Ingenious ingredients to create food for the brain
Words Ellie Shortt X Photography Don Denton
It’s 10 am. You’re staring at a computer screen seemingly floating in and out of consciousness as you struggle to type out another report and send off another email. Why won’t the words come to you? Why does your mind keep going blank? Why is your memory failing and your thoughts escaping?
You think back to your breakfast of an unremarkable pastry and sour coffee from the anonymous café in the lobby of your office building and wonder, “Could that be contributing to this baffling brain fog?” Endless research, thousands of scientific papers and a seeming consensus across wellness approaches, cultural perspectives and ancestral practices say a resounding yes!
Long have traditional communities recognized the power of food for body, mind and spirit, and now western scientific approaches are beginning to catch up with some impressive studies that would humble even the most skeptical naysayers. Specifically, researchers are finding that foods rich in antioxidants and healthy fats, as well as certain vitamins and minerals (vitamin K, folate, and iron, to name a few), provide your brain with energy and aid in protecting brain cells, which may ward off the potential development of certain brain diseases.
Equally as important, a well-functioning digestive system is seemingly essential for cognitive health, whereby a number of hormones and neurotransmitters are created in the gut and are then able to enter the brain, which influences things like memory and concentration. With research in areas of chronic and systemic inflammation growing, scientists keep finding evidence to prove that highly processed diets rich in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids release inflammatory cytokines, which can ultimately damage the brain when in excess, and have been linked to a number of mental and cognitive conditions, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
And now you might be wondering, “That’s great and all, but what does all that mean for my day-to-day dietary choices?” Well, if you’re wanting to translate all this biology classroom jargon into a grocery list, I’ve provided a list of some (of many) cognitively friendly foods. I’ve also included three of my personal go-tos for meal time, snack time and drink time, when it comes to brain-boosting deliciousness.
Brain-Friendly Foods to Try Today:
Not only does salmon offer a major hit of protein, which is essential for optimal cognitive function, omega-3-rich foods like salmon have also been shown to increase the efficiency of various brain operations, including improved memory, while also reducing systemic inflammation. In fact, some preliminary studies even suggest that long-term omega-3 supplementation can help prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s symptoms, both of which have been linked to chronic inflammatory damage.
Eggs, in particular the yolks, not only provide your protein-hungry brain with high-quality, easily assimilated protein, they also contain almost unparalleled levels of carotenoids, a type of antioxidant compound that can help protect against oxidative damage to brain cells.
This nutrient-dense ancient grain is packed with polyphenols, which are disease-fighting antioxidants. Rutin, one antioxidant found within buckwheat, in particular has proven promising in recent studies regarding Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment. Buckwheat is also an easily digestible complex carbohydrate that is also gluten free. With increasing correlations between brain fog and gluten, many folks seeking a healthier brain often benefit from avoiding or reducing gluten in their diet.
Containing both vitamin K and folate, avocados may help prevent blood clots in the brain (protecting against stroke), and help improve brain functions related to memory and concentration. The healthy fats contained within avocado are also some of the brain’s most favoured forms of fuel.
Beets are some of the most nutritious foods for the brain that you can eat; they help reduce inflammation, are high in cancer-protecting antioxidants, and help rid your blood of toxins (which can collect in the brain). The natural nitrates in beets actually boost blood flow to the brain, helping with mental performance.
Along with other cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts, broccoli is one of the best brain-healthy foods out there, thanks to its high levels of vitamin K and choline, which can help keep your memory sharp.
Raw high-quality cocoa is full of flavanols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show cocoa can increase cerebral blood flow and cerebral blood oxygenation, plus it can help lower blood pressure and oxidative stress in the brain and heart.
With their substantial omega-3 levels and decent protein content, walnut benefits for the brain include supporting memory and thought processing, with recent studies suggesting prevention and treatment of conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Preliminary studies of this blue-green algae hold promising results for conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia, with one study even finding that a spirulina-enhanced diet given to rats provided neuroprotection with regards to Parkinson’s disease. Spirulina is being explored for heavy metal toxicity, which is a potential cause of cognitive decline, memory loss, and mood and personality disturbances.
Rich in omega-3s, packed with protein and full of fibre, chia seeds are great for the brain, the gut and everything in between. Chia seeds may also help in blood sugar management, which is good news for your brain, as blood sugar spikes have been shown to diminish cognitive function, decrease memory and lead to systemic inflammation in the body.
Blueberries (and other berries):
Blueberries have one of the highest antioxidant levels of all known foods, and also contain substantial levels of vitamin C and vitamin K. Blueberries are especially good at protecting our brains from degeneration, cognitive decline and stress due to their high levels of gallic acid.
