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May 18, 2009

The Eating Diaries

eating foods that are good for you

Mind Gains
The real smart foods? Feast on choline-rich eggs and omega-3-packed fish.

Photo Credit: Craig Cutler

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Food for Thought
I want to sharpen my memory

By Kara Jesella, 33

When did I first realize my memory wasn’t quite what it used to be? I can’t remember. (Uh-oh.) But an inability to conjure, say, the last name of a guy I had a crush on in grade school went from merely annoying to downright alarming once I was accepted into a master’s program. I’d spent years hoping to return to school; now I had images of blanking during class, a sure prelude to a case of social-anxiety disorder and a report card full of F’s.

Desperate, I turned to Frank Lawlis, Ph.D., coauthor of The Brain Power Cookbook. “We have done studies with students that show that changing the food you eat will increase your memory,” he says. That didn’t sound too hard. In fact, I had long ago eighty-sixed from my diet most of the foods Lawlis thinks are, quite literally, mind-numbing: anything with preservatives (they slow down the flow of oxygen); pesticides (they can be toxic); and processed foods, especially those with added sugar, which “keep the brain starved half of the time.” Lawlis approved of my diet staples—yogurt, salads—and liked that I usually ate protein at every meal and saved my carbohydrates for dinner. But he recommended I add some additional brain-boosting foods, including raw fish for its omega-3 fatty acids, which improve intellectual performance; eggs for choline, which helps prevent cloudy thinking; lean red meat, which has iron that helps the brain’s blood flow; and fruits and vegetables, especially those high in antioxidants and/or potassium, like berries, bananas, and carrots.

“What’s the name of the place we stayed in Sardinia?” my boyfriend asked me a few days later as I ate a yogurt with banana on top. I looked at him blankly. I remembered it started with a “C.” I had no idea. “Cagliari!” He was triumphant; I was not.

But let’s give the banana a break; it takes 20 to 30 minutes for the food you eat to affect your memory. What you eat has a minute-by-minute effect on your brain, which means that every bite you take is an opportunity to make yourself less forgetful. Of course, following Lawlis’s diet over the long term means building up a better memory over time. I wanted to see if I could get immediate results and decided to try to time my meals to when I needed extra recall power. That Wednesday, for breakfast, I ate two soft-boiled eggs with cheese and drank a cup of coffee (OK with Lawlis, though he prefers green tea). As I read about Pop Art for my art history class, I couldn’t tell if I was retaining more than I normally would have, but I definitely felt satiated and focused. At lunchtime, I ate sushi with a small green salad. Lawlis advocates exercising lightly and to a beat, so when I was done, I cranked up my iPod and took an hour-and-a-half walk to school. In class, other students appeared to be impressed with me as I pontificated about Andy Warhol; I certainly was impressed with myself.

Should I thank the organic blueberries? Lawlis notes that medicine works much better for people who believe in its effectiveness. “If you’re eating food with a purpose other than that it just tastes good, then it will be more usable to the body,” he says. It’s hard to say, then, whether it was my belief in the power of what I was eating, or the actual food itself that made the difference. Either way, after about two weeks on the remarkably easy eating plan, I felt really good; I’ll definitely continue to emphasize the recommended foods in my diet, which almost any doctor would agree are healthy—whether your goal is photographic recall or not. Plus, Lawlis even allows wine and beer. Preferably not right before class.

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