You are what you eat. The cells in your body need fuel and building blocks and they will get those from the food that enters your body. Although our brain is relatively small compared to the rest of our body, it consumes almost a quarter of the energy produced from food. That’s why what we eat greatly influences how we think and how we feel.
A balanced diet is an absolute necessity to stay healthy. Improper diet is clearly linked to disease and premature ageing. A healthy diet consists of a balanced amount of nutrients taken several times a day and plenty of water. But apart from the rational aspect emotions also come into play. Your food needs to taste good as well and provide you with a feeling of satisfaction.
When growing older, the body has more difficulty digesting nutrients. For that reason, it is especially important to pay attention to the right amount of necessary fuel and building blocks in your diet. People who have managed to reach one hundred years of age healthily, are a source of information about good lifestyles. When asked about their diets, centenarians give varied answers. What most of them have in common is that they don’t indulge and have kept a more or less constant weight during their adult years.
When you mind your brain, it isn’t necessary to go and look for brain foods. The amount of foods that have a beneficial impact on your brain, is huge. What you eat should have undergone as less treatment as possible. In the factory, quite often harmful chemicals are added to foodstuffs and the good substances disappear because of the processing. The best you can do is eat a wide variety of fresh food.
A healthy diet influences cognition in a positive way and reduces the risk of brain diseases, called neurodegenerative diseases of which Parkinson disease and Alzheimer disease are well-known examples. Don’t expect individual food products to bring about miracles. Everybody is talking about the fantastic effects of berries, a daily glass of red wine, and a piece of dark chocolate on brain health. All three are indeed good for you, but not taken on their own. A study in Sweden confirmed it is not the effect of a single food that counts, but the power of multiple foods combined that makes the difference.
A lot of misunderstandings exist about what you should and what you shouldn’t eat. Some special diets – mostly aimed at losing weight – limit for instance the intake of carbohydrates. But carbohydrates play an important role within the brain. They start a chain reaction for the production of serotonin. Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters in the brain that transport signals from one neuron to the next.
Serotonin and the neurons it activates are involved in among other things irritability, sleeplessness, depression, and memory function. A lack of carbohydrates because of an unbalanced diet may lead to mood swings, confusion, memory loss, and depression. What we eat does not only influence production and activity of serotonin, but also of other neurotransmitters that have important tasks in the brain. That’s why it is important to eat a varied diet to make sure the brain gets everything it needs.
In many of the articles about food, fats have been put among the black sheep. Fats supposedly make you become overweight and silt up your arteries. But fats are also indispensable for a proper functioning of your brain. Fat is one of the main nutrients we need next to carbohydrates and proteins. Fats are made up of different types of fatty acids. These fatty acids are an important part of cell membranes, a sort of skin around cells. Besides, they are involved in communication between brain cells.
The most healthy fatty acids are unsaturated fatty acids, especially the omega-3 fatty acids. These can be found in oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. They are also present in walnuts and to a lesser extent in eggs, kiwifruit, and broccoli.
In the early days of mankind, people went out to look for something edible when they were hungry. This sensation of hunger arises when the brain receives certain signals from the body. A small nucleus in the center of the brain, called hypothalamus, sets in motion a complicated process in which hormones are the lead actors.
The hypothalamus is not bigger than an almond, but has extensive responsibilities. This small group of brain cells controls blood pressure, heart rate, hunger and thirst, sleep-wake cycle, sex drive, and body temperature. The hypothalamus integrates various inhibitory and excitatory signals that regulate nutrient intake and metabolism, the chemical process by which food is converted into energy.
It is not exactly clear yet how the complete process of inciting to eat and refraining from eating again works. Two hormones definitely are involved. Ghrelin, a hormone that is made in the stomach and in the pancreas, arouses a sensation of hunger. The other hormone, leptin, originates in fat cells and makes us stop eating because we are full.
Scientists have already pinpointed various genes fulfilling tasks in relation to our eating behaviour. One of them is called the ob gene. This ob gene is the instigator of leptin production. Normally, the presence of leptin suppresses appetite and stimulates metabolism. Insufficient leptin may be a basis for gaining weight. In some obese people however, unusual high levels of leptin have been found. Apparently, the hormone doesn’t succeed in sending the ‘full’ signal to the hypothalamus to make those people stop eating.
Unfortunately, the days when we went on a hunt for something edible when feeling hungry have long gone. Food is so generally available we could be eating all day long. In addition, our brain is being tempted in many ways to give in to the urge to eat while we actually don’t feel hungry.
Taste also plays an important part in our eating habits. In most cases, taste is acquired. What you learned to eat as a child will influence your eating habits the rest of your life. It is a pity we almost all have a preference for sweet and for fatty foods. And precisely these foods we like so much are not the healthiest of choices, although eating something sweet from time to time will help stabilise your mood. Fortunately, it is possible to change your taste. You can learn to eat things which you absolutely could not get down as a child. You may even start to like them!
Babies with fruit © Oksana Kuzmina – Fotolia.com