The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Eating
Whether you’re helping with homework, divvying up the dinner tab amongst your friends, or multitasking on several major projects at work, your brain works better when you feed it well.
In fact, scientists in the pioneering field of nutritional neuroscience are finding that specific nutrients may be able to charge your brain’s neurotransmitters (messenger cells), thereby enhancing your mental performance and sharpening your memory.
These nutrients come in pill form, but “the best brain food is a healthy diet,” says Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, epidemiology, and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
To give yourself a mental edge, fortify your diet with foods that contain the following nutrients.
Neuro Nutrient: Iron
What it does: This important mineral helps myoglobin in muscle cells and hemoglobin in red blood cells ferry oxygen throughout your body, including to your brain. Iron-poor blood has been linked to a short attention span and mental sluggishness.
Super sources: Red meat, poultry, pork, raisins, dried apricots, prunes, dried beans, fortified bread and grain products.
Food for thought: Consume these foods with a vitamin C-rich food such as orange juice to up your body’s ability to absorb iron. Women age 50 and under should get 18 mg of iron per day (27 mg/day if you’re pregnant). Women age 51 and over need 8 mg of iron per day.
Neuro Nutrient: Boron
What it does: This little-known trace mineral may foster hand-eye coordination and short-term memory.
Super sources: Apples, pears, broccoli, and carrots.
Food for thought: In the body, boron mimics the action of the hormone estrogen, which means that, like estrogen, boron helps calcium keep bones strong.
Neuro Nutrient: Choline
What it does: In the body, choline is converted to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which appears to regulate memory and mental sharpness.
Super sources: Eggs, red meat, nuts. In pill form, choline is found in lecithin.
Food for thought: To limit artery-clogging saturated fat, which isn’t good for your brain or your heart, choose lean cuts of red meat and trim all fat before cooking.
Neuro Nutrient: Folic Acid
What it does: This B vitamin (also known as folate in food form) helps maintain your brain’s levels of memory-boosting choline.
Super sources: Orange and tomato juice; strawberries; dark-green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and turnip greens; wheat germ; dried beans; peas; and fortified grains and cereals.
Food for thought: Folic acid has been found to reduce a woman’s risk of having a baby with neural-tube birth defects; all women of childbearing age are advised to get at least 400 micrograms daily in foods or supplements to guard against the possibility of birth defects. Most breads and cereals sold in the U.S. are fortified with folic acid.
Neuro Nutrient: Antioxidants
What they do: Vitamins C, E, and beta carotene and other carotenoids (a class of orange plant pigments) help battle cell damage caused by free radicals (unstable oxygen molecules) that may lead to cloudy thinking and premature brain aging.
Free radicals are unstable because they lack a full complement of electrons, so they steal electrons from other molecules, damaging those molecules in the process.
Super sources: Whole grains, nuts, and dark-green, purple, blue, red, yellow, or orange fruits and veggies such as tomatoes, sweet potatoes, strawberries, blueberries, concord grapes, cantaloupe, and kale.
A trick to help you meet your quota of five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day: Pack in the produce before 4 p.m. Studies show that if you don’t get it by then, your chances of eating enough produce for the day are slim.
Food for thought: The latest research shows that taking antioxidants in pill form or added to foods doesn’t confer the same health benefits as getting them from food. Getting plenty of free radicals from your diet can also help reduce your risk of heart disease.
Neuro nutrient: Linolenic acid
What it does: This super-unsaturated essential fatty acid helps brain cells forge new connections. With linolenic acid in your diet, you might “get it”—especially complex stuff—more easily. Women should get 1.1 grams of linolenic acid per day.
Super sources: Canola, soy, walnut, and flaxseed oils; seaweed (say, in a sushi wrapper).
Food for thought: Unsaturated, heart-healthy fats, such as soy and canola oil, are also good sources of vitamin E, an antioxidant that may reduce your risk of heart disease as well as boost your immune system, keep your brain and eyes healthy, and reduce your cancer risk.
Neuro nutrient: Calcium
What it does: Although its main job is to build strong bones, calcium has also been shown to increase your ability to concentrate during premenstrual days, when hormonal changes impair mental focus.
Super sources: Non-fat and low-fat milk and cheese, yogurt (regular and frozen), calcium-fortified juices, broccoli, and mustard greens.
Food for thought: Women age 50 and under should aim for 1,000 mg per day, including if you’re pregnant or nursing, which is roughly equivalent to the amount of calcium in 2 cups of low-fat yogurt plus an 8-ounce glass of milk. Women over age 51 should get 1,200 mg of calcium per day. BW