Challenge #22 ~ Eating for Brain Health

Read the blog post on the July Theme ~ FOOD

Can food make us smarter and contribute to sustainability? Once upon a time cooks prepared our meals. Some of the cooks were highly acclaimed chefs, but most of them were moms and grandmothers who combined fresh, natural ingredients and made them into everything from lasagna to chicken tikka masala, transforming what nature provided into delicious and nutritious meals with no additives, keeping our minds sharp and our bodies slim. 

Today it’s not cooks who create meals anymore – it’s corporations who offer convenience in increasingly fast-paced lifestyles. As more packaged foods enter the market, new additives and emulsifiers and dyes, intended to make food tasty and look appetizing, take meals further away from real food. The result is increased health risks from heart disease and diabetes to depression, anxiety and hormone disruption, as well as declining cognitive functioning.

There are various reasons and sources for food additives. For the most part, food additives are substances added to food to maintain or improve its safety, freshness, taste, texture, or appearance and lengthen its shelf life. Food additives can be derived from plants, animals, or minerals, or they can be synthetic and artificial. Some food additives have been in use for centuries to preserve and sanitize food, such as salt, sugar, and sulfur dioxide. Some other additives from food packaging are a big source of unintended chemicals leaking into food from aluminum cans, plastic wraps, and containers lined with BPAs. 

Our brain health is important for decision making power! Start reading the ingredient labels when grocery shopping to take control of your diet and understand what’s really being added to your favorite foods! For an easy way to get smarter check out one of the many lists on the Internet of food additives to avoid. Many are related to brain health: aspartame is a carcinogen and neurotoxin which erodes intelligence and short-term memory; food dyes lead to behavioral problems and lower IQ; and MSG affects neurological functions. 

On the other hand, there are foods and additives that support our health. Do you know just how important Vitamin D3 is? “Not just a sunshine Vitamin – sufficient Vitamin D3 levels are responsible for healthy mood, cognitive function, cardiovascular health, immune response, muscle and bone strength, and other benefits” according to Dr. Daniel Amen of Amen Clinics. Vitamin D3 is available in form of sunshine right at our doorstep in Qatar to offset Vitamin D deficiency. Yet Vitamin D deficiency among adults and children in the Gulf is the highest in the world. Fortunately, we can easily add Vitamin D3 to our diet with foods like eggs, mushrooms, fish (especially wild salmon, tuna, and mackerel), and Vitamin D fortified milk. 

Our brains, like our bodies, depend on our activities and what we feed them. There are foods that are not only beneficial for brain health but may also be potentially helpful in warding off diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, such as oily fish (salmon, tuna), nuts, whole grains, and berries.

Here’s what we can do to maximize our brain health:

  • to avoid additives in food
    • incorporate more fresh ingredients into our diet and cut back on processed and packaged foods
    • read the list of ingredients of every product we buy and avoid those with toxic food additives
  • to avoid additives in packaging
    • bring cotton and canvas bags for fruits and vegetables when grocery shopping
    • request plastic-free packaging from grocers
    • choose reusable food containers for loose grains, nuts, even cheeses
  • to avoid leaked plastics in containers
    • take a favorite coffee mug to the coffee shop 
    • request starch-based take-away containers from favorite restaurants and food delivery services, or bring your own glass containers
  • to boost your Vitamin D
    • eat Vitamin D3 rich foods like eggs, mushrooms and fish (especially wild salmon, tuna, and mackerel) and Vitamin D fortified milk
  • finally, to reduce absorbing harmful additives even further
    • use aluminum-free deodorant sticks
    • change cookware from non-stick to cast iron pans

All of these things are important for our brain health, and they are also healthy for the environment. Fresh, local foods are often less processed and come from responsible farming practices. Local foods travel shorter distances from farm to table, consuming less energy and resources, resulting in a lower carbon footprint. Bringing our own containers and utensils helps to reduce the throw-away plastic problem that has become so evident. By attending to our brain health, we improve our ability to learn, act, make wise decisions, and innovate to improve the environment.

Personal actions matter and compound! By reading the list of ingredients of foods we buy, we also make our voices heard and make a clear statement about what we want to see on our grocery shelves, encouraging health and discouraging environmentally-unsound ingredients, such as palm oil. 

Every conscious decision of eliminating food additives and plastic from our daily lives compounds to less toxins and plastics in our food chain. It starts with every plastic bottle replaced, every piece of cling-wrap avoided, every plastic spoon exchanged for starch-based utensils and ends with reviewing and editing our personal investment choices to support businesses conscious of our customer preferences. 

This challenge contributes to delivering UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) #3 Health and Wellbeing, #12 Responsible Consumption and Production, #13 Climate Action.

Resources