Food for thought

By Hyacinth Miles

There are a lot of nice things about food. It tastes good. It’s colorful. If it’s pasta, it can help you run a marathon—provided you are the sort of person who’d ever want to do such a thing.

Recently though, this hasn’t seemed like enough. This is the information age, the age of multi-tasking and perpetual partial attention. After all, I think, while writing this column, programming my computer, reading the Wall Street Journal, and crocheting a small jacket for my grandmother’s pug, I want food with fringe benefits; super-food.

Ideally we would all be able to find food that would rescue each of us from our own little peccadilloes, a vegetable that would cure our embarrassing personal hygiene problem, a type of fish that would curb our tendency to interrupt others, a dairy product that would make us taller. But, master of the possible that I am, I have a suspicion that no salad will magically transform me into a radiant force of light and hope for the world.

Honestly I’d settle for being a little smarter. Brain food, it sounded like a good idea. So I decided to check it out.

The B vitamins, especially B1, B5, B6, and B12 are important for overall brain health—everything from helping manufacture serotonin, to maintaining healthy nerve tissue. Folic acid is also important, as is a supplement called choline, which has been linked to an increase in memory and resistance to the effects of aging. Anti-oxidants, like vitamin E, are vital for the same reason.

All of these nutrients can be found in a variety of foods, mostly fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as lean meat, especially fish. Therefore a brain-healthy diet would be one that was well balanced and benefited your body as a whole.

But I was more interested in a quick fix. I didn’t want a lifestyle change.

I asked my co-worker, the psychiatrist, if there was any miracle food for the brain.

“Yes.” he said, “Tomatoes. If you eat about two pounds of tomatoes a day, and very little else, your IQ will go up 25, 30 points, easy.”

“Really?” I ask.

“No.” He went back to humming “Amazing Grace” under his breath.

Clearly brain food was becoming an imperative. I contacted Mark Prendergast, professor of psychological physiology at UK. He wrote back immediately and was very helpful. Is there food that can make you smarter? The good news is, yes. The bad news is, no.

Take for instance Ginkgo Biloba, a common herbal supplement said to increase memory and mental agility. A quick search of PubMed turns up about 650 scientific papers on Ginkgo. Unfortunately PubMed does not give a handy “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” categorization along with their articles, but if they did, it seems the evidence would be pretty evenly split between those who claim that Ginkgo works and those who claim it doesn’t.

How to reconcile this contradiction? Well, a likely explanation is that the discrepancy lies less with the science than with variability among the subjects. Put another way, you can go ahead and take Ginkgo Biloba, and if you die of dementia, we’ll assume it didn’t work for you.

Super quick fixes include nicotine and caffeine which, in small doses can increase alertness and help focus. The problem with these is that self-regulation can be extremely tricky, since too much of either can impair both attention and memory. This can explain why during finals week in college I always seemed to spend more time building small statues of paper clips than I did studying.

Dr. Prendergast’s advice? Eat a healthy balanced diet, which will, in the long run, confer resistance to the detrimental effects of aging. Back to lifestyle change. Darn.

All was not lost though. He also mentioned that nicotine could help counter the stupefying effects of alcohol. So there you go a quick fix in limited situations.

Now pass me a beer. n