Brain Boosters

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Eating for the Mind

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Do you forget what's-his-name's phone number or where you put the keys? Rather than blame your dwindling memory on genes, age, or a busy lifestyle, take a look at your diet. What you eat affects how clearly you think and concentrate, your intelligence level, memory, and reaction time, and even how quickly your brain ages.

Brain Basics

The brain is a hungry tissue. Though the brain makes up only 2% of total body weight, it uses up to 30% of the day's calories. It's also fussy, demanding that all its energy come from high-quality carbohydrates.

Your brain burns this quick fuel even while you sleep, so eating breakfast is the best way to restock fuel stores and prevent a mental fog later in the day. While wolfing down the occasional bagel won't ensure you ace the morning meeting, after two to three weeks of adding breakfast to your daily routine, you should notice a gain in energy and mental power, especially if the meal includes at least one fruit, one whole grain, and a protein-rich source. One healthy start is a whole wheat English muffin with peanut butter, an orange, and a glass of nonfat milk.

Also, spread food intake among four to six mini-meals and snacks evenly distributed throughout the day. Keep these mini-meals light. Avoid high-fat or big meals that divert the blood supply to the digestive tract and away from the brain, causing sluggishness and fatigue.

Does Dieting Make You Dumb?

Crash diets do more than deprive you of calories; they deprive you of smarts, as well. Researchers at the Institute of Food Research in the United Kingdom report that women on very-low-calorie diets process information more slowly, take longer to react and have more trouble remembering sequences compared with non-dieting women. In contrast, losing weight the good old-fashioned way -- a gradual weight loss of no more than two pounds a week -- allows you to lose fat not muscle, keep it off, and stay clear-headed in the process.

Coffee and Cognition

A cup of coffee helps you think and work faster and more efficiently.

But too much has adverse effects.

  • Caffeine lingers in the system for up to 15 hours. A cup of coffee or cola mid-afternoon could disrupt sleep at 10 p.m., resulting in mental fatigue and poor judgment the next day.
  • Caffeine is effective only up to your "jitter threshold"; add more coffee after this and you'll be too buzzed to think clearly.
  • Coffee and tea contain compounds called tannins that reduce other brain-boosting nutrients, such as iron, by up to 75%. Limit coffee to three cups or less each day and drink your coffee or tea between meals.

Ironing Out Memory Problems

Iron helps carry oxygen to the tissues, including the brain. When iron levels drop, tissues are starved for oxygen, resulting in fatigue, memory loss, poor concentration, lack of motivation, shortened attention span and reduced work performance. Premenopausal women need at least 15 milligrams of iron daily, yet many consume 10 milligrams or less.

How Can You Boost Iron?

  • Eat more iron-rich foods, including extra-lean red meat, cooked dried beans and peas, dark-meat chicken and fish, dried prunes, and dried apricots.
  • Cook in cast-iron pots. The iron will leach out of the pot and into the food, raising the iron content of the meal.
  • Drink vitamin C-rich orange juice with iron-rich meals to boost iron absorption.

B Is for Brain

Inadequate intake of any B vitamin, including vitamins B-1, B-2, B-6, B-12 and folic acid, literally starves the brain for energy and leads to confusion, irritability, and impaired thinking, concentration, memory, reaction time and mental clarity.

To boost Bs, include several daily servings of B-rich foods, including nonfat milk and yogurt, wheat germ, bananas, shellfish, whole grains, cooked spinach, baked potato with skin, and green peas. In addition, take a moderate-dose multivitamin.

Anti-Dumbing Vitamins

The brain consumes more oxygen than any other body tissue. This exposes the brain to a huge daily dose of free radicals, by-products of oxygen use that attack and damage brain cells. After decades, the wear and tear of free-radical attacks can contribute to the gradual loss of memory and thinking, an effect associated with aging. Fortunately, the body has an anti-free-radical army comprised of antioxidant nutrients, which include vitamins C and E. This dietary militia deactivates free radicals.

To keep your antioxidant defenses strong, consume at least five but preferably nine servings of the following foods each day: orange juice, strawberries, carrots, spinach, cantaloupe, and other dark-colored fresh fruits and vegetables.

Brain-Boosting Eating Strategies

  • Eat a balanced breakfast every morning.
  • Take it easy on the caffeine.
  • Include plenty of the following "smart foods" in your diet: Extra-lean red meat, cooked dried beans and peas, dark green leafy vegetables, dried apricots, nonfat milk, nonfat yogurt, wheat germ, bananas, seafood, whole-grains and green peas, orange juice, strawberries, carrots, spinach, cantaloupe, and other dark-colored fresh fruits and vegetables.

Originally published June 24, 1999.
Medically updated March 19, 2004.

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