Food tips

Nine “brain food” tips for researchers

Credit: Getty

As nutrition researchers, we are often asked to advise colleagues as well as members of the public on diet and exercise to promote good health. But do we always practice what we preach? We both face challenges in eating healthy. Like many of our peers, we often work long hours — according to a survey by Nature by mid-2021, almost a third of researchers are working more than 50 hours per week. Thus, we are often tempted by the chocolate bar from the vending machine, even though we know that fruits and vegetables are a healthier option: five servings a day (the equivalent of approximately 80 to 100 grams) can help prevent diseases such as diabetes.1coronary disease2 and stroke2.

We are both based in French-speaking countries and know only too well the evolution of the Mediterranean diet. Traditionally, the culture encouraged small portions and time spent eating – but these customs are disappearing, thanks to faster lifestyles and the convenience of processed foods and drinks.

How can we encourage ourselves and other busy seekers to eat good “brain food” given that many of us often spend many hours away from home and the kitchen? The strongest motivator, in our experience, is the reminder that a healthy, balanced diet can help the body and mind function optimally, leading to better research.

Whenever possible, we should choose foods that help boost concentration, memory, learning abilities3 and even the immune system4. For example, regular consumption of oily fish such as fresh tuna or mackerel has been associated with improved cognitive aspects5, possibly due to the presence of a wide range of essential nutrients, including vitamin D and essential fatty acids. Together, we’ve written our own evidence-based dietary “commandments” to help us perform our daily tasks and keep our bodies and minds alive – whether in the lab or in front of our computer screens – and for us help us feel more energized and motivated. at work.

Find time for healthy snacking. Take short food breaks to help keep your blood sugar levels reasonably high without jumping. Eating a piece of fruit every three hours or so, for example, could prevent hunger and overconsumption of calories. And when you eat, relax. Try not to think about your research. If you regularly stand in the lab, sit down. If your role is more sedentary, get up and walk around quickly, perhaps to see a colleague upstairs.

Put food on your agenda. Schedule regular meal times in your work diary because if you don’t, someone else will fill the gap for you by inviting you to a meeting. Choose a time slot that matches your “biological clock” and changes in hormones such as insulin to optimize metabolic health, including microbiota diversity and composition. In other words, follow your instincts and eat at times of day when you feel your body needs it, but generally try to avoid eating lunch too late in the afternoon. Eating earlier in the day can improve your energy balance, weight regulation, glycemic control and sleep satisfaction6. Your brain consumes about 20% of the total energy used by your body, so it’s important to maintain consistent energy levels for optimal functioning. Use the time you reserved. Focus on what you eat and take your time. Don’t grab a sandwich and munch it in front of a screen. Your body deserves rest.

Enjoy your meal. Turn your meal break into a pleasant event by sharing it with your colleagues. Invite everyone to take turns preparing a dish from their country or region of origin so that you can all appreciate the cuisines of different cultures. Eating in a group and discussing the day’s events can help you relax, laugh, and share useful information and experiences.

Plan your meals. If you’re particularly hungry, your eyes and hypothalamus (a small region of the brain that controls many bodily functions, including hunger and thirst) won’t help you make healthy food choices. instead, they’ll prompt you to opt for sweet, salty, or fatty options. Try to plan your meals in advance. Increase your intake of low-calorie foods, such as soups, salads, vegetables, and minimally processed foods high in dietary fiber. These include whole grains, cereals, fruits, legumes, brown rice and whole grain pasta. These foods are also rich in micronutrients and antioxidants such as potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin E, B vitamins and healthy fats – especially omega-3 unsaturated fats – which can help prevent chronic disease. . Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine – all important for proper brain function, mood and emotional regulation – require the synthesis of food-derived precursors, as well as vitamins and minerals.7.

Diversify your diet. Stimulate your appetite by changing your food choices, preferably by incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet and reducing your intake of red meat and meat products. Every new day deserves a new culinary experience. But that doesn’t mean being a full-fledged connoisseur: overthinking what you eat will lead to compromises with your time and make compromising on what you eat even more tempting. A saying from the Japanese islands of Okinawa, where people have one of the lowest rates of chronic disease in the world, and where many centenarians live, points the way: “Eat until you are full at 80 %”.8. In practice, this means eating slowly and avoiding binging.

Avoid the insulin roller coaster. In addition to contributing to chronic disease, excessive sugar consumption can impair cognitive performance9. Sugary drinks, such as sodas, smoothies, and even fruit juices, have a very low satiety value. After the sugar rush, glucagon – a hormone produced when sugar levels are low – along with the appetite hormone ghrelin and others come back and you will be hypoglycemic and hungry again. Artificially sweetened drinks might not work much better – there is scientific debate over their perceived health benefits, as they might stimulate appetite centrally in the hypothalamus, rather than by modulating insulin levelsten. Opt for water, coffee, teas (including fruit teas), skim milk or, if you’re desperate for sugar, a homemade fruit juice.

Drink a lot of water. Working indoors, where the air is often dry (due to heating in winter and artificial cooling in summer), can accelerate water loss through respiration. Two liters of fluid per day is recommended by many health agencies. Watch for signs of dehydration. Drinking a lot will increase your blood volume and brain fluid and thus boost your circulation and concentration levels. You will also become more tolerant of heat and cold, which is helpful when working in hot offices and chilled labs. Water is the essential vector for all the vital functions of your body. It may also increase daily energy expenditure and feelings of fullness. Drinking water half an hour before your meal is a particularly good option as it improves satiety11.

Use healthy leftovers. Prepackaged sandwiches and processed foods often contain high amounts of fat, sugar, salt, and additives that trigger the brain’s dopamine reward system, among other neural systems, inducing compulsive eating behavior.12. If you have time, make a healthy dish at home, perhaps making more than you need for an evening meal and using the leftovers for lunch the next day. Among home-cooked foods, well-balanced traditional meals can improve your performance and health: for example, the classic Mediterranean diet has long been associated with improved cognitive function and a lower risk of cognitive impairment and disease. of Alzheimer’s.3. A Tupperware lunch made with leftovers from the most indulgent dinner can often be a healthier lunch than a standard pre-packaged sandwich.

Scrape the salt. Excessive salt use is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, leading to increased blood pressure, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases. However, some salt is essential to the taste of most foods, as well as to life, so don’t try to cut it out of your diet altogether. Try pepper, turmeric, nutmeg or other spices to add flavor. Certain spices, including turmeric and pepper, also help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and may even decrease overall death rates.13.