Years of nutritional research have revealed how our choice of foods influences our memory, general cognitive skills, mood and mental wellbeing. Getting it right is important to boost focus and thinking at all ages. Our food choices influence how well our kids learn (and behave) at school. It affects how well we operate in the workplace and, of course, how well we maintain our cognition as we age.
If you are fed up with being made to feel guilty, unsure or confused as to the best foods to eat, despair not, as help is at hand to reveal what really counts to keep our bodies and brains healthy.
In 2014 Katz and Mellor undertook a meta-analysis of all mainstream diets to see if one diet really did provide a significant advantage. What they discovered was that most diets had some merit, however the one most important attribute that stood out by the proverbial mile was this:
Eat. Real. Food.
This means enjoying a wide selection of different foods, that are preferably fresh, locally sourced and unprocessed. Living in Australia we are blessed with ready access to high quality seasonal produce at any time of year.
Eliminating certain food groups - carbohydrates, fats or proteins just makes it harder to eat in a balanced way. Adding in a bucketload of vitamins doesn't substitute for healthy food choices either and the so-called super foods are insufficient on their own. If you feel compelled to purchase the latest super food sourced from a remote jungle location, carried by Yak for 10 days before being transported urgently to your nearest grocery store, that’s fine. So long as you are also including other brain healthy foods.
The top contenders for boosting focus, memory and better cognition are... drum roll please… the Mediterranean and MIND diet.
You may be already familiar with the Mediterranean style of eating - leafy greens, cold water oily fish such as salmon or mackerel or other lean protein, deeply pigmented berries such as blueberries and strawberries, some seeds and nuts, some whole grains, a good dollop of olive oil, a small glass (125 mls - I did say small!) of red wine and Bob’s your uncle.
Even if he isn’t your uncle, following the Mediterranean diet has, in longitudinal studies, been linked to better cognitive health, improved mood and better memory.
Beyond the crystal clear waters of the Med, the new kid on the dietary block is the aptly called MIND diet. What's particularly exciting here is that studies of this way of eating (which is very similar to the Mediterranean diet) have been associated with a 35% lower risk of Alzheimer's disease. It incorporates all those foods shown by the research to be good for the brain and it's easy to follow.
Which are the brain friendly foods?
It is suggested you pick from the following 10 food groups as advised by Martha Morris from Rush University Medical Centre.
1. Go green
Mum was right. Six servings a week of leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale and Asian and salad greens.
2. More veggies
Not all vegetables are green. Include a wide variety of different coloured veggies on your plate - at least one every day - carrots, capsicum, eggplant, squash, your choice.
3 Go nuts
Previously maligned for being guilty of causing weight gain, nuts are packed with good fats and vitamins. Five serves a week, (that’s five small handfuls) is all that’s required.
4 Berry delightful
Two or more serves a week of blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, or cherries to pack a powerful antioxidant punch.
Lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans or baked beans, eat them three times a week
6 Whole grains
For those not allergic or Coeliac, three servings a day.
7 Go fish
Naturally fish would have to be included for the Omega-3 content once a week. Too easy!
Chicken or turkey twice a week.
9 Olive oil
Extra virgin for your salads and cooking - don’t forget not to heat it too high.
One glass a day (that's 125 mls!)
Minding your mind with the MIND diet nourishes our brain and enables us to be healthy, think well and stay happy.
Now where did I put those stuffed olives?
Dr Jenny Brockis is the Brain Fitness Doctor and author of Future Brain: The 12 Keys To Create Your High Performance Brain (Wiley) available online and at all good bookstores. Visit www.drjennybrockis.com