You can maximize brain function by eating a healthy and balanced diet rich in complex carbohydrates, which are a primary fuel source for the brain.
"Low carb diets may be in, but people must have complex carbohydrates to have good brain function," says Rachel Brandeis, a registered dietitian (RD) of Atlanta, Georgia and spokesperson for American Dietetic Association. "Without carbohydrates you might not think as clearly and you can be lethargic."
It's important to avoid simple carbohydrates often found in junk food because the glucose gives the brain a short-lived sugar high, often followed by a crash that makes you feel hungry and tired. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, supply the brain with a steady stream of glucose that enhances brain function. Brandeis recommends making each meal balanced by including both proteins and carbohydrates.
The secret to warming up your brain each day is as simple as eating breakfast, says Brandeis. Choose a hot or cold whole grain cereal like Muesli (with no added sugar) or oatmeal. These provide a good range of vitamins and minerals as well as soluble fiber to help keep you satiated throughout the morning.
Have your cereal with skim milk, a nonfat source of protein and calcium. Add some fruit, like an apple or raspberries, which are one of the best fresh fruit sources of fiber. This is a great way to fuel your brain with both carbohydrates and protein.
Recommended serving size: 3/4 cup of oatmeal with water, 98 calories 1/2 cup skim milk, 33 calories 1 apple, 47 calories 3/4 cup of raspberries, 25 calories
Brandeis recommends trying to include at least three food groups in your lunchtime meal, something this sandwich easily accomplishes. Pick a whole wheat bread, which has more vitamins and minerals like iron and magnesium than regular white bread. Light meat turkey offers an extremely low-fat meat protein source that is also rich in B vitamins and selenium.
Adding veggies like lettuce and tomato to your sandwich will give you an extra dose of carbohydrates as well as vitamins like folate. To add even more protein and calcium to your sandwich, choose a low-fat cheese like cheddar or American.
Recommended serving size: 2 slices of wheat bread, about 190 calories 3.5 ounces of turkey, 105 calories 2 ounces of low-fat cheddar cheese, about 131 calories 1/4 large tomato, 9 calories
"Some people make the mistake of just eating a protein and a salad for dinner at night," says Brandeis. "Even though vegetables have carbohydrates, they don't have enough to fuel your brain like brown rice will."
Salmon is a good source of protein and an exceptional source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which help to prevent heart disease and strokes, and can enhance brain function. If salmon is not your thing, substitute other fishes like mackerel, bluefish, or herring, which are also high in omega-3 fatty acids.
Brown short-grain rice is an ideal complex carbohydrate food with some fiber. Whole wheat pasta is a good alternative to brown rice, because it's also high in fiber. A mixed vegetable salad filled with asparagus, bell peppers, and broccoli can round out your meal with additional vitamins and carbohydrates.
Recommended serving size: 3.5-ounce salmon fillet, 180 calories 1/4 cup dry brown rice, 179 calories
Originally published on BHG.com, July 2004.