be led to believe that special brain-boosting puzzles, DVDs, and software are necessary for keeping your brain fit. For the truth about what measures are--and are not--proven, watch this Healthy Skeptic segment and listen to this interview with Dr. Sam Wang, co-author of Welcome to Your Brain.
Or, if you don't want to overload your brain, just remember this: Live a healthy lifestyle and stay active, both physically and mentally.
Can a warm, sunny day really cheer you up? Weatherman Flip Spiceland shows you why your mood might depend on the weather.
If you can’t think clearly, there might be a storm brewing. Weatherman Flip Spiceland shows you how a drop in air pressure can affect your brainpower.
Can exercising your brain really keep your mind sharp? Our Healthy Skeptic separates the truth from the rumors.