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Back-to-school brain foods

All you need to know about the ‘new’ brain foods for the best brain nutrition

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The new year brings new challenges and as we head for the back to school season, it is time to focus on foods that will help your children thrive, not only survive.

(As if mom & dad are coping – with so many to-do lists for the new year, make sure you treat yourself to these brain foods too!)

About brain foods:

The brain, as any part of the body, needs good nutrition, stimulation and proper rest. However, it is often the most neglected part of the body. Only recently have we become aware of the foods that provide our brains with the nutrients that support memory and concentration.

THE NEW BRAIN FOODS

Move over omega 3’s and oily fish? Not quite; omega 3 fatty acids still are the most important brain nutrients. We now know that foods such as oily fish, nuts and seeds provide valuable omega 3 fatty acids that build healthy brain cells and support concentration ability.

However, for those of you who don’t like fish, nuts and seeds, the good news is that there are many more foods that support brain nutrition. And for those of you who eat fish regularly, or already take your omega 3 supplements daily, you can step up your brain nutrition plan with these foods that have recently been shown to benefit brain function.

Try these new brain foods, highlighted by recent research.

EGGS

Lutein, the nutrient identified to be responsible for the brain support benefits of avocados, is also found in eggs. Eggs have made leaps and bounds from a “don’t eat” to almost “superfood” status. It is a valuable source of protein, B-vitamins, vitamin D and lutein, to name a few.

Eggs is a valuable source of protein, B-vitamins, vitamin D and lutein.
Eggs is a valuable source of protein, B-vitamins, vitamin D and lutein.

What do they do?

Moderate intake of eggs benefit certain areas of brain performance, notably concentration, planning ability and attention span.

Benefits: Better performance on neuro-psychological tests. Improved executive functions, including planning ability and attention span.

Tips: Free range eggs are way better than the standard eggs – the higher the lutein, the brighter yellow (or orange!) the yolk.

Food Swap: Make a big saving by swapping out meat or cheese for eggs as protein source. It is more nutritious and more cost effective!

Try this:
Apart from the easy breakfast options, eggs could be incorporated into snack time and other meal times too:

  • Quiche
  • Eggs Shakshuka (eggs poached in a spicy tomato & pepper sauce).
    Eggs Shakshuka (eggs poached in a spicy tomato & pepper sauce).

    Boil it!

  • Poached
    • Eggs Shakshuka (eggs poached in a spicy tomato & pepper sauce) will wow your guests for lunch or supper – try it, it is to die for!

CORN and GREENS (LEAFY VEG) (Lutein, zeaxanthin)

Lutein and zeaxanthin are antioxidant nutrients that are well known for their benefit in managing eye health. They belong to the group of carotenoid antioxidants called xanthophylls. Corn and green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach are ranked as some of the richest sources of both lutein and zeaxanthin.

What does it do?

Lutein’s role in brain health has been explored by a few studies, but a recent study indicates the benefits of lutein and zeaxanthin in maintaining mental agility, in other words, switching concentration from one activity to another.

Greens

Benefits: Provides the brain with lutein and zeaxanthin, important nutrients for brain and eye function. Reduction in age-related cognitive decline.

Tips: Spinach and kale are the top green veggies, try to buy them fresh. Spinach grows like weeds in any garden, so plant them so you can harvest your own baby spinach leaves regularly.

Food Swap: Replace regular salad leaves with baby spinach and kale.

Corn

Tasty corn chips.

Benefits: Provides the brain with lutein and zeaxanthin, important nutrients for brain and eye function. Reduction in age-related cognitive decline.

Tips: Corn should ideally be from the yellow corn-on-the-cob. The creamed or tinned versions are less nutritious.

Food Swap: Instead of buying creamed corn, opt for corn on the cob. It makes for a great braai side dish, grilled over the coals.

Try this:
Steamed spinach and boiled corn simply is not good enough anymore! Try these instead:

This insanely delicious sandwich could double as a very filling breakfast or a lunch snack meal.

Mashed Avo & Corn with Poached Egg and Spinach sandwich.
Mashed Avo & Corn with Poached Egg and Spinach sandwich.

Top 1 slice toast (whole-grain / wheat free / gluten free / rye) with:

  • Mash together ¼ medium avo with ¼ cup corn kernels;
  • 1 poached egg (medium), seasoned with vegetable salt and pepper to taste;
  • Handful of baby spinach leaves; and
  • Season to taste with vegetable salt and pepper.

This could be enjoyed as an open sandwich, or topped with another slice of toast for a more filling meal.

AVOCADO

Avocados are believed to benefit brain health by boosting sustained attention, working memory and problem solving.

How does it work?

The brain boosting benefit of avocados is most likely linked to lutein, a carotenoid antioxidant found in avocados, eggs and vegetable such as corn. Lutein is incorporated into the brain and eye tissues.

Avocados are believed to benefit brain health.
Avocados are believed to benefit brain health.

What does it do?

