NYC Dietitian Talks about Brain Power

School started this past couple of weeks, and parents are scrambling to get kids out of bed, dressed, and fed before heading out the door with over-stuffed backpacks and sleep in their eyes. With so much on our plate, we often forget to focus on what’s on our plate.

Place your two fists together, with the insides of your wrists touching. That’s about the size and shape of your brain. Powered by neurons that speak through neurotransmitters (NTs), NTs are the basis of learning. This “grey matter” with all the electric currents and communication going on within it is what keeps us charged all day. What we eat directly effects how it works. So our kids’ morning meals and snacks should be geared to feed their brains, even if it means waking up ten minutes earlier to get those nutrients they need.

Our brains need fat, protein, carbohydrates, liquids and a number of nutrients to get jumpstarted.

Fat: Comprised of 60% fat, it’s not a wonder our brains need fat to function. Though it’s a pretty small organ, it uses 20% of the body’s metabolic energy. Three words: brains need fat.  But not just any kind of fat.

Polyunsaturated fats have our essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6,  elements our bodies are unable to produce. They keep the brain membranes flexible to receive and send information.

  • DHA – the omega-3 fatty acid has been proven to help brain function including memory, speaking ability, and motor skills.
  • Saturated fat (and cholesterol) is critical for brain cells to function. Our bodies make saturated fats and use cholesterol as an antioxidant, the basis for making Vitamin D and precursor for our sex hormones. 25% of our body’s cholesterol is located in the brain!
  • Fat is the new black! You can find all these amazing fats in nuts and seeds (sunflower and pumpkin), avocados and fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout and sardines),  olive oil and whole eggs (don’t take out the yolk!), coconut oil and soy.

Protein:  I love the human body and how perfect it is. Protein works in our bodies, in the simplest of terms, by giving us amino acids; amino acids give us NTs; NTs are the building blocks for learning.  Amino acids are necessary for almost all biological process. In the brain, protein sparks brain connections.

  • Protein power foods: Raw almonds give the body both good fats and protein. Overcooking or toasting nuts and almonds strips away the natural oils that our bodies thrive on. Eggs and fatty fish,  poultry, lean meats, lamb and pork, bone broth, tofu and soy, beans and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, kidney and black beans), yogurt and cheese.

Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates fuel our bodies and brains. Our brain cells only use glucose as fuel. So the body breaks down carbohydrates and delivers the glucose to fuel the brain in our blood stream.  Our brain cells are the gas guzzlers of the body, needing two times more energy than other cells in the body. A diet rich in complex carbohydrates (steer clear of simple sugars that take your body through a mad rollercoaster) keeps the mind fueled, and can help your ride out the mid-morning fog. Moreover, by skipping carbohydrates, your brain stops regulating serotonin, leading to crankiness.

  • Best Carbs: Whole grain breads and cereals, barley and quinoa, fresh fruit and vegetables, whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, yogurt.

Power players: There are foods that are power houses of nutrients, at the top of any registered dietitian’s list for their powerful components.

  • Blueberries and blackberries are superhero berries whose antioxidant anthocyanin can cross blood-brain barriers protecting brain cells and boosting NTs.
  • Leafy greens are loaded with vitamin K which helps slow cognitive decline. Kale, spinach,  broccoli and collards are making a comeback.
  • Nuts and seeds are mentioned above, but they deserve a spot in the power players list because of how uniquely great they are. Pumpkin sees have zinc which works to enhance memory. Raw almonds and walnuts top the list for positive cognitive effects on the brain.

Feasting on kale and almonds is a tough sell to a tired kid before school. But you can be creative, and it won’t take more than a few extra minutes.

  • Make French toast with almond milk and eggs on whole grain bread fried in olive oil. Top with fresh blueberries or blackberries and creamy yogurt for a brain power breakfast.
  • Make morning omelets nutritious and interesting by incorporating cheese. Grate colorful vegetables for a confetti omelet.
  • Smoothies are a favorite in my house: yogurt, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries, a handful of raw almonds, and a few hidden surprises (kale or spinach leaves). Get the brain started with something delicious and decadent.
  • Balance school snacks and lunches. Include a protein – yogurt or cheese – with a fruit. Add whole grain crackers or bread (look that they don’t have hydrogenated oils) to make the perfect brain combo. Top it off with a little dark chocolate as a sweet. Dark chocolate is a brain-happy dessert.

Food for thought: What we eat is how we think.  How we think is the basis of everything we do in life. So isn’t it time we take the time to make sure we’re feeding our brains right?