Important Foods for the Brain
Welcome to part two of our blog series about nutrition and the brain. In the first post, we discussed the nutrients most essential for proper brain function. In this article, we will dive into the foods that offer us those essential brain nutrients. While there is no evidence that any special diet can remove symptoms or cure a diagnosis of ADHD, dyslexia, or other processing difficulties, a well-balanced, healthy diet can reduce discomfort caused by food sensitivities and benefit the brain by providing more of the nutrients it needs.
Quick recap: your brain needs lots of energy – found in glucose – to function properly. Refined and simple sugars can lower serotonin levels in the brain, contributing to anxiety and depression. Complex carbohydrates provide a healthy source of glucose that does not interfere with serotonin levels.
Foods that are considered complex carbohydrates include green vegetables, starchy vegetables (like potatoes, pumpkin, and corn), beans, peas, lentils, and whole grains. Not all grains are created equal. Most we come into contact with are processed grains that don’t have the same fiber and glucose contents as whole grains. Whole wheat/oats/barley/rye, buckwheat, brown rice, freekeh, quinoa, and whole wheat couscous are examples of whole grains. Try out a new grain as a side dish to one of your family’s meals. Your body and brain will thank you.
Quick recap: your body needs amino acids to create neurotransmitters in the brain. The only way we get amino acids is by eating healthy protein, free from pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones.
Meat and fish are great, though traditional, sources of protein. However, there are a number of plant-based sources of protein that can be incorporated into your diet. Quinoa, oats, wild rice, seeds, and nuts (especially hemp seeds and peanuts), lentils, black beans, chickpeas, kale, zucchini, portabella mushrooms, and collard greens all have significant amounts of protein per serving.
Quick recap: you need fat in your diet to maintain proper levels of serotonin in the brain. Unsaturated fats are the healthy fats that positively affect your health. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats and especially nutritious for your brain.
Avocados, walnuts and other nuts, sunflower and chia seeds, nut/seed butters, olives, olive oil, ground flaxseed, oily fish (salmon, trout, sardines, and mackerel), tuna, dark chocolate (70 percent and higher of cocoa), soybeans/edamame and tofu, eggs, lean cuts of beef and pork, full-fat milk and yogurt, and parmesan cheese all have significant amounts of unsaturated fats your body needs to function properly. The Omega-3 fatty acids we know and love so well can be found in chia seeds, flaxseed, walnuts, and fish.
Quick recap: it is common to be deficient in Vitamin B12. This vitamin affects your mood and stress tolerance and is especially important for proper brain function. Vitamin B12 is mostly found in animal products, but there are alternative sources and supplements to help boost this vitamin’s levels in your body. Clams and beef liver have the highest levels of Vitamin B12 per serving, but there are many other sources as well. Fish (including salmon, trout, tuna, and haddock), other forms of beef and dairy products all add to your Vitamin B12 levels. For those who don’t eat much meat, you can find B12 fortified cereals and nutritional yeast (often used in vegan cheese substitutes) to up your B12 intake.
Quick recap: magnesium is an important mineral for hundreds of body processes. It helps the body convert glucose into energy, interacts with mood and appetite, and aids in many cognitive functions.
Some foods, high in magnesium, include macadamia and cashew nuts, peanuts, dark chocolate, chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans), green peas, black beans, brown rice spinach and other dark leafy greens. Dark chocolate-covered macadamia nuts here we come!
Quick recap: many people are deficient in vitamin D. This vitamin helps produce neurotransmitters in the brain.
Wild salmon, other fatty fish (herring, sardines, halibut, and mackerel), oysters and shrimp, egg yolks from pasture-raised chickens and wild-grown or UV light-treated mushrooms are great dietary sources of Vitamin D. As far as sun exposure, there are multiple factors that affect Vitamin D production in the body. We have recently been counseled to use sunscreen as much as possible to prevent skin damage by the sun. Most sunscreens, however, completely block the skin’s ability to absorb the UV rays that allow the body to create Vitamin D. Light-skinned individuals may only need 10 minutes of sun exposure each day to produce adequate Vitamin D levels. Those with medium skin tones may need 15-20 minutes, and those with dark skin tones may need even longer. This exposure means no sunscreen with arms, leg, and head exposed to midday sunlight, which has the greatest possibility of transmitting UV-B rays to the skin (UV rays don’t penetrate glass, so sun exposure in your car won’t help Vitamin D levels). It is difficult, however, to tell exactly how much Vitamin D is being produced in your body because of sun exposure. Given the various factors that affect skin-absorption of UV rays from the sun, it may be best to rely on dietary sources or to ask your doctor about Vitamin D supplements.
When, we at Pathfinders, ask our students to sip on water throughout their sessions, we do mean water, not just any liquid. Many of the kid- and athlete-centric drinks on the market are full of simple sugars, not those awesome complex carbohydrates we talked about earlier. Try swapping the sodas, fruit juices (even 100% fruit juices) and sports drinks for filtered water and see if you notice a change in your child’s impulse control, attention, mood and sleeping behavior. Save those unhelpful simple sugars for special treats rather than all-day hydration.
These lists of foods may appear overwhelming to you. You may be wondering how your busy schedule can accommodate these foods that are not often found in convenient snack bags. We’ll leave you with a few suggestions and ideas.
- For breakfast – think outside the cereal box. Protein should find its way onto your breakfast plate, be it in the form of eggs or spiced lentils. If you’d prefer a sweeter breakfast, try making overnight oats or chia seed pudding the night before. You get complex carbohydrates or Omega-3s, respectively, and can control how much sugar you add to your breakfast. If you’re simply addicted to frozen waffles, and the like, try topping whole-grain varieties with fresh fruit, nuts, nut butters or even applesauce!
- For lunch – quick picnic-style meals are easy to put together. Fresh vegetables and fruit with a nut butter dipping sauce, whole grain crackers and cheese, and maybe crispy, roasted chickpeas can all combine into a power-packed lunch. You can even make ahead some wild salmon and brown rice, combine them into a bowl, add a dark leafy green and there’s lunch full of Omega-3s, complex carbohydrate, and magnesium that is easily reheated at the office.
- If you only have time to eat out for dinner, experiment with foods from around the world that utilize healthier whole grains and protein sources than what is found in a hot dog and hamburger. Swap those French fries for sweet potato fries, a good complex carbohydrate. Choose a brown rice bowl or try a lentil curry. You don’t have to be an amazing chef to eat nutrition-packed foods.
We, here at Pathfinders, hope you enjoy trying a few new foods that can positively impact your health and give your brain a boost toward success at home and school.
- The LCP Solution: The Remarkable Nutritional Treatment for ADHD, Dyslexia & Dyspraxia by B. Jacqueline Stordy, Ph.D., and Malcolm J. Nicholl