Feeding The Informal Learner’s Brain

Since Ancient Times Walnuts Have Been Considered Brain Food

Since Ancient Times Walnuts Have Been Considered Brain Food

If you’re like me you’re sorta dubious about a lot of claims made about nutrition… by both the pros and the amateurs.
Here’s one from an amateur. I once sat down to an evening meal with a gaffer on a very large live TV shoot. It was close to 5pm and she was trying to get through her meal quickly. I asked her if she had some kind of work deadline to meet. “No,” she replied, “to keep my figure I try not to eat any protein or fats after 5pm.” I’m sure I looked at her like she was nuts. After all, what about the many Spaniards who eat their biggest meal at perhaps 8pm or later and still manage to stay perfectly svelte?
What she was talking about is a variation of the aphorism that says you should eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at noon and a pauper for the evening meal. But what about all the French men and women who eat nothing more than a croissant and an espresso for breakfast their entire adult life?
Or this one from a medical source. When my wife was pregnant with our first child her doctor gave her a prenatal nutrition brochure that urged her not to eat spicy foods because it might upset baby’s digestion. It made me wonder what Thai, Mexican, and Sichuan mothers manage to eat when they’re expecting.
Remember when eggs were bad and so was butter? Now margarine is an evil transfat and eggs are a ‘sustainable’ nutrition-rich food.
In my view, a lot of what passes for sound nutritional advice is probably just an expression of cultural bias and scientific faddism. In the U.S. it’s accepted wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But do French dieticians agree?
All that said, this blog is about the brain, the mind and informal learning. What I’d like to hear about is a ‘brain food’ diet where I don’t have to check my brain at the door.
For instance, in ancient cultures, the state of the art thinking was that brain food was anything that physically resembled the human brain. And so walnuts, cauliflower, and even brains themselves were thought to be brain food.
So, when I came across the following diet said to be healthful to the body and high cognitive function, my ‘skeptometer’ went on high alert. I found the diet on the Franklin Institute website via the always helpful sharpbrains.com website.
Fats
Include foods that supply essential fatty acids. Raw or dry roasted nuts and seeds are one source. These would ideally include fresh, raw, refrigerated walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds or flax meal, along with all the other nuts and seeds. Cold-pressed oils of these nuts and seeds would also be good. Eat products such as seaweeds and fish that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids – salmon, sardines, trout, tuna (only small amounts), herring, and mackerel. Avocados, fresh coconut, and extra virgin olive oil are also good sources of fat. Avoid trans fats .
Animal foods contain variable amounts of fat. To maximize the essential fatty acid content (and consume a healthier food), try to get the meat and dairy products of animals that were raised as naturally as possible. “Free-range” animals are allowed to forage on green grasses, so their diet – hence their meat, milk, and eggs – are rich in essential fatty acids and superior to that of caged animals. Look for wild fish, rather than farmed.
Proteins
Animal foods, including eggs and milk products, are excellent sources of protein and, thus, the amino acids that come from the breakdown of protein. Other foods supplying many of the essential amino acids needed for neurotransmitter production are dried beans (legumes), green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Carbohydrates
To maintain adequate levels of the brain fuel glucose, it’s important to eat often enough. For some people, this means eating snacks as well as main meals. For others, it just means eating at least every five hours. Poor concentration and low energy levels can be a sign that it’s been too long since your last meal.
Nutritious foods can also be high on the glycemic index . These include starchy vegetables such as corn, potatoes, winter squash, and cooked or juiced carrots and beets. Whole grains and whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers are also healthy high-glycemic foods.
One formula for avoiding blood sugar spikes from these carbohydrates is to combine them with protein foods. For example, have an egg with your piece of toast; a tempeh burger with your ear of corn; a serving of salmon along with your potato. Mix high-glycemic fruits or fruit juices in a blender with nuts and whey protein powder. Non-starchy vegetables are also stabilizing to blood sugar levels. Eat them steamed or raw, in salads or stir-fried.
Micronutrients
Most foods contain some vitamins and minerals, but micronutrients are especially abundant in fruits and vegetables. To ensure a plentiful supply of these antioxidants, include at least the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. (Better yet, the ten servings sometimes advocated for cancer prevention.)
A serving is generally a small fruit or half a cup of cubed fruit; a cup of raw green leafy vegetables or half a cup of cooked greens; a half cup of other cooked or raw vegetables. These fruits and vegetables should be of wide variety and color – preferably in season, organic, and locally grown.
The preceding comes from Debra Burke, who, we are informed has a masters degree in nutritional science. I won’t lift Ms. Burke’s suggested menus, too, but you can find them here.
Is this brain food? Who knows?
I do know that I’m not likely to eat too many tempeh burgers or kelp powder, which she suggests in one of her menus. But I do appreciate her calls for a high fiber diet and a balance of high-glycemic foods against strong protein sources.
But here again my inner skeptic comes out. Anytime someone starts talking about glycemic levels I wonder why it is that people in South America and Asia… whose diets are loaded with rice or potatoes… don’t evidence high levels of diabetes or obesity.
And how glad I am to know that nuts have made a comeback as brain food.
If you’re like me you’re sorta dubious about a lot of claims made about nutrition… by both the pros and the amateurs.
Here’s one from an amateur. I once sat down to an evening meal with a gaffer on a very large live TV shoot. It was close to 5pm and she was trying to get through her meal quickly. I asked her if she had some kind of work deadline to meet. “No,” she replied, “to keep my figure I try not to eat any protein or fats after 5pm.”
I’m sure I looked at her like she was nuts. After all, what about the many Spaniards who eat their biggest meal at perhaps 8pm or later and still manage to stay perfectly svelte?
