Would it surprise you to know that an estimated 189 million American adults forged into 2021 armed with New Year’s resolutions? These optimists started the year with the best intentions to improve their lives, making secret pinky-swear promises with themselves, focused on health, wealth, personal connections, self-reflection, and more. Losing weight and eating healthier/improving diet consistently ranks in the top five “this year I’m gonna do it” resolutions.
Sticking to these goals? That’s another matter entirely.
One set of statistics shows that just nearly half of the promise-makers kept some but not all of their resolutions from 2020 with another 16 percent advising they didn’t stick to any.
But don’t despair. There are reasons for the drop-off and tips to be had.
Prepare Yourself Nutritionally in the New Year
For example, let’s take a look at losing weight to start.
For some, losing weight is not the hard part. It’s keeping the weight off. It’s one thing if you’re planning to take off a quick five or 10 pounds to fit into a special occasion dress or tuxedo, but your body will respond better in the long run to consistency and balance in eating rather than experiencing the yo-yo effect of losing 10, gaining 10, which, let’s face it, over the years for many of us turns into losing 10, gaining 20. You do the math.
It’s no wonder that weight loss and nutrition experts are offering up another approach. Many suggest rather than focus on dieting, you instead focus on your overall diet for the best results.
Want Some New Year Resolutions for Eating Healthy? Make Your Resolutions Year-Round.
In other words, reframe your ‘tude about food. There’s no shortage of tips when it comes to healthy eating and weight management. Here are six to get you started, but they are by no means the be all or end all. Figure out what works best for you.
- There’s a professional for that. Improving your diet is one of the loftier—and highly beneficial—goals you can set. You don’t need to do it on your own. From doctors or therapists who specialize in weight management and healthy weight loss to registered dietitians who can craft a healthy eating plan that works specifically for you—these are just some of the experts who can help you along your get-nutritionally-fit journey.
- Eat to live, don’t live to eat. Yes, eating should be a pleasurable experience. Just don’t make it your only pleasurable experience. We’re not saying you can’t indulge yourself with your favorite edible temptations every once in a while. But some science shows that certain foods—hello sugar, hey there highly saturated fats—can cloud your brain (more on that later in the blog). Not to mention the more sugar and saturated fats you take in, the more your brain will want to take in more. And your brain, like the rest of your body, will function best when it’s properly fed. So, choose your treats wisely.
- Retrain your brain. As it turns out, you may be able to retrain your brain to crave healthier foods. When you eliminate sugary sweets and replace them with fruit and low-carb snacks and focus on moving away from saturated fats to enjoying monosaturated or polyunsaturated fats, your brain will likely get your body to adjust. And more likely than not your body will let you know how grateful it is for that midday apple snack and salmon dinner. Breaking an old habit and replacing it with a new habit can take a while—some research says at least 21 days, and others suggest a minimum of a month—so be patient and give your body time to adjust. You’ll feel the difference in time.
- Play mind games with your brain. We’re not suggesting that you be dishonest with one of the most important organs in your body. But there are little things you can do to help your brain make you think differently about what and the way you eat. For example, knowing that portion control is a big problem, apparently especially for Americans, think about switching your dishes. If you’re used to a big dinner plate, and filling that plate with food, think about it: filling a small plate with the food that fits will still be less food than the former pile-up.
- Don’t treat your body like your trash bin. If you grew up being told by your mom that wasting food was a sin because people are starving in some faraway land, she was on the right track, but with the wrong solution. While you don’t want to throw food away recklessly, cleaning your plate won’t help others without food and may create a lifelong habit of overeating. Try this: make it a point to leave some food behind, to stop eating halfway through your meal, to see just how hungry you really are. It’s okay to throw some food away (or save it for the next day), rather than shoveling in everything, as if your body were the trash can. If you want to help reduce food insecurity, donate to, or volunteer with, one of the many organizations that work to feed those who need the help.
- Plan your meals ahead of time. For many of us, our worst food choices happen when we’re not prepared. When we grab the closest and easiest thing to get on the dinner table, usually not what would be healthiest for us. If you plan your grocery shopping and plan your meals, you’ll reduce the number of times you’re standing with the refrigerator door wide open, wondering how you’re going to pull together dinner from the ragtag collection of the foods staring back at you. All too often that behavior ends up with someone in your family making a quick trip to a fast-food restaurant, a quick visit from your local pizza joint, or a meal that lacks good nutrition. Planning ahead will reduce your meal-time stress and help you make healthier choices.
There’s good reason to want to eat healthier. Just ask your brain.
Is it True that Just One Meal Can Mess with Your Focus?
There’s some science that found just that. One new study from researchers at The Ohio State University demonstrated that just one meal high in saturated fat could impact the ability to focus.
The double-blind, randomized crossover trial included 51 female study participants who took an in-lab continuous performance test to measure sustained attention, concentration and reaction time based on 10 minutes of computer-based activities.
Then they were all fed a high-fat meal of eggs, biscuits, turkey sausage and gravy with 60 grams of fat. The meals totaled 930 calories and reflected the contents of various fast-food meals, like a Burger King double whopper with cheese or a McDonald’s Big Mac and medium fries.
But there was one major difference in the meals. One group of women ate a meal with a palmitic acid-based oil high in saturated fat; the other was treated to the lower-saturated-fat sunflower oil.
