Back-to-school season seems as good a time as any to think about boosting your kids’ brain power, not to mention your own. But this year, instead of flashcards and multiplication drills, you might want to focus on the family diet.
“Food can affect the brain in minutes,” says neurologist Majid Fotuhi, chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness in Baltimore. “You don’t need scientific evidence to know that if you have a doughnut, after a while — it could be minutes or an hour — you feel tired and drained because of the spike in blood sugar, and of course you know that when you’re hungry, you’re grumpy and you usually can’t make good decisions.”
In fact, “the dietary habits of children can impact their energy level, mood and academic performance,” says Megan Barna, an outpatient pediatric dietitian at Children’s National Medical Center. She notes, for example, that simply eating a healthful daily breakfast has been linked to improved concentration and behavior, among other benefits.
And we’re not just talking about getting a little extra edge for this Friday’s spelling test:
“While the short-term consequences of food consumption on the brain are well appreciated, many people don’t realize that nutrition has a huge impact on brain function over years and over decades,” says Fotuhi, who is also an assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “What you eat now — both the quantity and quality of food — can significantly impact long-term cognitive function and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life.” He adds that a poor diet has been linked directly to known “brain killers” such as heart attack and stroke, as well as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and inflammation, all of which can have a negative impact on brain function and performance.
So what kinds of meals will help keep your family members’ minds sharp, both immediately and over the long haul? “The brain is a highly active organ that needs a lot of blood, a lot of oxygen and a lot of nutrients,” says Fotuhi, who starts by recommending a Mediterranean-style diet that includes plenty of B vitamins along with antioxidant vitamins C and E, and Vitamin D — a combo that research suggests may help protect the brain.
He also emphasizes the importance of maintaining a good weight. “Obesity can harm the brain in many different ways, such as reduced blood flow and increased risk of sleep apnea . . . and is also associated with a smaller-sized brain,” which can affect short-term memory and risk of dementia, he says. Fotuhi also suggests avoiding trans fats at all costs, because they have also been linked to a smaller brain size and reduced function.
All three experts I spoke with say that DHA — an omega-3 fatty acid that is found in salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines and other fish, and is important for the repair and maintenance of brain cells — is the most important ingredient for brain health. Some studies have shown that DHA supplementation can improve kids’ memory, learning ability and cognitive performance, while low levels of DHA have been associated with smaller brain size, increased risk for Alzheimer’s and possible behavioral issues in children and adolescents. (Vegetarians and fish-haters alike can take algae-based DHA supplements.)
Fotuhi says blueberries and spinach have also been associated with brain benefits such as enhanced cognitive and motor function. He says the evidence also is building for quinoa.
While it’s far from certain that such foods will help a kid’s brain, Fotuhi says, “[they] definitely won’t hurt.” He adds that there is less proof for other so-called brain foods, such as green tea, coconut oil and ginkgo biloba.
Other experts caution people not to get caught up in claims surrounding one trendy fruit or grain over another. “You can get brainwashed into thinking that if you eat a lot of blueberries, you’ll automatically be smarter and have a higher IQ, and that’s just not true,” says endocrinologist Thomas Sherman of Georgetown University School of Medicine. “A lot of these ‘brain foods’ are just healthy for you in general. They contain a series of vitamins and nutrients that most people don’t get enough of, and together they would make pretty decent meal. But that doesn’t mean you should go home and eat a pound of blueberries or goji berries.”
The larger point is that the potential advantages of a better diet clearly go beyond the school year: “One of the things that’s so fascinating about the brain is its plasticity and ability to grow at any age,” Fotuhi says, adding that most foods that are good for the mind also benefit cardiovascular health and your skin. “Research has shown that if you change the diet in nursing homes, quality of life and cognitive performance changes,” he says. “You can always improve brain function, no matter how old you are.”