Brain Foods with Karen Merzenich
A few weeks ago, we hosted a Q&A session on Facebook about brain foods. Our own in-house chef/recipe developer/scientist Karen Merzenich answered people’s questions and I think we all learned a lot! For those who missed the discussion and prefer to read it in transcript form, I’ve re-posted it here.
Question: Do the health benefits of omega-3s in fish outweigh the negatives of mercury? Is there a guideline for how often you should eat fish?
Karen’s Answer: There are many guidelines for how much fish to eat – most putting it at 2 6 oz servings a week for women unless pregnant or breastfeeding in which case that goes down to 1 6 oz serving. However, there are lots of omega-3 rich fish that don’t have mercury–those would be the smaller fish like anchovies, sardines, and mackerel. That’s because the way a fish gets high in mercury is by eating other fish, so those small fish remain mostly mercury free. Wild Alaskan salmon has a lower mercury content. If you’re concerned with mercury you should definitely avoid shark and swordfish–they’re the biggest culprits.
Question: I recently read there are 52 pesticides that are sprayed on blueberries. Fresh organic blueberries are hard to find. Do the health benefits of non-organic blueberries out weigh steering away from eating them because of the chemical exposure issue..??
Karen’s Answer: Pesticides are indeed an issue. One thing that might help is that if you can find FROZEN organic blueberries w/o pesticides, those will also offer the same health benefits as fresh. Sometimes it’s easier to find frozen than fresh…
The long-term effects of pesticides are tricky to measure, because most studies are done on people who work with pesticides and breathe them in every day–like farmworkers–and not average folks who consume them in small amounts. However, studies in those who work with pesticides have shown that they can effect learning, memory, and attention.
Follow-up Response: Thanks Karen…I love blueberries and will look for organic frozen.
Karen’s Follow-Up: Excellent! Lots of people are under the impression that frozen fruits and vegetables have fewer health benefits than fresh, but as long as there is not sugar/salt added, frozen have the same health benefits as fresh.
Question: I’m assuming it’s safe for me, as a breastfeeding mother, to take Omega 3 supplements…would you agree?
Karen’s Answer: I am not a medical doctor, so I can’t say definitively — but I would caution that studies have shown that taking omega-3 supplements is not as good a source of omega-3s as dietary intake. For one thing, since supplements are not regulated,… it’s unclear how much omega-3 you are actually getting. Omega-3s are important for the baby and mother — if you are worried about mercury from eating fish, you can choose smaller fish like anchovies and sardines which have near zero mercury. If you don’t like fish, a handful of walnuts, eggs, or ground flaxseed worked into the diet are all good sources of omega-3.
Follow-up Response: Great…thanks so much. I love making the Banana Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies which have flax in them…all the more reason to keep eating cookies! 😉
Karen’s Follow-up: Excellent idea! Those cookies have a whole host of brain healthy ingredients in a delicious package 🙂 They’re some of my favorites as well. You can slip a bit of powdered flax seed into lots of dishes without noticing…
Question: What foods are good for promoting memory?
Karen’s Answer: In the long-term, the foods that have been most proven to help retain memory throughout life are, in no particular order: leafy green vegetables like kale and chard, omega-3 rich fish (coldwater fatty fish like mackerel, anchovies, and salmon), turmeric (found in curry powder), coffee, and things that have resveratrol — which includes very dark chocolate, red wine, grapes, blueberries, and other dark berries.
Of course, there are other foods that play a role as well. Many studies show that garlic and onions have brain-boosting antioxidants. Folic acid is important for the brain as well, and can be found in beans and other legumes, plus spinach and oranges. Olive oil in place of other oils.
Question: What role does turmeric play?
Karen’s Answer: Turmeric is one of the best-proven foods for brain health. In one study, rats with Alzheimer’s were given turmeric and researchers saw their amyloid plaques and tangles, the physical hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, shrink by as much as 50%. Turmeric’s health effects are one of the reasons that scientists and anthropologists believe that people in the Indian sub-continent have a much lower rate of cognitive decline in aging than people from other countries.
