Mom Was Right “Eat Your Veggies” for a Better Brain

Today, June 17th is National #EatYourVegetablesDay and it’s my son’s who-will-not-eat-his-vegetables birthday. He is getting better at it, especially now that he lives in England, where the Greengrocer’s there offer the most amazing tasting vegetables and selection I have found. Just going into a produce store like this is a sensory experience that is hard to find outside a farmer’s market in the USA.

Greengrocer in the United Kingdom

Imagine my own encounter with the humble parsnip.

Ten years ago, while in the UK, my older son introduced me to the parsnip. Oh my gosh, 55 years old and never tasted a parsnip, it’s gotta be a crime, but one repeated every day in the USA.

Too many of us grew up without discovering the variety and texture of more than frozen peas and carrots. (By the way, the peas in my home garden are just days from picking—I love eating them raw from the pod, so most never make it to the table).

Vegetables and Early Brain Development

Claire McCarthy, MD in Harvard Health explains why the right foods matter in the first three years of a child’s life, suggesting the ways that the brain develops during that period “are like scaffolding: they literally define how the brain will work for the rest of a person’s life. Nerves grow and connect and get covered with myelin, creating the systems that decide how a child — and the adult [they] become — thinks and feels. Those connections and changes affect sensory systems, learning, memory, attention, processing speed, the ability to control impulses and mood, and even the ability to multitask or plan.”

She, of course, promotes the perfect food for the newborn, breast milk. Still, both mother and child will benefit from protein found in beans and peas; iron from dark leafy vegetables and baked potatoes; choline found in mushrooms, potatoes, beans, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, cabbage and carrots; the folate found in spinach; and vitamin B6 found in potatoes and other starchy vegetables.

Naturally getting a good start young is key, but keeping kids interested in vegetables begins with adults who enjoy them. Use vegetables as snacks, washed, cut, and up front in the refrigerator. Serve salads with meals and suggests including “at least one leafy green or yellow vegetable for vitamin A such as spinach, broccoli, winter squash, greens, or carrots each day.”

Exciting colors like these organic carrots help kids learn healthy lifestyle choices

They also recommend going to the produce section first when you are grocery shopping. Let your kids help make the choices, which will get them interested.

They conclude with this: “Eat as a family whenever possible. Research shows that kids eat more vegetables and fruits and less fried foods and sugary drinks when they eat with the entire family.” (For more ideas read: 19 Ways to Get Kids to Eat (and Love) More Vegetables)

So besides the obvious idea of feeding the brain for its maintenance and development, there is a second important consideration, the brain in your gut.

What? …I know, I asked that too!

Dr. Shawn Talbott earned a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Rutgers University

Your Second Brain, the Gut

Dr. Shawn Talbott, PhD explains the gut-brain connection this way: “The second brain is comprised of a nerve system that’s just as robust as what we have in our spinal column. We also know that the second brain in the gut produces as much neurotransmitter’s as the brain in our head.

“We’re talking about Serotonin and Dopamine that are produced at such a high level here in the gut that they affect how we perform, how we think, how we feel throughout the entire body.”

Continuing Dr. Talbott explains the need for a balance in our gut’s microbiome, stating that if that “is out of balance, it will send signals through the body to tell us that we don’t feel good. So our indexes of mood, state disorders like depression or anxiety or tension or irritability or stress are all much higher if our microbiome is out of balance.”

Serotonin and Dopamine

Eating a healthy, balanced diet is essential to supporting mental as well as physical health. For example, you can get dopamine, the “happy hormone” from a variety of foods including fruits and vegetables. These include broccoli, kale, collards, chard, Brussel sprouts, cabbage (and sauerkraut) and cauliflower all of which are best juiced, steamed or fermented, according to Dr. David Jockers. He suggests jucing, steaming or fermenting these vegetables “in order to break down anti-nutrients and enhance the bioavailability of the nutrients.”

Dr. Jockers also recommends vegetables from the allium family too. These include “garlic, onions, chives, and scallions [which] are rich in anti-oxidants and sulfur compounds” and “are key for a healthy brain and optimal dopamine release.”

Taken from Dr. Jockers “6 Great Foods that Increase Dopamine Levels*

According to Medical News Today, serotonin is most often derived from meat and other proteins, but there are many vegetable sources too. These include “dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach,” which when included in our diet “can have positive benefits on energy levels, mood, and sleep.”

Vegetables and Cognition

Harvard Medical School reports there are five key foods to help prevent cognitive decline, but first up on their list is green, leafy vegetables. “Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are rich in brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene'” they wrote, and “research suggests these plant-based foods may help slow cognitive decline.”

They continue, “Nutritionists emphasize that the most important strategy is to follow a healthy dietary pattern that includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Try to get protein from plant sources and fish and choose healthy fats, such as olive oil or canola, rather than saturated fats.

“That said, certain foods in this overall scheme are particularly rich in healthful components like omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and antioxidants, which are known to support brain health and often referred to as foods. Incorporating many of these foods into a healthy diet on a regular basis can improve the health of your brain, which could translate into better mental function.”

