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We probably all can relate to that happy feeling after eating a bar of chocolate. This feeling of happiness is associated with the endorphin release that often follows the ingestion of cocoa – the main ingredient of chocolate. The darker the chocolate, the more cocoa it contains. So, maybe grab a darker bar of chocolate next time if you want to get your endorphin flowing!
From this example, we can see how food plays a much more complex role than just filling our bellies when we are hungry. Foods can directly affect the structure and function of our brain, and ultimately, our moods as well as cognitive functions.
Well, the right fats.
Fatty acids, or more commonly known just as 'fats' are critical for the brain structurally and functionally. There is extensive evidence in scientific literature on the various roles that fats have on our mental functionings:
More importantly, two essential fatty acids, Omega-3 and Omega-6, can only be obtained solely from our diets because the body cannot synthesize them. We must be mindful to incorporate nuts, seeds, legumes, (and fish if we are not following a strictly plant-based diet) to ensure an adequate supply of essential fatty acids for a healthy brain!
We are familiar with the 'food coma' after a big lunch when all you want to do is nap. There is a more formal term for this: postprandial somnolence – the state of drowsiness following a meal. There is also a physiological explanation for it, and it is an excellent example of how our food choice can affect our brain.
Almost everything we eat is converted into glucose, and glucose is also the brain's sole energy source. The brain relies on a steady blood glucose level to stay alert. What usually happens following a lunch (assuming we are eating a typical meal like a burger or a plate of chicken rice) is that the glucose is released into the bloodstream at a very rapid rate. As a control mechanism, our body also rapidly releases the insulin hormone, which down-regulates glucose concentration in the blood by facilitating cells to take up the excess blood glucose as energy storage. This regulatory mechanism results in a sharp dip in blood glucose, starving the brain of its energy source and leading to lethargy or the infamous food coma.
The antidote to the food coma is simple. Be a little bit more conscious of your carbohydrate choice at lunch! Substitute the simple carbs like white rice, pasta, and bread – which all have a relatively high Glycemic Index (GI) – for low GI carbohydrate options like brown rice, green vegetables, and legumes. The glucose from these latter food groups will be released in a much more gradual and slower manner, preventing us from crashing into a food coma!
Now that we know our diet can directly affect our brain functions, here are a couple of simple tips towards forming more brain-friendly eating habits:
This simple exercise will prevent you from making impulsive decisions. We are more likely to indulge in unhealthy options rich in fat (the bad kind: saturated fat abundant in fast food) and calories when we are hungry. Plan your lunch early, not when your tummy is already rumbling.
Don't wait till your blood sugar is depleted at lunchtime. Your brain works best when blood glucose is kept at around its equilibrium. Therefore, you would be way more productive by avoiding spikes and troughs in your blood glucose level.