Late last year, a study released by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer caused mass panic after labelling bacon a Group1 carcinogen. At the time, Wired expressed the universal worry stating: “Perhaps no two words together are more likely to set the Internet aflame than BACON and CANCER.” The WHO report, published in the UK medical journal The Lancet Oncology, suggests that eating two slices of bacon a day increases your risk of developing cancer by 18%, making it almost as harmful as alcohol, tobacco and asbestos, leading popular chains like Burger King to reconsider their menus and many to re-think their diets.
As the research and studies highlighting the benefits of a nutritious diet pile up, it’s more important than ever to ensure we know which foods we shouldn’t eat and, perhaps more importantly, which foods we should be eating. However, for many of us, this doesn’t seem to be a priority quite yet. That said, there are a number of individuals within certain occupations who really do seem to appreciate the importance of healthy living on brain function. Poker is a game which requires strategic thinking and extreme focus. This is why many professional poker players like vegan and activist David Negreanu take their diets so seriously. We could do worse than follow Negreanu’s example, with the online poker room he is part of, PokerStars, warning that IQs are falling. They explain that intellects were at an all-time high in the 1930s due to “modern luxuries such as nutritious foods, proper education and overall pleasant living conditions”. However, they suggest that over recent years, we have perhaps become a little too comfortable, complacent and cosy.
I’ve written plenty of pieces on how to eat a more healthy diet. However, I’ve never touched on one of the most important reasons why nutrition is so important; not only does the food we consume affect our waistline and overall health, it also has a huge impact on our brainpower. So, how do the various nutrients contained in our food impact our brains and what should we be eating to try and boost our intellectual health?
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Every machine in the world, including the human body, requires a stable supply of energy to work efficiently. In our case, we need glucose to travel to our brain via our bloodstream for us to be able to focus on daily activities. Wholegrains containing low-GI – such as brown cereals, granary bread, brown rice and brown pasta – release glucose into our bodies ensuring we remain alert. BBC Food suggests that you focus on combining proteins such as fish, chicken and dairy with carbohydrates like bread, potatoes and pasta to ensure a low-GI diet.
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OMEGA-3 FILLED OILY FISH
Although fat has gained a bad reputation over the years, there are essential fatty acids (EFAs) that each of us needs to consume as the body cannot create them by itself. A great source of omega-3 EFAs is oily fish, where EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are readily available. The latter is particularly crucial, as it has been found to improve signals passed between nerve cells in the brain, dispel inflammation and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. In fact, the UK’s Health & Social Care Information Centre followed 2,233 elderly people for six years and found that those who ate fish twice a week had 41% less chance of developing dementia compared to those who ate fish just once a month.
So, next time you’re shopping at the supermarket or ordering at a restaurant, try to get salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines or kippers to ensure a good dose of omega-3. Linseed oil, soya beans, eggs, sprouts, pumpkin seeds, spinach and walnuts also contain omega-3. If you’re not particularly fond of vegetables and salad, why not take a look at my salad dodger’s guide for some meal ideas?
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BLUEBERRIES PACKED WITH ANTIOXIDENTS
Antioxidants are our bodies’ first line of defence against unstable oxygen molecules known as free radicals. We are confronted with free radicals inside and outside our bodies on a daily basis and without antioxidants they can lead to diseases and mental impairment.
Antioxidants in food come in many forms such as Vitamin A, C and E, beta-carotene, lutein and selenium. Fruits and vegetables contain plenty of antioxidants, with blueberries widely regarded as one of the best sources. According to a study conducted by Tufts University and the USDA, blueberries significantly improve short-term memory, balance and co-ordination.
Flavonoids are a particularly beneficial type of antioxidant. Most fruits, herbs and vegetables are packed with flavonoids, which can reportedly help to increase the number of connections in your brain and hinder the development of amyloid plaques found in Alzheimer’s patients. In 2012, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital discovered that women who ate a lot of flavonoid-rich berries in later life managed to delay memory decline for more than two years.
If berries really don’t appeal to you, dark chocolate is also filled with flavonoids, fibre, iron and magnesium. The secret is cacao, which actually contains fifteen times more antioxidants than blueberries. Ensure you buy organic dark chocolate with 70% cocoa or more to get the highest amount of flavonoids possible in your delicious snack. You could even make spiced chocolate orange brownies using my recipe if you want to make a fantastic dessert!
Ensuring we remain healthy and eat our daily recommended nutrients is entirely our own responsibility. You don’t necessarily have to start eating blueberry wholegrain sandwiches and salmon with sprouts for every meal, but it makes sense to at least try and incorporate these nutritious foods into your diet. And if you really are serious about keeping your brain healthy, don’t view it as a short-term fix but a lifestyle change.