In his book, The Aging Brain, Dr. Timothy R. Jennings, explained that we age because the end caps to our DNA shorten, “Chronic stress, conflict, a sedentary lifestyle, and a diet low in fruits and vegetables all shorten telomeres. If they get too short, cells can’t divide. This impairs our body’s ability to heal or replace worn-out cells and contributes to aging. Telomeres are lengthened by physical activity, foods high in carotenoids, conflict resolution, and stress management.”

Vegetables that are high in carotenoids are usually red, yellow or orange. Some of these include carrots, spinach, kale, tomatoes, and bell peppers. There are many fruits in this group too, like cantaloupe, grapefruit, oranges and apricots; and starches like yams and sweet potatoes.

Dr. Jennings explained that plant-based diets high in fruits, nuts, veggies, and vitamins B, D, C, and E or Mediterranean diets high in omega-3 fish oils are healthier than the typical American diet and are associated with greater brain volume and better cognitive performance. However, he warns, “Junk foods and fast foods such as pizzas, hot dogs, doughnuts, cookies, cakes, … increase inflammation, promote insulin resistance, and increase the risk of diabetes and obesity; [and] accelerate aging and increase the risk of dementia later in life.”                                                                   

Sneaky Ways to Get More Veggies Into Your Diet

In Harvard Health’s 101 Tips for Tip Top Health, they suggest some sneaky ways to get more vegetables in your diet, especially at the end of the day. “Dinner,” they write, “is the time to make up for any lack of nutrients earlier in the day.” And as they point out, “piling on the produce means there’s less room in your dinner for unhealthful options.”

Roasted vegetables adds a deep, nutty sweetness to your meal, not to mention eye appeal

They suggest roasting “vegetables along with whatever entrée is in the oven.” Roasting converts vegetable starch to sugar “releasing a deep, nutty sweetness. To roast, just bake cut-up vegetables at 375° F for 20 to 25 minutes or until they’re lightly browned. Any vegetable is a roasting candidate—from mushrooms, onions, eggplant, and zucchini to tomatoes, broccoli, and carrots—so don’t limit yourself,” they write.

Another suggestion is poaching vegetables in low-sodium chicken broth and white grape juice (as a substitute for white wine). For more punch add a tablespoon of lemon juice (or balsamic vinegar) per cup of grape juice and toss in “garlic, basil, or tarragon for a flavor bonus.” they recommend. “To poach, boil enough liquid to cover the vegetables. When it boils, add the vegetables. Turn down the heat to just below boiling and cook the vegetables for about five to seven minutes, until they’re brightly colored and tender-crisp.”

They also encourage cooks to “smuggle fresh cut vegetables into main dishes” by adding them to “pasta sauce, casseroles, soup, stews, scrambled eggs, and chili.” These could easily include “mushrooms, peppers, zucchini, onions, or carrots” and pureed cooked vegetables to “sauces, soups, spreads, and toppings.”

Their final end of day suggestion is natural, by having “a salad with dinner most days. Stock your salad with dark green leafy lettuce and toss in petite peas, tomatoes, onions, celery, carrots, and peppers. Bonus: in addition to the nutrient bonanza you’ll get, studies show that starting meals with a low-calorie salad can help you consume fewer calories at the meal, as long as the salad is no more than 100 calories.”

But dinner is not the only time for adding vegetables to your diet. Why not try this for breakfast: “Whip together a two-egg omelet (two eggs plus a
teaspoon of water) and fill with any leftover vegetables you have around, such as steamed broccoli from last night’s dinner and some chopped tomatoes. Season with pepper. Or sprinkle on your favorite herb combination, like Herbes de Provence or bouquet garni.”

For lunch, they suggest a “serving whole-grain crackers, baby carrots, ½
cup hummus” and fruit (but that is extra since this post is about veggies). They also suggest:

  • “1 whole-wheat tortilla, topped with ½ cup low-sodium canned black or pinto beans, 1-ounce low-fat shredded cheese, and 1 tablespoon salsa, heated in the microwave and rolled up, with some chopped lettuce and tomatoes.”
  • A tuna or chicken salad sandwich on whole grain bread with “plenty of tomatoes and romaine lettuce.”
  • Have “veggie burger with lettuce and tomato on a whole-wheat bun, with a small green salad.”
  • Try adding hummus and sprouts to any wrap.
  • Make a bean and lentil soup or vegetarian chili and serve with fruit and grape tomatoes
  • Add a side of carrot and celery sticks to your lunch.

There are many ways to eat vegetables and a lot of reasons to eat them today and every day. Tell us how you did it in the comment section below.

Comments on Mom Was Right “Eat Your Veggies” for a Better Brain

  1. Darryl Alder says:

    Writing this reminded me that we just shopped and stocked the fridge with veggies. I had a shrimp salad spiced up with garden fresh horseradish, greens, thin sliced Brussel sprouts, sugar snap peas,and broccoslaw and a meditraining balsamic vinegarette I made.

    I wonder if I had eaten this first, if my research would have gone faster?

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