Smart foods: Healthy eating and brain power

February 1, 2010 10:00:22 AM PST
How foods can affect your thinking; 10 Dos and Don'ts to Boost Mental Power Nutritionist and author Elizabeth Somer has been studying the link between what we eat and our minds and brain ever since the early 1990s when she published her first book on the topic Food & Mood. Since then, people have been sharing their stories of how that book changed their lives.

Most people recognize the link between what they eat and their physical health, Elizabeth says. Fail to get enough calcium and the resultant bone loss may lead to osteoporosis. Or, a high saturated fat diet is likely to raise the risk for heart disease. But it takes years, even decades of that diet abuse to produce those problems, while the link between what you eat and your mood and memory is much more immediate, she adds. "Literally what you eat or don't eat for breakfast can have an effect on your happiness quotient by afternoon," Elizabeth explains. "The effects also are cumulative: eat the right foods for months, years, decades and you will be that much happier and mentally sharp in the years to come."

Of course, there's more to thinking clearly than just diet, Elizabeth adds. Common sense and research both remind us that daily exercise, getting enough sleep, leaving time in the day to day dream, a positive attitude, and avoiding an overly stressful pace all help fine-tune the brain. "This total approach to brain wellness may not transform you into an Einstein, but it will help you remember where you put those keys!" Elizabeth says

Follow Elizabeth's from her latest book, Eat Your Way to Happiness: 10 Diet Secrets to Improve Your Mood, Curb Your Cravings And Keep the Pounds Off, and she promises you will say, "I never knew I could feel this good!"

How does food affect thinking? In a nutshell, a good diet protects your mind by providing nutrients that

  • are the basic fuel for brain cells to run on, such as carbs.
  • are building blocks for nerve and brain cells, such as the omega-3s
  • serve as assembly line workers to maintain optimal brain function, such as B vitamins
  • act as warriors and ammunition to protect delicate brain tissue from damage, such as the antioxidants

    Let's start with breakfast. Why is this meal so important?

    The link between breakfast and the brain starts with energy. The 100 billion nerve cells and an equal amount of supporting cells in the brain make up only two percent of body weight, but use about 30 percent of the calories you eat in a day. Those brain cells are fuel fussy, demanding that all of their energy come from carbs or glucose. By the time the alarm sounds, much of the glucose stores and blood sugar levels have been drained to fuel the body throughout the night. Granted, you probably feel and think fine for awhile, because the good night's sleep energizes your body and brain. But underneath that morning pep the brain is running on fumes and your thinking will pay for it later. On the other hand, take five minutes for breakfast and you'll think clearer all day. Students who eat breakfast perform better on memory and recall tests compared to students who skip breakfast and adults who eat breakfast concentrate better at work than those who skip this important meal.

    If you are a seasoned breakfast avoider, start eating breakfast, even if you aren't hungry. It will take two to three weeks to reset the appetite clock, after that you should notice a gain in energy and mental power, especially if the meal is light and healthful, such as a bowl of whole grain cereal, low-fat milk, and fruit.

    You can't just stop at breakfast. You also need to eat regularly throughout the day.

    Staying clear headed also means regular stops to refuel. Spread your food intake into four to six mini-meals and snacks evenly distributed throughout the day. Keep these mini-meals light. Avoid high-fat or "heavy" meals that contain lots of fat or calories, which divert the blood supply to the digestive tract and away from the brain, leaving you feeling sluggish and sleepy. And definitely don't attempt any fad or crash diets. According to researchers at the Institute of Food Research in the United Kingdom, people on very low calorie diets process information slowly, take longer to react, and have more trouble remembering sequences compared to non-dieters. You can still lose weight, just do it gradually.

    What about lunch and dinner? What brain foods can help here?

    These are the meals to really focus on two important brain foods - fish and colorful vegetables.

    So, fish really is brain food?

    Yes. A wealth of research is accumulating on a fat commonly found in fish, called omega-3 DHA, and brain function. DHA accounts for 97% of the omega-3 fats in the brain. It is the critical omega-3 for normal brain development and function throughout life, from infancy to the senior years and might lower Alzheimer's risk by up to 60%. A study from Tufts University in Boston also concludes that maintaining high DHA levels produces up to a 47 % reduction in the risk of developing dementia. Recent studies found that the omega-3s not only protect against dementia, but protect the brain and help maintain memory in the early years, too.

