Brain Food: Can the right food make you smart?


Special Contributor

The Dallas Morning News, March 1, 2011.

You’ve seen the claims: “Super brain-boosting power foods!” touting foods ranging from blueberries, nuts and avocados to wild salmon, dark chocolate and olive oil.

Can certain foods make you smarter? In the short term, no. Can the right diet keep your brain healthier? Almost certainly, yes. But don’t expect a short list of “superfoods” to do the trick.

If you’re trying to power up your brain for an intense mental task such as an exam, “There’s really only so much you can do,” said Dr. Malcolm Stewart, a neurologist and director of the Human Performance Lab at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. There’s little solid research proving that specific nutrients improve mental functioning in “acute” situations.

In fact, how much you eat is probably more important than what you eat. The best advice that Bernadette Latson, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern School of Health Professions, can offer is this: Avoid a big meal if you need to maximize your mental performance. Before the test, she advises a meal with no more than 500-600 calories, not too much fat, and with fish or lean meat to provide adequate amounts of protein.

“That’s readily digested and therefore makes one feel less ‘sluggish’ and sleepy,” she said.

If you opt for “brain-boosting superfoods” — like fish or whole grains — before a test, instead of a food coma-inducing meal of cheeseburger, fries and sugary soda, you’re likely to feel better and perform better, if only because you think you will.

“There is probably a strong placebo effect of eating ‘brain food’ before a test,” Latson said. “But in that case, a placebo is the best medicine.”

For better or for worse, one of the few substances in food that does enhance memory, focus and mood for many people is caffeine. And here’s an interesting side note: Stewart says there’s evidence that memory is “state dependent.” If you study history under the influence of caffeine, for example, your brain will better recall the material later with the help of caffeine.

“So, if you drink coffee while you study for exam, you must do the same when you take the test or the results will not be optimal,” he said.

But use caffeine in moderation, he adds. Too much will make you jittery. (Tea is a good option, because it also contains anti-oxidants, but it must be freshly brewed.)

The brain needs certain nutrients to function, like B12 and iron. Other nutrients, like folate, vitamins B6, C, and E appear to affect mental functioning as we age.

The “brain foods” so highly touted typically contain nutrients that are either necessary for brain functioning, or nutrients that can hasten cognitive decline among people with serious deficiencies. But that doesn’t mean that an extra helping of those foods makes you smarter.

What’s most compelling, Latson says, is the growing body of research that links high blood pressure and heart disease with the development of Alzheimer’s.

We know what kind of diet helps prevent hypertension and heart disease, “so it seems reasonable to conclude that diet in turn reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s,” Latson says. And research seems to be bearing that out — one observational study published in December in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked the Mediterranean diet — rich in vegetables, fish and olive oil — with slower rates of mental decline in elderly populations.

In other words, what’s good for your heart is good for your brain. The best way to eat for brain health leads us back to the usual, easy-to-understand, hard-to-follow advice: Eat more lean protein, whole grains and vegetables, and less “bad” fat and refined carbs.

So eat as many of those healthy “brain foods” as you like, as part of an overall healthy diet, but don’t look for one or two “superfoods” to do the job.

“The recent scientific consensus on preventing Alzheimer’s or cognitive decline is pretty pessimistic on any specific nutrient having strong evidence of prevention or treatment,” Latson said.

Mary Jacobs is a Dallas freelance writer.