More and more, studies are showing that what you eat can help your mind and memory, from infancy to old age.

Minding our Minds

Unfortunately, the typical American diet is far from the brain-boosting ideal. Most Americans don’t eat fish multiple times a week, get nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily or regularly season their food with curry. Babies don’t always get their iron, kids eat candy for breakfast and processed foods fill our grocery-store shopping carts. “Our diet today is really very, very different from primitive man’s diet,” says David Smith. So different that it’s bad for our brain? “I think it might be,” he replies.

In addition to not eating enough of the good things, we tend to eat too much of the bad stuff: a number of recent studies show that eating too much cholesterol, trans fat and saturated fat increases risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. One just-out report found that when rats were fed a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol for eight weeks, their performance on a battery of memory tests declined significantly. Another study suggests that eating 80 milligrams more cholesterol per day than you normally do (the amount in a four-ounce piece of steak) seems to make your brain work, temporarily, as if it were three years older. Even worse, disease and lifestyle issues that continue to plague us, such as high blood pressure, lack of physical activity and diabetes are all pushing us toward cognitive decline.

With the food environment we live in, it’s hard not to eat poorly unless you pay a premium. Rather than subsidizing antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, the federal government puts most of its support behind omega-6-rich soybeans as well as corn (thus keeping corn-syrup-laced junk food and sweet cereals cheap). Salmon is typically twice the price of beef. For the school breakfasts that power many kids’ mornings, the federal government’s requirements are broad enough that cheap, sugary cereals or Danish pastries pass muster. (The 2005 Dietary Guidelines declare, “make half your grains whole,” but schools still don’t have to comply. Promisingly, they’re working on the problem, and within two years schools should be more in line with the new guidelines, says Nancy Johner, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.)

Back home in the kitchen, I remember the pink marshmallow Sno Balls and Lucky Charms of my childhood. But my new dietary path already surrounds me on the counter: the baby’s small childproof bottle of multivitamin drops with iron; a cylinder of whole oats for my husband and me; my iron tablets; plenty of vitamin C-rich oranges and vitamin E-packed nuts; salmon (for my husband, and me, if I start liking it again) and lean free-range beef wrapped up in the fridge along with plenty of vegetables and fruits. I have my son’s little mind to think about now, and I’m excited to start. With any luck, I can also head off dementia for my husband and me. Will it work? I’ll tell you in 30 years (if I remember).

Contributing editor Rachael Moeller Gorman won the Bert Greene Food Journalism award for her last EatingWell feature, “Miracle Up North” (June/July 2006).

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