Food for Thought

Can what you eat affect your brain health?

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 which are high in omega-3,” 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.

A recent study, published in the journal Neurology, has found that low levels of omega-3 in the blood are associated with smaller brain volume and increased cognitive impairment, even in people who have not been diagnosed with clinical dementia. Those with the lowest amounts of omega-3 in their blood performed more poorly on tests of visual memory, executive function (high-level abilities such as planning and organizing) and abstract reasoning.

According to Dr. Chow, “Fish that spend a lot of time swimming in colder waters are high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. These can protect against inflammation and cholesterol blockage and are good for the brain. Fish is also a good source of protein instead of red meat, which is laced with the kind of fat that gets you into trouble in the long run in terms of stroke and brain maintenance.”

Dr. Chow also encourages people to eat more fruits and vegetables but she points out that diet alone is not enough to protect your brain. “Exercise is important for your circulation, reducing stress, and reducing body-mass index, which is a standard measure of a person’s weight in relation to his or her height.”

“You may start out exercising and eating right for your brain, but you’ll benefit other aspects of your body and life as well,” she adds.

There is ongoing debate about which fish are sustainable as staples in our diets. For more information on this topic, see Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish.

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