    The problem is that even for those of us who love salmon, it is difficult to get the two to three recommended servings of fatty fish each week, which explains why 75% of the population consumes no DHA on a given day. Fish get their DHA by eating DHA-rich algae. If you are concerned about contaminants like pesticides and mercury in fish, can't afford or don't like fish, you can get that same DHA in foods that are fortified with algal-based DHA. Be careful, some foods are fortified with omega 3s, but it is the wrong one. The omega-3 ALA in walnuts, flax, and soy, is good for your heart, but won't give you the "brain" boost that you get only from DHA.

    Why are colorful vegetables so important for your mind?

    The brain consumes more oxygen than any other body tissue, which exposes it to a huge daily dose of oxygen fragments called free radicals. Free radicals are trouble makers, attacking, damaging, and destroying every brain cell in sight. The wear and tear after decades of free-radical attacks is thought to contribute to the gradual loss of memory and thinking associated with aging.

    Fortunately, the body has an anti-free radical army comprised of the antioxidant nutrients, including vitamins C and E and beta carotene that deactivate these harmful oxygen fragments. Colorful produce is the very best source of these antioxidants, with not only vitamin C, but also more than 12,000 phytochemicals, most of which are antioxidants. The research overwhelmingly shows that the more color-rich produce you eat, the better you think. At Tufts University in Boston, animals fed diets enriched with extra produce, such as blueberries and spinach, performed best on memory tests throughout life. The same holds true for people. Folks who eat the most broccoli, sweet potatoes, spinach, and other deep-colored produce, maintain the highest blood levels of antioxidants. They also score highest on memory tests, exhibit the best judgment and reasoning, maintain a youthful ability to learn new tasks, and react quickly.

    You should limit intake of foods high in saturated fat for your brain's sake, but when it comes to vegetables - the more you eat, the better. Aim for 8 to 10 servings a day for starters. That recommendation is not as unreasonable as it might sound. All you need do is:

  • Include two fruits and/or vegetables at every meal and one at every snack.
  • Double a serving size of any bright-colored vegetable and you have two servings!

    What about coffee, does it help or hinder thinking?

    Within half an hour of drinking a cup of coffee, you'll notice a boost in thinking. You think more clearly, are more alert, have a faster reaction time, and can concentrate better after a cup of coffee. In fact, a recent study published in the journal Neurology found that women who drink a little coffee or tea every day were 70% less likely to show declines in memory as they aged.

    But, caffeine is a double-edged sword. For one thing, the stimulating effects of caffeine lingers in the system for 4 to 15 hours. A cup of coffee or cola mid-afternoon could disrupt sleep at 10pm, resulting in mental fatigue and poor judgment the next day. Second, caffeine is effective only up to your "jitter threshold;" adding more coffee after this and you're too buzzed to think clearly. So, gradually cut back on coffee if you drink more than 2 to 3 cups a day, drink your coffee or tea between meals (tannins in coffee and tea block iron absorption), and keep your intake to no more than three servings a day.

    You mentioned iron. How does it affect thinking?

    If your thinking is on a down-hill slide, you could be iron deficient. Young children, teenage girls, and women during the childbearing years - especially those who exercise, have been pregnant within the past two years, or consume diets of less than 2,500 calories - are at particular risk for iron deficiency. In fact, iron is the most common nutrient deficiency - estimates are as high as 80% of active women and 20% of women in general have low iron levels.

    Iron is important for thinking because it is the key oxygen-carrier in the body and the brain. This mineral also is a component of numerous brain enzymes that help regulate brain function. When iron levels decrease, the brain and nerve cells are starved for oxygen, resulting in fatigue, memory loss, poor concentration, lack of motivation, shortened attention span, and reduced work performance.

    The first line of defense is to eat more iron-rich foods, including extra-lean red meat, cooked dried beans and peas, dark green leafy vegetables, and dried apricots. Cook in cast-iron pots and the iron will leach out of the pot and into the food, raising the iron content of the meal several fold. Also, drink vitamin C-rich orange juice with iron-rich meals to boost iron absorption.

    Meet Elizabeth Somer
    Tuesday, February 2 at 6:15 pm
    Galter Life Center
    Swedish Covenant Hospital
    5157 N. Francisco, Chicago

    10 Dos and Don'ts to Boost Mental Power

    By Elizabeth Somer, R.D, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness (Harlequin 2009)

    1. Do cut back on saturated and trans fats. High-fat meals divert blood to the digestive tract and away from the brain, leaving you feeling sluggish, less imaginative, more spacey, and sleepy compared to meals high in carbohydrates and protein, such as the a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread and a bowl of vegetable soup.

    2. Do add more omega-3 DHA to the diet. The fats in fish, in particular the omega-3 fat DHA, boost learning, comprehension, motivation, and intellect. Aim for two to three servings of fatty fish a week, add foods fortified with DHA to your daily diet, or take a DHA supplement. You need at least 220 milligrams a day.

