Health check: can eating certain foods make you smarter?



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Green vegetables, nuts and berries are among the foods that could improve our brain function.
From shutterstock.com

Margaret Morris, UNSW and Michael Kendig, UNSW

Trying to keep up with what constitutes a “healthy” diet can be exhausting. With unending options at the supermarket, and diet advice coming from all directions, filling your shopping trolley with the right things can seem an overwhelming task.

For a long time we’ve known diet is key to maintaining physical health.

But emerging evidence indicates diet quality also plays a critical role in our cognitive function.

We’re learning some of the best things to eat in this regard include vegetables, nuts and berries, foods containing “good fats” and, possibly, fermented foods.

As well as potentially improving our brain function, eating these sorts of foods could improve our mental well-being – and could even help the planet, too.




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Diet and brain function

In the face of rising obesity rates, over the past couple of decades, researchers have questioned whether increased weight, or poor diet, could influence cognition. They have since looked at what sorts of diets might impair or improve the function of our brains.

Long term follow-up studies show obesity is associated with mild impairments in several domains of cognitive function, including short-term memory, attention and decision-making.

Research has also shown short-term memory is poorer in people who report eating more saturated fat and sugar.

Conversely, the Mediterranean diet has been associated with better brain health and maintenance of cognitive abilities into older age. A Mediterranean diet is based on vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, with healthy fats such as olive oil. Intake of red meat, saturated fats and sugar is limited.

A healthy diet has many elements, so let’s look at what particular foods might explain these benefits.

Vegetables, nuts and berries

Evidence indicates eating more vegetables slows the gradual decline in cognitive abilities that occurs naturally as we age.

While all veggies are likely to contribute, those in the cruciferous (Brassicaceae) family may confer particular benefits through their high fibre, folate, potassium and vitamin content. Vegetables in this family include broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and fad favourites kale and rocket.

Interestingly, while there’s good evidence for the protective role of vegetables, there’s less evidence when it comes to fruit.

Research has shown a healthy diet can improve cognitive functions such as learning and memory.
From shutterstock.com

Berries, though, contain high levels of antioxidants. These compounds protect the body by scavenging harmful free radicals and reducing inflammation. Together these functions are likely to protect our cognitive ability.

Studies in rats, and in older people with mild cognitive impairment, indicate supplementing diets with berries improves performance in various memory tasks.

Nuts, meanwhile, are excellent sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, minerals and vitamins. Studies in animals have shown the addition of nuts improves learning and memory. Emerging evidence in humans suggests consuming nuts within a Mediterranean-style diet improves measures of cognition, such as the capacity for verbal reasoning.

Healthy fats

Healthy diets such as the Mediterranean diet are also characterised by foods such as oily fish, avocados, olive oil and small amounts of animal-derived fats (such as from red meat).

One of our experiments in rats showed diets high in saturated fat from lard or high in sugar led to memory impairments, whereas an oil-based diet high in polyunsaturated fats didn’t.




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Importantly, rats fed these different diets did not differ in their total energy intake – only the type of fat and sugar varied.

While we can’t comment directly on the effects in humans, these findings suggest eating excess sugar, or animal-based fats, may negatively impact cognition.

Fermented foods

For thousands of years humans have prolonged the life of foods through fermentation, which increases the proportion of Lactobacillus and other healthy gut bacteria.

Kombucha and kefir are trendy right now, but other popular fermented foods include kimchi, miso, yoghurt and sauerkraut. Intake of these foods is thought to maintain the diversity of the gut microbiome.




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Interest in the potential cognitive effects of fermented foods stems from emerging evidence for the importance of the gut microbiota in cognition and health.

It’s well known that a poor diet can reduce the diversity of the gut microbiome. Our work in rats has shown the cognitive impairments produced by exposure to an unhealthy “cafeteria” diet – a Western-style diet high in saturated fat and sugar – are linked to changes in the gut microbiome.

Beyond cognition

It’s not possible to attribute “miracle” properties to one food group alone. We suggest a balanced, varied diet is the best approach to sustain not only brain health, but heart health too.

And there may be other reasons to seek out these foods. A newly published study showed eating fruit and vegetables improved mental well-being. Subjects tended to feel happier, less worried, and reported higher levels of overall life satisfaction.

The link between diet quality and better mental health is now well-established.

The recently published EAT-Lancet report adds a further compelling reason to eat healthily: the environment. This commission argued for a “planetary health” diet – akin to the Mediterranean diet – consisting of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and dairy, healthy fats, with low animal protein and few processed foods.

It is thought that shifting to such a diet, together with reducing food waste and adopting more sustainable food production systems, will minimise environmental damage and safeguard individual health.

The central message is the health of individuals and of the planet are inextricably linked, and this requires a rethink of global food systems.




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Overhauling food systems – and individual food habits – will not be simple while foods high in fat and sugar are so readily available and relatively cheap.

Nonetheless, recognising that eating well might benefit the planet, as well as the body and brain, might motivate people to change their dietary habits.The Conversation

Margaret Morris, Professor of Pharmacology, Head of Pharmacology, UNSW and Michael Kendig, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Plinky Prompt: What's Your Favorite Word and Why?


Random Words

Can’t believe I’m being asked what is my favorite word – who has a favorite word? We have favorite foods, favorite colors – but a favorite word. Don’t have one – ridiculous question.

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EGYPT: CUSTODY BATTLES BRING ISLAMIC LAW INTO QUESTION


Human rights advocates look to international arena for help.

ISTANBUL, November 24 (Compass Direct News) – Egyptian human rights workers are looking to international bodies for support against Muslim judges who use sharia (Islamic law) to undermine custody rights of Christian mothers.

Despite provisions such as Egyptian law’s Article 20, which dictates that minors should remain with their mother until age 15, judges consistently rule in favor of Muslim fathers in custody disputes with Christian mothers. Islamist judges typically resort to Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which states that “principles of Islamic law are the principal source of legislation.”

Sharia-based decisions that rule contrary to Egyptian statutory law have led the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent human rights organization, to protest before the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR). The ACHPR was formed by the African Union to oversee the implementation of its Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

An investigation, decision and recommendation by the African Commission to the Egyptian government would lend considerable weight to the EIPR’s efforts to enforce Egyptian Personal Status Law, which states explicitly the mother’s right to custody of her children until they reach age 15.

The EIPR’s complaint before the African Commission accuses the Egyptian government of violating the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1984, the human rights organization said in a Nov. 10 statement. The EIPR referred to the case of 13-year-old twins Andrew and Mario Medhat Ramses, whom an appeals court awarded to their father Medhat Ramses Labib on Sept. 24 after a custody battle.

“The government’s treatment of the boys’ mother, Kamilia Lotfy Gaballah, constituted discrimination based on her religion and violated her right to equal protection before the law,” the EIPR stated. “The case also charges that the government violated the two boys’ right to freedom of religion and contravened the state’s legal obligation to protect child rights.”

The boys’ father, Labib, converted to Islam in 1999 after divorcing Gaballah to marry another woman. In 2006 Labib altered the official religious status of the boys and later applied for custody.

“Obviously in this custody decision, it is a flagrant disregard of the Personal Status Law, which ensures custody for the mother until the children are 15 years old,” said Hossam Bahgat of the EIPR. “In this case the judiciary chose to ignore statutory law and apply their own interpretation of sharia.”

The long-running case of the twins exemplifies the problem but is in no way unique. Sisters Ashraqat Gohar, 12, and Maria Gohar, 8, were taken from their Christian mother in January and placed in the custody of their Muslim father, Wafiq Gohar, despite his criminal record and the 12-year-old’s claims that he is an alcoholic.

The court ruling referred to Wafiq Gohar’s fears that “[the girls] would cherish a religion other than Islam, eat foods that are banned in Islam and go to church” as determining factors in their decision.

“It is a big problem we are facing in Egypt,” said Naguib Gobrail, president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations. “The decision of the court clearly stated that according to Article 2, the main source [of legislation] is sharia, so the judge cannot apply the natural law.”

More recently, 3-year-old Barthenia Rezqallah of Tanta, near Cairo, remains in her father’s custody, despite a court order that she be returned to her mother pending a final verdict. Police have turned a blind eye to the court order out of fears that the child will practice Christianity rather than Islam, said Gobrail.

Gobrail said that international pressure may be the solution.

“Maybe a connection with someone of international character connecting with President [Hosni] Mubarak is the only way,” he said, “because he has the authority to give orders to the National Assembly to issue a law to make things equal between Muslims and Copts, especially for the children.”  

Report from Compass Direct News