What she was talking about is a variation of the aphorism that says you should eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at noon and a pauper for the evening meal.
But what about all the French men and women who eat nothing more than a croissant and an espresso for breakfast their entire adult life?
Or this one from a medical source. When my wife was pregnant with our first child her doctor gave her a prenatal nutrition brochure that urged her not to eat spicy foods because it might upset baby’s digestion. It made me wonder what Thai, Mexican, and Sichuan mothers manage to eat when they’re expecting.
Remember when eggs were bad and so was butter? Now margarine is an evil transfat and eggs are a ‘sustainable’ nutrition-rich food.
In my view, a lot of what passes for sound nutritional advice is probably just an expression of cultural bias and scientific faddism. In the U.S. it’s accepted wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But do French dieticians agree?
All that said, this blog is about the brain, the mind and informal learning. What I’d like to hear about is a ‘brain food’ diet where I don’t have to check my brain at the door.
For instance, in ancient cultures, the state of the art thinking was that brain food was anything that physically resembled the human brain. And so walnuts, cauliflower, and even brains themselves were thought to be brain food.
So, when I came across the following diet said to be healthful to the body and high cognitive function, my ‘skeptometer’ went on high alert. I found the diet on the Franklin Institute website via the always helpful sharpbrains.com website.
Fats
Include foods that supply essential fatty acids. Raw or dry roasted nuts and seeds are one source. These would ideally include fresh, raw, refrigerated walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds or flax meal, along with all the other nuts and seeds. Cold-pressed oils of these nuts and seeds would also be good. Eat products such as seaweeds and fish that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids – salmon, sardines, trout, tuna (only small amounts), herring, and mackerel. Avocados, fresh coconut, and extra virgin olive oil are also good sources of fat. Avoid trans fats .
Animal foods contain variable amounts of fat. To maximize the essential fatty acid content (and consume a healthier food), try to get the meat and dairy products of animals that were raised as naturally as possible. “Free-range” animals are allowed to forage on green grasses, so their diet – hence their meat, milk, and eggs – are rich in essential fatty acids and superior to that of caged animals. Look for wild fish, rather than farmed.
Proteins
Animal foods, including eggs and milk products, are excellent sources of protein and, thus, the amino acids that come from the breakdown of protein. Other foods supplying many of the essential amino acids needed for neurotransmitter production are dried beans (legumes), green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Carbohydrates
To maintain adequate levels of the brain fuel glucose, it’s important to eat often enough. For some people, this means eating snacks as well as main meals. For others, it just means eating at least every five hours. Poor concentration and low energy levels can be a sign that it’s been too long since your last meal.
Nutritious foods can also be high on the glycemic index . These include starchy vegetables such as corn, potatoes, winter squash, and cooked or juiced carrots and beets. Whole grains and whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers are also healthy high-glycemic foods.
One formula for avoiding blood sugar spikes from these carbohydrates is to combine them with protein foods. For example, have an egg with your piece of toast; a tempeh burger with your ear of corn; a serving of salmon along with your potato. Mix high-glycemic fruits or fruit juices in a blender with nuts and whey protein powder. Non-starchy vegetables are also stabilizing to blood sugar levels. Eat them steamed or raw, in salads or stir-fried.
Micronutrients
Most foods contain some vitamins and minerals, but micronutrients are especially abundant in fruits and vegetables. To ensure a plentiful supply of these antioxidants, include at least the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. (Better yet, the ten servings sometimes advocated for cancer prevention.)
A serving is generally a small fruit or half a cup of cubed fruit; a cup of raw green leafy vegetables or half a cup of cooked greens; a half cup of other cooked or raw vegetables. These fruits and vegetables should be of wide variety and color – preferably in season, organic, and locally grown.
The preceding comes from nutritionist Debra Burke. I won’t lift Ms. Burke’s suggested menus, too, but you can find them here.
Is this brain food? Who knows?
I do know that I’m not likely to eat too many tempeh burgers or kelp powder, which she suggests in one of her menus.
However,  I do appreciate her calls for a high fiber diet and a balance of high-glycemic foods against strong protein sources.
But here again my inner skeptic comes out. Anytime someone starts talking about glycemic levels I wonder why it is that people in South America and Asia… whose diets are loaded with rice or potatoes… don’t evidence high levels of diabetes or obesity.
And how glad I am to know that nuts have made a comeback as brain food.
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One Response to “Feeding The Informal Learner’s Brain”

  1. Chris Khoo Says:

    Hehe not only that, apparently having Omega-3s, eating calorie restricted or having a lower meal frequency can improve hippocampal neurogenesis (via studies done on rhesus monkeys and mice), but then again, there are studies showing that improving neurogenesis can have a detrimental effect on working memory… choices choices! 🙂

    BTW, your rationale of comparing between different cultures is somewhat correct. I mean, sure the human digestive system is very adaptable to various food sources, but is it optimal? For example, there are an above average number of Mexicans who get tongue cancer… and unfortunately, it’s got something to do with their love for chillis.

    Taking a different tack, look at people who live in Blue Zones (people who live over 100) – they do share some similarities in how they achieve longevity (mainly plant based diet, low stress, surrounded by family, etc.).

    However, to play the devil’s advocate on myself, you also have outliers like Jeanne Calment – the oldest ever confirmed person, who smokes & eats chocolate daily and she still lived till 122. However, she was fairly active (took up fencing at 97!!), and I suspect she ate healthy.

    But back on your first story, eating a high fat meal at night does affect REM sleep (according to EEG studies), so perhaps the aphorism of dining like a pauper probably does some merit in terms of procedural memory consolidation.

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