The Federal Government recently released new dietary recommendations for Americans, which include reducing sugar and saturated fats, and eating more fruits and vegetables. These guidelines can help keep our kids' bodies healthy, but what foods will give them healthier brains?
I talked with Brian Balin, PhD, a neuropathologist at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, to get some answers. Here's what I discovered:
Omega-3s and unsaturated fats
Why your family needs them: Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, nuts and olive oil) and unsaturated fats (also found in olive oil) help build and maintain healthy and active cell membranes. When cells membranes aren't healthy, neurons can't send messages as quickly or easily. When membranes are healthy, you can feel happier, think better, and remember more.
What to avoid: Saturated fats (found in butter, vegetable oil, and fried foods) can destroy brain cells by replacing those good fats in the cell membrane, stiffening and shriveling them and making cells less effective overall.
Why your family needs them: While essential, oxygen can actually convert into free radicals in the brain, causing damage to proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and DNA/RNA (the codes that tell your brain cells how to work). Antioxidants defend against this type of damage in the brain by attaching to free radicals and destroying them. Antioxidant-rich foods can also increase Acetylcholine (Ach), which activates your brain and aids in the processes of learning, memory and movement.
How to eat them: Dark colored fruits and vegetables are best (e.g. berries and beets). You can also find them in foods such as spinach, avocados, almost all fruits (grapes, raisins, pears, apples with the peel, figs) and artichokes.
Why your family needs them: There are two types of sugars, simple (e.g. candy and sugar) and complex (i.e. carbohydrates). You need complex carbohydrates to allow your cells to pull good nutrients in. Sugar, or glucose, is also the main energy molecule for the brain. It's the major ingredient used to make ATP, which is the key molecule to maintain communication, and it makes neurotransmitters (the messengers) for the brain stay active. But, you need a low level of carbohydrates so you don't over-activate the system. We use the Glycemic Index (GI) to measure the level of effect the food has on blood sugar.
What to avoid: Higher blood sugar means a higher GI. Simple, high-sugar foods like cookie and candy will raise your blood sugar quickly and hyper-activate your system.
How to eat them: Complex carbohydrates with a low GI like beans, sweat potatoes, and fruits will keep your brain activated at a good level over a longer period of time, and will maintain a healthy and active brain!
Why your family needs them: These foods actually modulate our mood and behavior. With protein rich, but low calorie foods like hard cheeses, milk, and turkey, our brains make neurotransmitters (the brain's chemical messengers). Tyrosine and tryptophan found in these foods actually make dopamine and norepinephrine, key neurotransmitters in mood and behavior regulation. Similarly, Epinephrine, is created. The brain uses epinephrine to make quick reactions to events in our environment. Tryptophan is also used to make serotonin, which is responsible for mood regulation and happiness.
How to eat it: Look for low-calorie, high-protein foods such as hard cheeses, milk, turkey, walnuts, and tomatoes. Just try not to eat your protein with caffeine if you are trying to increase your serotonin (also responsible for mood and happiness). Some have suggested that caffeine will actually reduce your serotonin levels.
Why your family needs them: GABA is a neurotransmitter in the brain that increases focus, inhibition, heightens awareness and enhances relaxation.
How to eat them: Foods such as bananas, green tea, complex carbs (such as brown rice), nuts, whole-grain oats, and broccoli all increase this chemical in our brain.
There are so many incredible connections between what we eat and the brain chemicals we create! Look for my next blog where I'll translate this information into delicious meals that can ensure optimal brain health for your kids!