We have always heard that food = fuel. In many cases we think only of the fuel source to our body and not for our brain. Our brain, the most complex organ in our body, is always “on,” even when we are asleep, and therefore requires a constant supply of fuel so it can optimally carry out its extensive duties. As the control center of our body, it’s in charge of keeping our heart beating and lungs breathing and allowing us to move, feel, and think. Brain fuel comes directly from our food and like an expensive car function best on a high-quality fuel source. What we eat directly affects the structure and function of our brain and ultimately our mood. Consuming high quality foods that provide vitamins, minerals and antioxidants not only nourishes the brain, protects it from damage and can also help to heal it. There is no denying that the foods we eat play a role in keeping our brain healthy and can improve specific mental tasks, such as memory and concentration.
Maximize brain function
If substances from “low-premium” fuel (such as what is found in most processed or refined food) get to our brain, it doesn’t have the ability to flush them out. Diets high in refined sugars are not only harmful to the brain but also lead to a worsening of our body’s regulation of insulin and promotes inflammation and oxidative stress which can lead to worsening symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression. Limiting refined sugar and processed foods in your daily diet and focusing on fresh, whole plant-based foods can help slow or prevent inflammation and cognitive decline and maximize brain function.
So, what do we do?
Practice this principle: If it is made from a plant = eat it. If it is made in a plant = run. Whole foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, and legumes provide complex carbohydrates and are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which nourish our brain and other organs. Plants also produce phytochemicals, which give fruits and vegetables their rainbow of colors and provide natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. When we consume plant-based foods, we benefit from the protective effects of these natural phytochemicals. The fiber present in these foods slows the intestinal absorption of sugar, creating less of an insulin surge and thus a lower risk of developing diabetes and inflammation. Natural plant fiber also helps us feel full faster and satisfied for longer, which prevents us from overeating. Another important advantage of plant fiber is that it feeds our gut microbiome — the millions of micro bacteria that live in our lower intestine. A healthy, diverse microbiome helps our immune system fight infections and some cancers — and may help our brain to influence mood and cognitive activity.
The Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is one of the planet’s healthiest plant-based options and, even if only modestly followed, has been shown to help reduce cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, including dementia. Key ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine include plant-sourced oils such as olive, avocado, sunflower, or canola oil; fresh fruits and vegetables; nuts and seeds; protein-rich legumes; fiber-rich whole grains, nuts, and seeds; and modest amounts of seafood (omega-3-rich fish, shrimp, scallops), lean meats (poultry, pork, or beef), and dairy products (aged cheeses, yogurt, and low-fat milk).
Our brain truly is an amazing organ. Feeding it well and feeding it right is essential to our very existence. Our brain must be functioning to the best of its ability for good mental health, and in turn superior physical health outcomes. So, how does that kale look now?