In my sports nutrition practice many of the athletes I work with tend to focus on body parts that involve muscles, but focusing on your brain may be a much savvier strategy. As your body’s ‘control center’ your brain impacts your health, head to toe, as well as your performance, both mentally and physically. Your brain’s many jobs include: regulating the heart, lungs and nervous system; coordination, balance and equilibrium; visual perception, language and memory; interpreting shape and distance; critical thinking and problem solving; concentration, and the memory of motor habits. Each is fundamental to life and critical to athletic performance. Fortunately a number of studies have revealed that something easily within your control—your diet—plays a significant role in optimizing brain health. Here are two key strategies and 10 rules to put into action today that can lead to considerable short and long term rewards:
Mediterraneanize Your Meals
For some time the Mediterranean diet has been considered the gold standard for optimal health, but its benefits go beyond heart protection. A study from the National Institutes of Health found that people who consistently consume a Mediterranean-like diet were less likely to have brain infarcts, defined as small areas of dead tissue in the brain linked to thinking problems. In this study researchers tracked the diets of over 700 New Yorkers and divided them into three groups based on how closely they followed a Mediterranean style eating plan. MRI scans conducted after six years found that Med-like eaters were 36 percent less likely to have brain damage than those who least closely followed the diet. Other research supported by the National Institute on Aging found that close adherence to a Mediterranean way of eating resulted in a 28 percent lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment with aging, and a 48% lower risk of progressing from cognitive impairment to Alzheimer's disease. Cornerstones of this eating plan include a high intake of vegetables and fruit, whole grains, beans and nuts, seafood, and plant-based fats from foods like extra virgin olive oil and avocado. The eating pattern is also low in fatty meats and dairy products, refined grains and sugar, and includes moderate amounts of alcohol.
Avoid Foods That Impede Brain Health
Animal research from the Medical University of South Carolina and Arizona State University finds that rodents fed a typical American diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat, from foods like meat and dairy, suffer from memory problems, brain inflammation, and impairment of proteins that impact nerve function. Another University of Washington in Seattle study looked at the short term and long term effects on the brains of rodents fed American-style cuisine. Within three days the rats not only gained weight, they also developed inflammation in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates body weight. They also experienced changes typically associated with brain injuries, including stroke and multiple sclerosis.
There are numerous advantages to sacking what’s often referred to as SAD, the Standard American Diet, and adopting an eating style long practiced in countries like Greece and southern Italy. Additional benefits include a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And the brain rewards are quickly apparent—many athletes have told me that they feel younger, and their bodies react more quickly to their thoughts, a major competitive edge.
To put these old world habits into action follow these 10 rules as often as possible:
1) Drizzle extra virgin olive oil and herbs on a plate as a dip for whole grain bread in place of butter and use pure liquid oils for cooking, sautéing, and dressing salads. Olive oil is the most commonly used fat in Mediterranean cuisine.
2) Make half of the bulk of each meal produce. In other words at lunch and dinner your portion of greens or vegetables should be larger than those of fish or grains. To up your intake choose appetizers such as crudité with roasted vegetable or bean dip, garden soups, and salads made from mixed greens, artichokes or fresh sliced tomatoes, in addition to a vegetable side dish such as olive oil sautéed spinach, broccoli or asparagus, and roasted or grilled vegetables like eggplant, mushrooms, peppers and onions. Include fruit at each breakfast and snack meal, preferably local, in-season options and organic whenever possible.
3) Add a golf-ball sized portion of nuts or seeds to a few of your daily meals. They make a delicious addition to oatmeal, nonfat Greek yogurt, garden salads, stir-frys and seafood dishes. Or reach for all natural nut butter blended into a fruit smoothie or served with fresh apple or pear wedges or sliced figs.
4) Trade in white rice, breads and pastas for 100% whole grain versions, in addition to options like wild rice, bulgur, barley, and quinoa.
5) Include at least five bean-based items each week, such as lentil soup, black beans, chick peas or hummus, cannellini beans and edamame.
6) Make seafood your protein of choice two to three times a week. Opt for up to 12 ounces, the size of 4 decks of cards, and include omega-3 rich fish that are low in mercury like wild Alaskan salmon and pole caught tuna. Limit red meat to 12-16 ounces a month.
7) If you need a sweetener reach for organic honey rather than sugar.
8) Limit your intake of packaged foods and only eat those with ingredients you easily recognize, which read like a recipe, not a science experiment.
9) Use natural antioxidant-rich seasonings to flavor each meal, including fresh and dried herbs like basil, rosemary, dill, mint, oregano and garlic, and spices including cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.
10) Choose wine over other alcoholic beverages most often and limit to two glasses per day.
Cynthia Sass, author of S.A.S.S.! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds, and Lose Inches, is a nutritionist, Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics. She is the nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays and works with professional and competitive athletes in numerous sports. She can be reached via CynthiaSass.com.