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A lack of vegetables is a big risk factor for cognitive diseases. Make sure you eat these 3 vegetables for optimal brain health.
When it comes to worrisome potential health problems, none may be more feared than neurodegenerative diseases. The loss of our brain’s function is a horrifying prospect for most of us, and more than ever, we are interested in just how we can prevent it.
It turns out that our high carbohydrate/low fat diets have in fact been instrumental in increasing the rates of these conditions, rather than decreasing them. So what should we eat for optimal brain health? Well, besides keeping sugar down and chowing down on brain optimizing fats like coconut oil, we should consume vegetables – quite a lot of them, in fact.
There are a wide variety of vegetables which can help you optimize your brain health, and the Paleo diet includes all of them! It turns out your mom was right – you really do need to eat your vegetables, for optimal brain health.
In fact, evidence suggests that oxidative damage (caused by free radical damage and the beta-amyloid peptide) can be protected against by dietary antioxidants. The science plainly shows that regular consumption of fruit and vegetables also helps to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Pretty incredible stuff.
Other studies have shown that fruit and vegetable intake even lowers your risk of cancer and heart disease. These may seem like elementary, obvious conclusions, but the majority of the United States still does not eat nearly enough vegetables. In fact, we’re not even close. This is a pretty scary reality, but reality nonetheless.
Why These Three?
Though the near-complete lack of vegetables is no doubt a big risk factor for brain-crippling diseases, the vegetables most Americans do consume are not the best choices. They tend to go for starchier sources, rather than nutrient-dense choices like broccoli, spinach and kale.
Coincidentally, these three vegetables are some of the best for cognitive health.
Though you won’t get bulging muscles like Popeye from eating spinach, you will get a wide variety of brain-boosting nutrients. Researchers have found that even one serving of spinach per day may help your brain stay a decade younger than those who do not consume the green leafy vegetable on a regular basis. Pretty powerful stuff!
Spinach that is bright and colorful is also richer in vitamin C. This vitamin C also helps protect the oxygen-sensitive nutrients found within the spinach leaves themselves. Spinach is also rich in chlorophyll, which is good for blood.
Incorporating spinach into your daily routine is very easy and delicious. Even if you do not like the taste of spinach, you can mix it in with a chicken salad, cook it with coconut oil, season it with herbs and spices or even top it off with hot sauce. One cup a day is all that is needed for beneficial results, so why not start there? Your brain will thank you for it.
Kale is another brain-friendly vegetable, and with good reason. The current darling of the food world, kale packs a wallop of beneficial nutrients and vitamins. Kale is simply one of the most nutrient-dense foods in existence, and also is very flexible when it comes to hiding it in recipes.
Sulforaphane is one of the many beneficial compounds found in kale, and it is a phytochemical also found in lots of other vegetables. Sulforaphane is linked to possible cancer and heart benefits, as well as brain health.
The cost of a poor diet is so high for your brain because you are avoiding foods which protect your brain (vegetables) and consuming foods that hurt it (processed foods, sugar, etc.). This very simple concept is easy to understand, but hard for some to put into practice.
An easy stepping stone is this great recipe for kale chips – which will give you the mouthfeel of potato chips, but the brain-boosting power of kale!
Broccoli is another beneficial brain vegetable, and it packs quite a punch, for very few calories. Though it can take some getting used to, there are a variety of recipes that include broccoli, so the taste isn’t as obvious at first. Chopping some up and putting it into a Paleo breakfast pizza is a good first step.
Broccoli also contains phytochemicals. Some of these beneficial compounds include glucosinolates, as well as their byproducts. Broccoli also has phenolics, antioxidant vitamins and dietary minerals. Researchers also note that vitamins E, C, K and minerals like iron, zinc and selenium are largely responsible for making broccoli so healthy.
In addition to all these healthful elements, broccoli also contains kaempferol, quercetin glucosides and isorhamnetin. Not bad for just one vegetable!
Your brain is constantly under stress (in this modern world, more than ever!) and antioxidants, vitamins and minerals all help to slow or even reverse damage your lifestyle may be causing to it.
Think of your brain as a car. It accumulates wear and tear, and it needs to have the proper fuel put into it regularly, as well as have proper maintenance. This is what a healthy diet, and a balanced, low stress lifestyle can provide.
Don’t Forget the Fat!
Your brain is in constant need of nutrients, fats and thousands of other things. Without a daily supply of good food (which a Paleo diet has in spades) you are in big, big trouble. Obesity and diabetes both wreak havoc on your brain, and many of us now suffer from both those conditions.
Since your brain is more than 50% fat, you need less sugar, and more fat in your diet. In addition to vegetables in your diet, you need to consume lots of healthy fats to truly optimize your brain’s function and potential. This means avocados, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil and nuts.
It does not mean processed foods, trans fats and fast food cheeseburgers. And yet, this is still the very foundation of the American diet, along with grains and dairy. Why is this so?
Do Not Follow the Food Pyramid
The food pyramid is not made with your health (and especially your neurological health) in mind. It is made for industry profit. Perhaps accidentally (depending on your level of cynicism) it also benefits the pharmaceutical industry, by allowing them to sell more drugs, because more of us are sick.
Do you see the vicious and self-perpetuating cycle in play here? If we really take the time to educate one another, make long-lasting changes, and stop giving the food industry and pharmaceutical companies so much of our hard-earned money, we can see a real, widespread change in our world’s health.
Keep It Simple!
As mentioned, good brain health depends on essential vitamins and minerals to function. If you don’t supply your brain with these vital building blocks, you will fail to thrive. And this is not what we want, in an increasingly stressful world.
You need to have every advantage possible. Vitamin K (found in all three of the foods mentioned today) is one such advantage, as it is a powerful antioxidant that helps to protect fat.
But one need not understand all of the numerous scientific details to consume a good diet. Including vegetables at every meal is the best first step you can take.
The Big Picture
Dark green leafy vegetables are always your best bet, and there are numerous vegetables that I did not include today that are all beneficial for your brain’s health.
The best takeaway from this article is to really look at the basics of how you are eating. Are you including dark green leafy vegetables at every meal? Are you eating enough healthy fats? Are you choosing good sources of food? Are you eating enough protein?
By contrast, are you avoiding lots of sugar in your diet? Are you leaving out empty calories like grains? These big questions, and having the right answers to them, are far more important than worrying about the minutia of brain-related compounds in foods (though they are interesting).
I have had so many clients who want to optimize their brain health and get really excited about small percentage results from certain vegetables… but won’t stop drinking alcohol every night. Remember not to get wrapped up into the minutia – keep an eye on the big picture.
Health is not a sprint – it is a marathon. The simplest truths are to eat vegetables, avoid bad foods, and live a healthy lifestyle. These sound very simple, but consistently putting them into practice takes a lot of brainpower. Treat your brain well – give it the proper fuel and nutrients it needs!
Want to look for more veggies for boosting brain power and memory? Watch this video – The MIND Diet
Written by Casey Thaler
Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS is an NASM® certified personal trainer and NASM® certified fitness nutrition specialist. He writes for Paleo Magazine®, The Paleo Diet® and Greatist®. He is also an advisor for Kettle and Fire and runs his own nutrition and fitness consulting company, Eat Clean, Train Clean®.
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