Debunking brain myths

Fish is brain food. True or false?

How many mothers have nagged their children at the dinner table to eat fish?

It will make you smarter, my mother would say. Turns out, there was truth behind her nagging. Fish is brain food.

Current scientific evidence links brain health to the consumption of fish, says Dr. Tiffany Chow, a neurologist and scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute. The Mediterranean Diet, which is based on fruit, vegetables, fish, legumes, grains and olive oil, has withstood the test of time as a way to prevent small vessel strokes and dementia. The diet requires taking as much of your dietary fat in the form of omega-3 fatty acids as possible.

“Fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, mackerel, sardines and blue fin tuna, protect against inflammation and are good for the brain,” Dr. Chow explains. “Fish is also a good alternative to red meat as a source of protein. Although it may be tasty, red meat is otherwise laced with the kind of fat that gets you into trouble in the long run in terms of stroke and brain maintenance. People who consume meat in their regular diets should keep in mind that this is not a recommendation to add the omega-3 fatty acid on top of their regular intake, as if it were a supplement. This could amount to too much fat going toward your daily caloric intake!”

The overall goal is to have the right balance of the best sources of protein, fat and carbohydrate in one’s diet, from at least mid-life forward.

Fish is rich in the omega-3 known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a fatty acid found in high concentrations in the grey matter of the brain. This type of fat keeps cell membranes fluid, improves communication between brain cells and is important in brain function.

“Some recent studies have found a correlation between ingesting omega-3s from fish and improved mood functioning,” says Dr. Nasreen Khatri, Clinician Leader, Mood and Related Disorders Clinic/ Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).

Older adults may not be the only ones to benefit. Some preliminary studies have linked an increase in omega-3 in children to better performance at school. As well, there is some early evidence that suggests that omega-3s may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. But more research in these areas is required.

For the most health benefits, experts advise having more vegetables than protein on your plate, with the exception of fish. Ideally you should try to include fish in your diet three times a week.

Not fond of fish? There are alternatives.

Other foods which contain omega-3 include:

  • Seeds such as flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds
  • Nuts such as walnuts and Brazil nuts
  • Olive oil
  • Soybeans
  • Legumes such as kidney beans and navy beans
  • Vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower

How’s that for some “food for thought”?

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