Memory Foods: Eat Your Way to a Healthy Mind
If you keep up with health headlines, you’ve probably heard the word “superfood” a lot. Each week seems to bring a new superfood, guaranteed to have a profound effect on your health. Superfoods lower your risk of heart disease. They boost your immune system. They improve your memory and ward off Alzheimer’s. And we want to eat them all. But which foods really ARE super?
Here are the facts: although I don’t care for the “superfood” label, there really are some foods which really can have a big impact on your health. And while you probably don’t want to go on a diet of nothing but chocolate and green tea, making some of them a regular part of your diet can have a real effect.
Memory foods: fact or fantasy?
Separating the health facts from the propaganda is never easy, and it’s especially hard when it comes to nutrition. Why? Because studying how food affects us relies on a lot of guesswork. It’s hard to isolate one food to study, because there’s no real way to control what people eat for the amount of time it takes to do a meaningful study.
Diet research relies on people honestly reporting what they do and don’t eat and how often. I don’t know about you, but if I had to tell you what I ate each day last week I’d be hard-pressed to come up with an answer. I might guess. I might remember wrong. And although I probably wouldn’t, I could just make up what I thought you wanted to hear.
Studies usually look at eating patterns after the fact and make guesses. They’re often biased - they only look at the foods they’re interested in and ignore the rest. The recent WHO study on meat, for example, ignored the fact that meat eaters are more likely to smoke and to drink.
This is the kind of study most diet research relies on.
What do we actually know?
Not nearly as much as “they” would like us to believe. But that doesn’t mean we know nothing - it just means we shouldn’t necessarily rush out and stock up on the flavor of the week without doing a little research of our own.
There are quite a few foods that have been well-studied. And some of these really are “memory foods.” Most are high in nutrients we already know are good for our brains, like the flavonoids in blueberries. Others contain substances we’ve seen in action and know have a real effect on how our brains work, like omega-3 fatty acids in salmon. A few seem to consistently affect memory, even though we haven’t figured out why.
So what foods really are memory foods?
The foods with some of the strongest science behind them include fatty fish, nuts, blueberries, leafy greens, turmeric, and coffee. Here’s why each one affects your brain.
• Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids, and so are nuts. Omega-3s help your brain cells communicate faster and more effectively. They also reduce inflammation, which is associated with Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and heart disease. Studies have shown that low omega-3 levels and Alzheimer’s go hand-in-hand.
• Blueberries have been touted as a “superfood” for a long time, and as much as I hate the label, they’re one food that seems to live up to it. Studies have shown that blueberries or blueberry juice can have a real effect on memory, even for people in the early stages of dementia. This seems to be due to their high flavonoid content, particularly a substance called anthocyanin, which increase the signaling power in the memory centers of your brain. Put simply, it lets your brain make more connections between cells, and it helps them connect faster.
• Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and mustard greens slow cognitive decline. Science has known this for a while, and now we think we understand why. They’re all high in vitamin K - the vitamin you’ve probably never heard of - and it seems to be the factor which affects the brain and memory.
• Tumeric, a spice, might be the most important food to eat to avoid memory loss and even Alzheimer’s. It’s been shown to slow down the breakdown of neurons in the brain and to decrease Beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. There’s actually ongoing research into turmeric - or the active compound in it - as a treatment for Alzheimer’s.
• Coffee has an interesting effect on memory. While most memory foods influence short-term memory or reduce cognitive decline, coffee seems to help short-term memories become permanent.
Are there other foods out there that affect memory?
Of course there are. All natural, God-given foods are “superfoods” in one way or another. The key - the absolute bottom line, the foundation of a healthy memory - is just that. Natural, whole, unprocessed food.
Our brains are complex and delicate. When we fill our bodies and our brains full of processed, chemical-laden food, we’re doing damage. When we eat nutritionally empty, stripped-down, bleached out modern excuses for food, we’re doing damage. Undoing the damage means eating fresh, whole food.
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