Danielle Krupa is a Natural Gourmet Institute student in the Chef’s Training Program, as well as the author of the blog Wellness Made Natural.
“Grapes Versus Twinkies” – that was the name of my 7th grade science fair project. My hypothesis: students who ate a healthy, balanced breakfast would have a higher grade point average than those who did not. It wasn’t overly scientific in its research methods, and the internet didn’t exist then. I simply put together a one-week survey asking students to record what they ate for breakfast each day, their grades for that week, and their overall G.P.A.
My highly correlated results, full of confounding variables, did in fact corroborate a direct link between students who ate a healthy breakfast and higher grades as compared to the poorer grades of students who ate chocolate doughnuts, or didn’t eat breakfast at all. I won an award and went on to the state science fair competition for this project. There my “study” didn’t have a chance against the erupting volcanoes, ant farms and plant-filled terrariums.
It didn’t matter to me because in my thirteen-year-old brain I knew all I needed to know: food affects not just the body but the mind as well. That was just over 20 years ago, and I am still fascinated by the notion that certain foods can make us feel either energized or exhausted and have a measurable effect on the chemicals in our brain to make us feel that way.
Diet can affect your memory, the decisions you make, and the self-control you possess. Mainstream doctors, scientists and psychological experts now recognize these ideas and are studying the ways diet affects mood and brain function – specifically, how food influences human behavior and the essential ways mind and body must be fed.
Food’s effect on neurotransmitters
A number of foods can alter one’s mood by influencing neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that transmit signals from one neuron to the next in the brain. The three most food sensitive neurotransmitters – serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine – are directly correlated to mood, in particular relaxation and alertness.
For Relaxation: Eat Carbohydrates
Serotonin is responsible for feelings of calm, relaxation and a general sense of well-being. Healthy amounts of serotonin are released in the brain as a result of eating carbohydrates in their whole form. Carbohydrates affect brain serotonin because they increase the amount of tryptophan in the brain, the amino-acid precursor of serotonin. Healthy carbohydrates include fruits, whole grains, beans, and whole-grain cereals and breads.
Eating large quantities of refined or overly processed carbohydrates, such as white bread, white pasta, chips and cookies, dramatically increases levels of serotonin, which cause you to feel sluggish and drowsy.
Eating too few carbohydrates lowers levels of serotonin, causing intense food cravings, insomnia and depression. Folic acid deficiency causes serotonin levels in the brain to decrease as well, so eat folic acid-rich spinach and oranges.
To Boost Alertness: Eat Protein
Dopamine and norepinephrine are responsible for alertness, concentration and increased energy with quicker, more accurate reaction times. Healthy amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine are released in the brain as a result of protein consumption. Protein provides the brain with tyrosine, an amino acid that is a precursor of the chemicals that promote alertness. Healthy protein sources include meat, chicken, fish, nuts, legumes, soy products, eggs and dairy products. Beware, however, of overeating protein (typically in conjunction with a decrease in exercise and carbohydrate consumption) as it can lead to tension, dehydration, loss of concentration and irritability.
To Maintain Proper Brain Function . . .
“It’s late, but it has finally arrived. Psychiatrists are now looking at how what we eat influences human behavior,” says Hara Marano, Editor-in-Chief of Psychology Today. Marano’s work clarifies the connection between nutrition and cognitive functioning by highlighting the fundamental foods, vitamins and minerals necessary to maintain it. Here are her recommendations:
- Energize and fuel the brain. Alertness, self-control, and good decision-making skills – these are all key factors in success and achievement. The brain’s #1 source of energy is sugar, so we want to feed our bodies a regulated, steady supply of glucose. We don’t want the spikes or valleys in glucose levels that refined sugars, flours, and caffeine can cause. Therefore, good sources of steady glucose are: whole fruits, grains, vegetables, beans and nuts.
- Protect the nervous system. This is important for heart health, blood flow and the immune system. Omega-3 fatty acids are the protective coating the nervous system needs to aid in proper brain function. Cut back on Omega-6’s (corn, peanut and soy oils) and replace them with a diet rich in Omega 3’s – wild-caught cold-water fish, flax seeds, seaweed, extra virgin olive oil, walnuts and beans.
- Eat an antioxidant rich diet. Antioxidants aid blood flow in the brain, boost memory and support executive brain function. antioxidant-rich foods include blueberries, cranberries, pomegranates, red beans, curcumin (the ingredient found in turmeric), and resveratrol, the healthy substance in dark grapes that makes red wine good for you.