brain food myths

Staying alert and healthy throughout your life is a goal well worth pursuing, but you must be aware of misinformation about ways to accomplish this. Food, especially food that affects your brain and cognitive functioning, is one of the more confounding aspects of healthy living because of a mix of contradicting studies, constantly changing regulations, and heard-it-through-the-grapevine-style advice. When it comes to knowing brain foods and how they affect the body, college students looking to get the most from school and study time must know the difference between myth and reality.

The Concept of Brain Foods

That food affects your brain has a definite basis in reality. However, the idea of "brain food" is often used as a marketing ploy for concentrated supplements or fad diets. There are ways to keep your brain healthy with food, certainly. But these ways are much more mundane than many proponents of "brain food" would have you believe.

Reality: Nutrient Absorption

Four components of food do have proven effects on your brain:

  • brain foodFatty acids (such as omega-3 fatty acids)
  • Antioxidants (such as certain vitamins)
  • Glucose (this is sugar in its most basic form, after food is broken down in your body)
  • Amino acids (those substances you find in meats and other proteins)

These four provide energy, strengthen neural connections, and block destructive free radicals when you include them in your diet. While you can take supplemental vitamins and fatty acids to increase the amounts you're getting, food itself is really the best way to get these. For example, omega-3s are found in fish, and essential amino acids can come from meat, quinoa, or a combination of beans and rice. 

Myth: It Takes Time

A popular image of brain food is that it will make you smart, able to work fast, increase your ability to think quickly, increase your cleverness, and so on. This is not really the case. Real brain food, like fish, will not suddenly make you a genius within a week of starting to eat more of it. The effects take a while, and you have to eat a healthy, well-rounded diet with these brain-health-promoting foods consistently. You have to be sure that you're getting adequate amounts of vitamins, such as B12, and enough water and sleep.

Okay, There’s One Exception to That Myth

It is possible that, if you've been eating a terrible diet, you might feel a pronounced positive effect soon after revamping what you eat. However, that is due to the general and substantial improvement in your diet -- not any magic effects from a particular food.

supplementsExaggerated Truth: Supplements

Taking extra supplements has only so much of an effect. The extra nutrients can make up for shortfalls in your diet, often leading you to feel a little better, such as the aforementioned B12 helping your cognition if you had a previous deficiency. The supplemental effect goes only so far, though. For example, doubling the amount of fatty acids you're already getting from food by taking a fish oil supplement won't double your brain power and send your IQ soaring.

Studies With Unnatural Designs

Another thing to remember when hearing about the effects of brain food is that many of these effects were found in studies that didn't mimic normal eating patterns. notes that studies found that lots of carbs make you tired and lots of protein can make you feel more awake, but these studies used models in which subjects were fasting for several hours before eating meals that consisted only of carbs or protein. That's not a realistic eating pattern for most people.

Peripheral Non-Effects

carrots brain foodBrain food is usually associated with neurological or cognitive effects, but there are other sneaky myths regarding physical effects. For example, carrots are supposed to be good for your vision, and they are to an extent – the beta carotene they provide is necessary if you want your vision to be basically healthy. But eating more carrots won't literally increase your powers of sight. Likewise, broccoli is said to improve memory and strengthen cognitive abilities, but if you eat more broccoli, you won’t magically develop an eidetic memory or become a supergenius.

If you hear claims that this or that food will have this or that effect, do research before assuming the information is true. Many claims are actually based on facts that were blown out of proportion. For example, points out that turkey, which contains tryptophan, is said to put people to sleep or make them very tired. The reality is that tryptophan can make you tired, but other nutrients in turkey stop the tryptophan from having an effect on you. Any tiredness you feel may be due to overeating.

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