    3. Don't overeat. In a study from Loma Linda University School of Public Health in California, people who consumed the most calories had the lowest scores on tests for mental function. The researchers conclude that overeating in the early and middle years might accelerate the decline in brain function later in life.

    4. Do limit caffeinated beverages to three a day and don't drink coffee in the evening, where it can interrupt a good night's sleep, leaving you tired and mentally drained the next day.

    5. Don't over do it with alcohol and do avoid tobacco altogether. Both these drugs are either toxic or constrict blood vessels and interfere with circulation (and oxygen flow) to the brain.

    6. Don't exposure yourself to mercury, lead, and other toxic metals that damage brain and nervous tissue and are associated with subtle neurological and psychological disorders, including learning disabilities, reduced attention span, poor reasoning and concentration skills, and reduced IQ.

    7. Do include lots of colorful fruits and vegetables in the daily menu, or at least two servings at every meal and one at every snack.

    8. Do take a moderate-dose multiple vitamin and mineral supplement to fill in the nutritional gaps on days when you don't eat with your brain in mind.

    9. Do drink plenty of water. This is the body and brain's most important nutrient.

    10. Do exercise daily. Exercise increases blood, glucose, and oxygen flow to the brain; promotes the growth of inter-nerve connections; and balances brain chemistry, all of which improve thinking, learning, and mental performance.


    10 Diet Secrets to Improve Your Mood, Curb Your Cravings and Keep the Pounds Off
    by Elizabeth Somer, M.A, R.D.

    In these tough economic times, people often cut corners when it comes to nutrition, unknowingly fueling their fatigue and undermining their mood, which only adds to the stress. However, eating the right foods at the right times can significantly boost your mood and energy, curb your stress, encourage better sleep and help you think more clearly, and even drop a few pounds in the process, says Elizabeth Somer, registered dietician and author.

    Don't you wish there was a happy pill to boost your spirits when you felt out of sorts? Made you laugh when you were grumpy? Well, it's not a pill, but there is something as convenient as your refrigerator that could do the trick, she adds. Certain foods tweak brain chemistry and help you stay happy, energized, and even calm. In her new book Eat Your Way to Happiness: 10 Diet Secrets To Improve Your Mood, Curb Your Cravings And Keep The Pounds Off Elizabeth shares the ten diet secrets of happy, lean people -- secrets that are guaranteed to improve disposition, sharpen memory and slim waistlines. Elizabeth delivers this knowledge in eleven easy-to-follow chapters (there's one bonus secret!), each containing a case study illustrating a tip. Every chapter also contains snack ideas, tools for self-assessment and delicious recipes to help you get started on your weight loss right away.

    Elizabeth is a sympathetic but firm cheerleader on the road to healthier eating and living. She offers sound advice and healthy habits that are easy to successfully incorporate into daily life. With healthy yet indulgent (and delicious) recipes, checklists to help keep the plan on the right track, sample food pyramids from around the world (the Greeks and the Japanese are both on to something good) and clear-headed advice that's easy to follow, Eat Your Way to Happiness is a weight-loss and energy-boosting plan for life. Elizabeth is ready to help readers lose the weight and gain the energy for a happier and more successful and productive life.

    The simple secrets to being healthy, happy and fit are easier to follow than you think. In Eat Your Way to Happiness readers will discover:

  • That a healthy breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day.
  • How to pick "real foods" in the supermarket and how to avoid processed junk.
  • The exciting health benefits of chocolate and wine.
  • What carbs are good/bad and why sugar intake should be controlled.
  • The "clusters" to avoid, including the baseball, movie and fast-food clusters.
  • A comprehensive list of super foods (leafy greens, yogurt, fruits & vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish, legumes among others) and the foods to avoid?these include butter, red meat, salad dressing, egg yolks and full-fat cheese.
  • What to drink (hint: water, water, water) and NO soda.
  • The most effective ways to prevent PMS, fight fatigue and beat stress.
  • 30 indulgences that will soothe any craving (Elizabeth's favorite section).
  • The best bedtime snacks that help us sleep through the night, thus increasing our energy levels during the day.

    For more information, visit or

    Elizabeth Somer, M.A., is a registered dietitian who has carved a unique professional niche as a dietitian well-versed in nutrition research. She's the author of nine books, Editor-in-Chief of Nutrition Alert, a newsletter that summarizes the current research from more than 6,000 journals, and appears frequently on numerous national television shows including The View, The Today Show, CNN, the WB Morning Buzz. For more information, visit: