Your Brain on Food aka There are no magic beans.

Lifehacker.com have nice article summarising some of the more recent research on what foods are good for the brain. They’ve interviewed a couple of genuine experts on nutrition (Itself no mean achievement in field with plenty of quacks) Lifehacker spoke to Barbara Shukitt-Hale of the USDA Nutrition Research Facility at Tufts University and Prof. Gray Wenk of Your Brain on Food blog.

So what are the best ‘brain foods’ and what do they do? The short answer is that it’s the usual suspects (fresh vegetables and oily fish) and the on the whole they keep it ticking over nicely.

If you’re looking for a cognitive boost before a test so you can be smarter for a few hours, youll be disappointed by the results of most of the research. As it turns out the foods that are good for your brain basically just keep you running. You can overclock your brain with food for a few hours just to get through a rough day, but since most of us dont eat what were supposed to the real goal is getting our brains up to par.

via What Brain Food Actually Does for Your Brain.

In short there are no magic beans for the brain. Although one of their experts, Barbara Shukitt-Hale of the USDA Nutrition Research Facility at Tufts University raves about magic berries:

Alaska wild berries from the Innoko National W...

Magic Berries? Alaska wild berries from the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shukitt-Hale’s studies on berries (which are high in antioxidants) have shown that antioxidants may also prevent the inflammation in the brain that leads to neuronal damage. This suggests that berries might help your brain work better for a longer period of time. How much do you need? A cup a day should do the trick.

I find this a bit too breathless and liable to stoke the hype about anti-oxidants. As the World Health Organisation advice on antioxidants says the main take home message is that eating fresh vegetables is good for you but supplements that proclaim their ‘antioxidant’ properties are at best unnecessary and at worst unhealthy:

 The scientific literature on antioxidants is extensive and difficult to review and interpret. In 1997, SBU, an independent health technology assessment agency, reviewed 1300 studies in the field. It found no evidence that manufactured antioxidants have any positive effect in preventing disease, except in the case of Vitamin C, where weak evidence showed that large daily doses can relieve, but not prevent, the common cold. The literature had little evidence to indicate that supplementing the diet with antioxidants can prevent cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, neurological disorders, rheumatoid arthritis or cancer. In fact, some dietary supplements have negative effects, particularly at high doses. However, there is some evidence that natural antioxidants (from fruits, vegetables, wine etc.) may prevent several diseases

World Health Organisation advice on antioxidants

This illustrates the big problem with nutritional advice. We know what is good, it’s mostly common sense but we’ve been told so many times that we don’t really hear it and instead are on the hunt for quick fixes and superfoods. But I wonder if it might better telling people what is really bad for them. There’s definitely going to be some benefit in a five-berry smoothie but it’s not undo the damage of a daily deep-fried mars bar.

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About Caspar

Caspar Addyman has a BA in mathematics, a BSc in psychology and PhD in developmental psychology. He works at the CBCD at Birkbeck, University of London. Before becoming an infantologist he spent eight years writing trading systems in the City. He lives in Brixton, Berlin and Dijon. He never drinks the same drink twice in a night and dances without spilling a drop. Twitter: @BrainStraining
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