Follow-up Response: I recently started taking tumeric for inflamation in my knee and it is helping…glad to hear it’s helping my brain too!! How much a day do you think needs to be taken for full benefits??
Karen’s Follow-up: There are no guidelines as the research is pretty preliminary. Some studies have suggested that eating one meal with curry in it per month is enough to get benefits! Regardless, since it’s been used as a seasoning and spice with benefit, it’s generally thought that small amounts are helpful. If you’re taking a small dose daily for your knee then you are most likely A-OK.
Question: Hey Karen, I tend to like to bring lunch to work, and I like it to be easy. Can you suggest a brain-healthy recipe that I could cook on the weekend and portion out throughout the week?
Karen’s Answer: Great question! I bring work to lunch too, so this is a good question for me. 🙂 One of my favorites is chopped cauliflower and onions sauteed in olive oil with lots of curry powder – every ingredient offers a brain benefit and it’s very easy to make, plus low calorie and filling. Another one is a simple soup starting with shallots and/or garlic sauteed in olive oil, with orzo and broth added, and some canned diced tomatoes and white beans at the end. There are some other free recipes in our Thinkfood recipe of the week program, here are some that fit the lunch bill well: Chana Masala with Mushrooms and Curried Wheat Berry & Tomato Salad. One more is this Spinach & Feta Quinoa salad. Another one is to use leftover quinoa or brown rice and saute it up with chopped broccoli, kale, spinach, or whatever, and add a little soy sauce and ginger!
Follow-up Response: Yay! Thanks so much for the recommendations Karen. I’m gonna give them a try! What a cool way to use the facebook! By the way, my dad is really enjoying the driving software, you guys are a great resource for our whole family!
Question: Karen, do you have suggestions for brain healthy breakfasts?
Karen’s Answer: That’s a great question. Breakfast is one of the hardest meals for me to eat healthy, since I’m always in a rush. You might not know that in addition to being good for your heart, oats are full of the antioxidant selenium, and a sustained source of energy for the brain. Protein-rich quinoa can also be used as a satisfying breakfast grain. Adding berries is a great way to go for the brain, and cinnamon can help give you a little brain boost and help you wake up. Eggs are rich in Omega-3s, and if you stir in some kale, broccoli, or last night’s leftover asparagus you’ll have energy through lunchtime and brain benefits. Be sure to saute in olive oil for extra benefits! If you miss breakfast altogether, a handful of dried blueberries or cranberries and some almonds or walnuts will help.
Question: Are there specific foods that can make you feel more alert in the moment?
Karen’s Answer: This is an interesting one. There has been some research into different herbs and spices, and it showed that the smell of cinnamon, sage, or spearmint can help keep you alert during a short period–for example, an exam. The scent of lavender does the opposite, so beware of the negative effects things can have as well.
Sugars can give your brain a short energy burst, but the crash afterwards is unpredictable, especially with sugar. Eating things that give you a sustained energy level, like whole grains, lean proteins, and balanced meals, is a better bet for keeping alert.
Caffeine often gets a negative rap, and some have a bad reaction to it, but caffeine can stimulate your brain in the short term, and some European studies have actually found that lifelong coffee drinkers have fewer memory problems as they age vs. non coffee drinkers.
Question: Is Chia the new super-food?
Karen’s Answer: There is some buzz about chia but so far, not a single published study on its health benefits. So the jury is still out until more research can be done.
Question: Karen, what are your thoughts on Gingko Biloba? Sometimes I hear its great for you, other times I hear its useless.
Karen’s Answer: One of the Posit scientists wrote about this last year. Sadly, there’s no magic bullet in gingko–in a study of 3,000+ people taking either gingko or a placebo, researchers found that a gingko biloba supplement had NO effects on memory or cognition. Read about ginko.