Research shows that regular green tea consumption helps limit the breakdown of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter strongly linked with memory, and drinking green tea also inhibits enzymes known as BuChE and beta-secretase, which are found in protein deposits found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
Miso Glazed Salmon Brain Bowls
Prep time: 30 minutes
Makes about 2 servings
- 1 package 100% whole buckwheat soba noodles about 220 grams)
- 2 medium-large fillets of wild salmon (I used sockeye here)
- 3 tbsp Shiro miso
- 3 tbsp pure maple syrup
- 1 tbsp plum vinegar
- 1 tsp tamari sauce
- 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 large chunk of ginger, peeled (about 1-2 inches’ worth)
- 2 small-medium beets, peeled and cut into wedges
- 4 stalks broccolini
- 1 large bunch spinach, thoroughly rinsed and dried
- 2 medium boiled (or “6-minute”) eggs
- ½ cup edamame, peeled (you can purchase frozen and defrost before using)
- 1 large avocado, peeled and sliced
- 2 small-medium radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced
- 1 small cucumber, thinly sliced
- Extra virgin olive oil (you’ll need about 1 cup, divided throughout)
- Optional garnish of sesame seeds
- Preheat your oven to 400 F and line three baking sheets with parchment paper (one for the salmon, one for the beets and one for the broccolini). Cook the buckwheat soba as per the instructions on the package and set aside.
- In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the Shiro miso, maple syrup, plum vinegar and tamari sauce until smooth, and set aside one quarter to be used for the dressing. Place the salmon in a medium baking dish and coat evenly with the remaining miso sauce. Cover the baking dish and place the salmon in the fridge while it marinades. *Note: this can be done overnight.
- Take the remaining miso sauce and combine it in a small blender with the lemon juice, garlic, ginger and 6 tbsp olive oil. Blend until smooth and set aside.
- In a medium-sized mixing bowl, toss the beets with 1 tbsp olive oil and a light sprinkling of salt and pepper. Place them on one of your pre-prepared baking sheets and bake for 30 minutes until soft and tender, turning once or twice as they roast. Once cooked to your liking, set aside.
- Meanwhile, place the broccolini on another pre-prepared baking sheet, drizzle with 1 tbsp of olive oil, sprinkling with a pinch of salt and pepper, and bake for 15 minutes until cooked through and slightly crispy, turning once as they roast. Once cooked to your liking, set aside.
- Once the salmon has been marinating for at least 30 minutes, place the fillets on the third prepared baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes until the salmon is tender and flaky when pulled apart with a fork (but not over-cooked and dry). Once cooked to your liking, set aside.
- In a saucepan over medium heat, sauté the spinach with about 1 tbsp olive oil, and a pinch of salt and pepper until soft. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- When ready to plate, place a large handful of soba noodles into the centre of two medium-sized bowls. On top of the soba, arrange your broccolini (about 2 stalks per bowl), beets (about 4 wedges per bowl), spinach (a small handful per bowl), a few slices of cucumber, a few slices of radish, one egg cut in half, about a quarter cup of edamame, and a salmon fillet.
- Drizzle with a generous serving of the miso-ginger dressing and garnish with a sprinkling of sesame seeds (serve at room temperature or cold).
Coco Spirulina Brain Bars
Cook time: about 10 minutes, plus overnight setting time
Makes about 16 bars
- 2 loose cups soft, pitted dates
- ½ cup unsweetened plant-based milk
- ½ cup almond butter
- ½ cup coconut oil, melted
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- ¼ cup collagen powder
- 1⁄3 cup raw cocoa powder
- 3 tbsp spirulina powder
- 2 tbsp chia seeds
- 1 tbsp cinnamon
- ¼ tsp sea salt
- 2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
- ½ raw walnut pieces
- ½ cup dried goji berries
- Grease a 9-inch square pan with a small amount of coconut oil and line with an overhanging strip of parchment paper for easy removal. In a high-powered food processor, blend the dates, milk, almond butter, coconut oil and vanilla until smooth.
- Add the collagen, spirulina, cocoa, salt and cinnamon and blend until fully integrated. Blend in the chia seeds and oats until well combined. Pulse in the walnuts and gojis until well integrated.
- Transfer the mixture to your prepared pan, and flatten and smooth down the top with your palm.
- Allow it to set in the fridge overnight, then carefully remove from the pan (I like to loosen the sides with a dull knife, and then flip it upside down onto a cutting board), peel back the parchment paper and cut into squares.
- Store in fridge or freezer in an airtight container.
Blueberry Ginger Brain-Aid
Cook time: About 30 minutes
Makes about 3 ½ cups of mixture that can be diluted with still or sparkling water to your flavour preference
- 1⁄3 cup raw honey
- ¼ cup high-quality green tea leaves
- Large piece ginger (about 2 inches), peeled and sliced
- 1 cup fresh blueberries
- ½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Water (both boiling and cold)
- In a small saucepan, combine the honey, 1 cup water and ginger slices. Bring to a boil and then turn immediately down to a simmer, letting it steep for about 20 minutes. Place the blueberries and one half cup of water in a blender. Blend on medium-high speed for about 1 minute, until the blueberries are completely pureed (it might be a bit jelly-like—don’t worry, this is normal).
- Steep the green tea in 1 cup of boiling water for 3 minutes (*do not over-steep!).
- Combine the steeped green tea, honey ginger water and blended blueberries in a large jug or container. Add in the lemon juice and then strain the entire mixture through a fine mesh sieve into another jug or container. Store the mixture in the fridge, pour over ice, and top up with still or sparkling water to your liking.