Annefleur Langedijk, hoofdredacteur
Hedwig Ens, eindredacteur
Nora van de Water
Will van Houten, eindredacteur
Andrea (Bricco) D'Agosto
dr. M. Dekker
dr. M. Keestra
drs. S. Sitalsing
prof. dr. F. van Vree
drs. L. Wenting
These days the superfood-hype reached another peak with acai bowls, chia bread, and matcha tea everywhere. Beyond that, and often synonymously used for superfood, you come across the label brainfood. The “super” and “brain” attributes are coined by the advertising industry and are usually used for nutrient-rich foods that are supposed to benefit your health and wellbeing. Even though well-trained nutritionists and scientists keep their distance to those terms, it is worthwhile to have a look at the aforementioned products. How are food and the brain related to each other? Can you eat yourself smart? Enhance your cognition at the dining table? It is quite obvious that nutrition per se will not change our mere education or knowledge, but what about more subtle changes on the biochemical level? Food can indeed directly affect the brain. In this article I will therefore draw your attention to the influence of certain nutrients on membrane fluidity, oxidative stress, and other biochemical means.
The above-mentioned superfoods acai, chia, and matcha have a huge array of different features. One thing they have in common is being antioxidative. This means that they contain molecules that eliminate so-called radical oxygen species (ROS). ROS are normal by-products of our metabolism and our body is equipped with special weapons (called enzymes) and tactics (also known as biochemical pathways) to eliminate ROS. Sometimes our body is exposed to an amount of ROS that exceeds the usual levels. Those strenuous times include being exposed to heat, (tobacco) smoke or other drugs, and even engaging in sports. An extra portion of dietary antioxidants is then most welcome, as according to the “free radical theory of aging”, damage done by (excessive) ROS and similarly militant free radicals is linked to various aging processes ranging from wrinkle formation to the genesis of hypertension (Liochev, 2013). Because our brain is particularly prone to oxidative damage, it is plausible to assume that providing assistance to the bodily SWAT team with some additional antioxidants might be good for improving your brain health. A lot of antioxidative substances, such as curcumin (found in curry) or resveratrol (the “red wine molecule”) have been investigated extensively for their effect on brain health. Yet, data remains conflicting regarding the use of supplemental antioxidants, just as well as antioxidative (super-) foods, to enhance cognition. Up till now, however, there is no evidence for a negative impact of antioxidants on brain health.
Some of the superfoods, like chia seeds, are furthermore rich in omega-3 fatty acids (o3-FAs): a special type of fat that is supposed to be beneficial in terms of cardiovascular and cognitive health. o3-FAs are natural building blocks of cell membranes (the “walls” of cells) and therefore influence membrane-fluidity (how flexible the cells are). Having more fluid cell membranes facilitates and optimizes the communication within and between cells. That cell communication is actually a key factor for the existence of multi-cellular organisms (e.g. humans) and just as important for all different kinds of cognitive processes (Dyall, 2015). Promising findings were reported in animal studies with diets high in o3-FAs, whereas these results could only marginally be translated to human studies. At the moment, there is consequently not enough evidence to recommend o3-FAs to enhance cognitive functions in the general population. The consumption of these fatty acids is, on the other hand, clearly shown to be beneficial for at least cardiovascular health (Cooper, Tye, Kuntsi, Vassos, & Asherson, 2015). Even though chia might not boost your cognition, it is furthermore rich in dietary fibers and minerals. So besides being very trendy, it might be worth to incorporate it in reasonable amounts to your diet.
Given the lack of promising results in human studies, the often times lurid advertisements of superfoods remain questionable. It has to be kept in mind that neither antioxidants, nor o3-FAs are exclusively found in superfoods. They are also abundantly present in fruits, vegetables, fish, and walnuts. What makes so-called superfoods special is an often higher concentration of those substances in comparison to “standardfood”. Nevertheless, standardfood is not worth any less than superfood. Quite the opposite is true. Superfoods will only benefit you if you get the main components of your diet in sufficient amounts as part of a balanced and “well-built” nutrition.
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