How to Eat Smart
You are, as the expression goes, what you eat. After all, the very tissues of your body, the fuels that power every cell, the hormones that keep you humming, all must ultimately be furnished by the foods you eat. The idea that the right foods, or the natural neurochemicals they contain, can enhance mental capabilities -- help you concentrate, tune sensorimotor skills, keep you motivated, magnify memory, speed reaction times, defuse stress, perhaps even prevent brain aging -- is not idle speculation.
Nutritional neuroscience, as it's called, is barely in its infancy. But it's already turning up some very heady findings. Among them:
o A diet that draws heavily on fatty foods and only lightly on fruits and vegetables isn't just bad for your heart and linked to certain cancers -- it may also be a major cause of depression and aggression in North America. Such a diet is particularly common among men.
o The health of your brain depends not only on how much fat you eat but on what kind it is. Intellectual performance requires the specific type of fat found most commonly in fish. Even diets that adhere to commonly recommended levels of fats, but of the wrong kind, can undermine intelligence. What makes this finding awkward is that certain oils widely touted as healthy for the heart are especially troublesome for the mind. The findings also raise serious concerns about formulas fed to the vast majority of American infants.
o It's possible to boost alertness, memory, and stress resistance by supplying food components that are precursors of important brain neurotransmitters, but so far they have only been tested on people with nutritional deficiencies. However, given the number of women who regularly diet, that group may include more people than researchers imagined.
o Sugar can make you sharp-if you can figure out the right dose at the right time. A kind of Gatorade for the mind may be available in the U.S. within a few years.
o Carbohydrates -- especially when eaten with no protein or fat -- may indeed be mentally soothing.
o Mood and mental performance are powerfully influenced by the B vitamins. Unfortunately, marginal deficiency in many B vitamins is widespread in North America.
While it's easy to dismiss the intensifying interest in nutrition as a selfish search for the formula or supplement that will turn us into Einsteins and confer that competitive edge, there's evidence that we're also seeking more. An abiding interest in the nutrient qualities of the foods we consume -- even if honored more in the breach than the observance -- also reflects our deep yearning for reconnection to the natural world and heightened awareness of how it sustains us. Call it deep nutrition.
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