Up until a few years ago, we were comfortable with a limited understanding of food. We needed food to live. We ate what we liked or what we could get with little thought about how it related to our health. Its job was to give us energy and perhaps enjoyment.
As our knowledge of foods and its relationship to health grew, so did our appreciation for foods as a means of prolonging and enhancing our lives. Eating vegetables improves heart function, lowers the risk of some cancers, and reduces the risk of diabetes. Eating foods rich in fiber improves our digestive system and reduces the risk for colorectal cancer. Blueberries and other fruits have antioxidants that allow us to age more slowly.
Of course, if some foods had health benefits, other foods lead to health issues. Eating refined carbohydrates such as white bread contributes to diabetes. Drinking sugary beverages leads to weight gain. In fact, eating too much of anything leads to weight gain. Obesity, specifically abdominal obesity, is linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease.
What About Your Brain?
If foods influence our health, why wouldn’t they affect cognitive function? The brain is our hungriest organ consuming up to twenty-percent of our resting energy. Since foods are our source of energy and nutrients, and our brain needs the energy and nutrients to function property, it seems obvious that our food choices would help or hinder cognitive function. While it may seem clear that what we eat would affect our ability to think, researchers are required to offer data and not opinion as proof. Several researchers did just that.
Food and Tests
A group researched the affect diet had on performing tests that measured recall and concentration. They took healthy men and women who were fifty to seventy-five years old with body mass indices in the overweight to obese ranges. They fed them a standard American diet high in carbohydrates and saturated fat for four weeks and they tested them. Then they fed them a diet that included blueberries, rye bread, almonds, cinnamon, soybean and fatty fish (they did not say what type of fatty fish) for four weeks to see if their health and brain function improved.
The subjects saw improvements in cardiovascular health and diabetic markers. This was not surprising as it is consistent with other research.
Did Their Brain Function Improve?
Yes it did. The healthy eaters were able to concentrate longer on one subject and they had better recall. They were able to do this after only four weeks of eating healthier. The study shows that while some cognitive decline is inevitable, you may have some control over it.
Science is just touching the surface of the cause of insidious forms of cognitive decline such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The study did not purport to show that food choices affected either. However, most people show a slow decline that does not reach the medical definition of either. For those people, the ability to improve brain function while we age with simple food changes is great news.
Anne Nilsson, Juscelino Tovar, et at., A diet based on multiple functional concepts improves cognitive performance in healthy subjects, Nutrition & Metabolism 2013; 10:49 doi:10. 1186/1743-7075-10-48
About the author
Gregg Ghelfi is a reformed lawyer who decided to forgo the suit and tie and dedicate his life to fitness and health. He is founder of fitinthemiddle.com, a website dedicated to weight loss and wellness and author of the book “Fit In The Middle: Your Belly May Be Telling You Something” He is a certified personal trainer and he has published several articles on weight loss, nutrition and fitness.