Including avocado regularly into your diet helps improve sustained attention, which means it helps one to concentrate for longer.

Benefits: Improvements in sustained attention. Improvements in working memory and problem solving.

Tip: Preferably to be enjoyed plentiful in season (winter), as they are very pricey in summer.

Food Swap: Replace feta cheese in salads and wraps.

Try this:
Apart from the all-time favourite avo toast, incorporate avocado into your family’s diet in these ways:

  • Easy peasy:
    • Add as part of the salad filling for wraps or pita breads.
    • When serving pasta, add fresh avo slices on top with a sprinkle of chopped chives or spring onions.
    • Supersize the avo portion when you eat sushi: add a few avo slices to add to your sushi.
  • Dress it up! Avocado makes the most divine creamy salad dressing. In a blender, combine 1 avo, ½ cup plain yoghurt, a sprinkle of mustard powder or paprika and a dash of apple cider vinegar to taste.
  • Snackify: Opt for a homemade guacamole as a dipper for snack times. Eatingwell.com offers a delicious and varied recipe selection.
  • Protein snack of the day: Guacamole devilled eggs, say no more …. and try this recipe.
  • Avocado fudge (homemade). True story! This recipe is tasty and easy.

BLUEBERRIES (Flavonoids)

Blueberry juice may improve brain function, as it affects blood flow to the brain, working memory and cognitive function.

What do they do?

Daily consumption of blueberry juice over 12 weeks showed increased activation of brain areas associated with cognitive processes including memory and executive function.

Swap out high sugar fruit such as grapes, mango and bananas with blueberries which are low in sugar.
Swap out high sugar fruit such as grapes, mango and bananas with blueberries which are low in sugar.

How does it work?

The dark blue pigments in blueberries are known as anthocyanins, a form of antioxidant that falls within the category of flavonoids. The high concentration of these flavonoids is believed to be responsible for the brain support benefit of blueberries.

Benefits: Increased activation of brain areas associated with cognitive processes. Supports short-term memory, important for study and learning ability.

Tips: In season buy them fresh. Out of season, stock up on frozen blueberries, there is no compromise in the nutritional content after freezing.

Food Swaps: Seeing that blueberries are lower in sugar, swap out high sugar fruit such as grapes, mango and bananas with blueberries.

DARK CHOCOLATE (Flavonoids)

Another food that has been researched for its brain benefits is a firm favourite for many: dark chocolate. The ingredient in chocolate responsible for brain benefits is the cocoa powder, which is why dark chocolate is specific to the brain benefit.

How does it work?

Cocoa is a source of flavonols, which have been shown to benefit cognitive function, through a neuroprotective mechanism.

What does it do?

Cocoa contains nutrients called flavonols. Flavonols are important nutrients to maintain brain health. It is important to note that milk chocolate is not able to show these benefits, as the cocoa content and subsequent flavonoid content would be insufficient for any brain support benefit.

Cocoa adds flavour and it's packed with beneficial flavanols.
Cocoa adds flavour and it’s packed with beneficial flavanols.

Benefits: Neuroprotection from the cocoa flavanols. Supports cognitive health. Supports memory in age-related memory problems.

Tips: Select 75%+ cocoa for the best results. Milk chocolate hardly contains cocoa, so it is not an option.

Food Swap: Instead of sweets and candy bars, invest in quality dark chocolate.

Trending: Functional Flavour

Cocoa is a popular flavourant for sweet snacks, beverages and desserts. In addition to the flavour cocoa adds, it is packed with beneficial flavanols. Cocoa is therefore a food that follows the trend of functional flavour, as it adds flavour and health benefits.

Healthy Indulgence: who said healthy eating is boring…?

  • Study Snack: Blueberries with Dark Chocolate

Blueberry & Cocoa Smoothie.
Blueberry & Cocoa Smoothie.

For a quick & easy brainy snack at work or while studying, enjoy ½ cup of fresh blueberries with 2 small blocks of dark chocolate. Yum and healthy at the same time!

  • Blueberry & Cocoa Smoothie
    • 1 cup frozen blueberries
    • 2 teaspoons *cocoa powder
    • 1 cup milk of choice
    • 2 teaspoons *agave syrup
    • Fresh blueberries and mint leaves, for garnish (optional)
    • Combine frozen blueberries, cocoa powder and milk in a blender. Serve chilled and garnish with fresh mint leaves and berries.

* For a sweet, sugar-free option, replace cocoa & agave with Nomu Skinny Hot Chocolate powder.

You are what you eat! In conclusion, it is always good to remember: you are what you eat! Your brain needs specific nutrients for optimal performance. With access to these latest research findings, we can provide our brains with the best support for the best results.

Andrea Du Plessis
Andrea Du Plessis
Andrea du Plessis is a well-known registered dietician with a passion for healthcare through nutrition, natural remedies and a healthy lifestyle. She regularly presents talks and educational workshops on nutrition throughout the country. Du Plessis is also known as the resident health and nutrition expert on SABC3’s Expresso breakfast TV show.
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