Food for thought: the smart way to better brain health
The human brain is made of food, so what we eat and drink affects our ability to keep a healthy, alert and active mind
We all intuitively appreciate that the foods we eat shape our thoughts, actions, emotions and behaviour. When you are feeling low, you reach for chocolate; when you are tired, you crave coffee. We all use food to soothe our moods and clear our heads without seeming to think much about it.
Yet the focus of most diets is on the way we look rather than the way we think. This is in part due to western societys fascination with appearance, and medicines bias towards drugs and surgery. In fact, contemporary medicine often disregards the ways that our diet helps shape our cognitive health. Medical students are not trained in nutrition. And, for what it is worth, neither are scientists.
When I was a neuroscience student, I would marvel at how apparently simple substances such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and sugars determine whether our brain cells fire or not, grow or not, form new connections or wilt and die. It only became obvious in retrospect: the sodium, potassium, magnesium and sugars referenced were the same nutrients as in diet books or on food labels. To put it simply, the human brain is made of food.
In concrete terms, this means that whatever you just ate will be part of what you will think. For anyone lucky enough to use their brain for a living, this has immediate professional outcomes. In the long term, this affects every one of us, because food affects not just our moods and thoughts but also the way we age.
This has been the focus of my work as the associate director of the Alzheimers prevention clinic at the Weill Cornell medical college, New York City. For the last 15 years, we have been doing long-term studies to demonstrate the ways that diet prevents, delays or leads to cognitive conditions such as Alzheimers. The good news is that we have learned so much about what every one of us can do to optimise our brain health day to day.
Studies using next-generation imaging and genomic sequencing, both central to my work, have helped reveal that some foods such as vegetables, fruit, fish, wholegrains, nuts and seeds are neuro-protective. They not only shield the brain from harm, but also support cognitive fitness over the course of a lifetime.