Most people know that the foods they eat affects their body, but what they may not know is that the types of foods eaten may have even more of an influence on how the brain works—mood, motivation and mental performance are powerfully influenced by diet.
The right food, or the natural neuro-chemicals that they contain, can enhance mental capabilities—help people concentrate, keep us motivated, magnify memory, reduce depression, defuse stress and, perhaps, even prevent brain aging.
What is this magical food? Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids.
There are two major types of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets: One type is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in some vegetable oils, such as soybean, canola and flaxseed, and in walnuts. ALA is also found in some green vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and salad greens. The other type, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is found in fatty fish and is the preferred source of omega-3’s. The body can only partially convert ALA (from vegetable sources) to EPA and DHA, whereas omega-3s derived from fish is readily available for the body to absorb.
EPA and DHA are specifically the type of fatty acids our brains need to function at an optimal level. These fatty acids are known to be particularly crucial components of the outer membrane of our brain cells. It is through this fatty cell membrane that all nerve signals must pass—without it, communication between brain cells is dramatically hindered.
Most people in the United States who eat a typical modern diet probably get too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 in their diets. Omega-6 fatty acids are essential in our diets, meaning that our bodies cannot make them and we must obtain them from food. For our brains to function correctly, we need the right balance of both. Omega-6 is abundant in the American diet and can be obtained through corn, soybean and other oils in processed food. But omega-3 oils, which are just as important, are often missing.
For optimal brain function, it is recommended that you consume fish at least two or three times a week. Those who don’t like fish can get their omega-3 fatty acids in plant foods, like flaxseed and walnuts, but remember they are not as potent in these forms. Fish remains to be the best source of omega-3s. Another way to meet the daily requirement of essential fatty acids is to take an omega-3 supplement. You can find supplements of fish oils or flaxseed oil at in Cupertino or Trader Joes in Sunnyvale or San Jose.
The brain is a hungry, picky eater comprised of 60 percent fat, so next time you are at the grocery store, be sure to select foods that will make your brain fat and happy. My preferred choice? A can of sardines from Trader Joes!