After five hours, the study participants repeated the continuous performance test. Then, between one and four weeks later, they were called back in to repeat these steps, eating the opposite meal from the one they’d eaten during the first part of the study.
The results? After eating the meal high in saturated fat, all of the participating women were, on average, 11 percent less able to detect target stimuli in the attention assessment. For the women with signs of leaky gut, response times were more erratic, and they were less able to sustain their attention during the 10-minute test. (For those women with high levels of endotoxemia, the difference in the meals made no difference. Performance was poor regardless of the type of fat.)
The researchers’ statistical analysis also took into account some other potential influences on cognition, such as depressive symptoms and average dietary saturated fat consumption. For the latter, the study participants ate three standardized meals and fasted for 12 hours before each lab visit to reduce diet variations that could impact their physiological responses to the high-fat meals.
Though the study didn’t determine what was specifically happening in the brain, previous research has suggested that food high in saturated fat can drive up inflammation throughout the body, and possibly the brain.
According to the researchers, the results were eye-opening for two reasons. First, they noted that prior studies have suggested that a long-term high-fat diet impairs cognition, but this study found that just one meal packed with high saturated fat had consequences when compared to a single meal high in unsaturated fat. Said lead author Annelise Madison, [given it was just one meal], “it’s pretty remarkable that we saw a difference.”
She further pointed out a second surprise. The meal made with sunflower oil still contained a lot of dietary fat, albeit a healthier, unsaturated fat. “Because both meals were high-fat and potentially problematic, the high-saturated-fat meal’s cognitive effect could be even greater if it were compared to a lower-fat meal,” said Madison.
By now, your brain might be getting fuzzy. You likely have two questions and we plan to answer them both. First, if you’re wondering if you have to cut out all fats from your diet, the answer is a hard no. Second, if you’re still wondering are there foods that can improve cognition and concentration, the answer is yes, we’re getting to that.
But first, let’s get the fats straight.
Don’t Paint All Fats with the Same Brush
It’s a fact that not all fats are created equal. And while fats have been villainized to some extent, the reality is we need fats in our diet for energy, for organ protection, and to support cell growth. There’s more. Fats also help our bodies absorb some nutrients, produce important hormones and keep our bodies warm. There’s no question: you need to consume dietary fats.
But—and here’s the key—it’s the type and amount of fats that matter most.
There are four major categories of fats found in the foods we consume. Typically, when health experts talk about fats, those fats fall into two categories: the “good” fats and the “bad” fats.
Let’s start with the good fats and work our way down.
- Polyunsaturated fats—If you’ve read this blog before, you’re aware about the benefits of polyunsaturated fats, or PUFAs. These are the essential fats, required for normal body functions. In addition, they help improve the cholesterol profile and lower triglycerides. The two main types of PUFAs are omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Fatty fish such as salmon and sardines are good sources of omega-3s, while omega-6s are found in walnuts, soybeans and corn oils. And if you’re interested in learning more about how much omega-3 DHA and EPA you need, check out this three-part blog series on the Omega-3 Index.
- Monounsaturated fats—Found in foods like avocados and nuts, and olive oil and canola oil, monounsaturated fats are also categorized as “good” fats.
- Saturated fats—Saturated fats are considered one of the two unhealthy fats. Red meat, cheese, butter and some of the oils (e.g., coconut and palm) have high amounts of saturated fats. These are the solid fats and many nutrition experts recommend limiting their intake to less than 10% of calories per day.
- Trans fats—Trans fats have been banned in the U.S. by FDA. However, there are still trans fats to be found in foods such as baked goods, French fries and even some microwave popcorns. Many food companies proudly note 0g of trans fat on their labels. There are no recognized health benefits for these fats and no safe level of consumption has been identified. These are the fats that have given fats a bad name.
Harvard Medical School sums it up this way: Avoid the trans fats, limit the saturated fats, and replace with essential polyunsaturated fats.
What About Foods Like Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cognitive Function?
Now that we’ve shared how your diet can negatively impact your concentration and your focus, and the differences between the categories of dietary fats, let’s get to some solutions for those temporary brain clouds.
Here are seven foods that can help snap you back into focus:
- Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, sardines, mackerel)—It’s no surprise that fatty fish often tops the list of “brain foods.” Research on omega-3s shows good evidence for the role these fatty acids can play in reducing inflammation (that helps your heart as well as your brain) and improving cognition and memory, sharpening focus and concentration, lifting your mood and helping protect your brain as you age. Not every study is a slam dunk, but not every study ever is. If fatty fish isn’t something you can wrap your brain around, you can get omega-3 benefits from dietary supplements (even if you’re a vegan, and in this case, reach for algal source omega-3s).
- Blueberries—This is another one of the new “super foods” that combines antioxidants and anti-inflammatory benefits. The key is the anthocyanins. Some research indicates that the antioxidants in blueberries may aide in improving memory and learning.
- Turmeric—A “hot” food right now, and not just because of this spice’s spicy flavor. When it comes to the brain, it’s thought to be curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, that helps most. There’s research demonstrating memory benefits, particularly in Alzheimer’s patients, and the ingredient is also thought to help brain cells grow. Turmeric is so popular that you may be able to find it in lattes at popular coffee chains. And speaking of…
- Coffee—This popular drink may be the ping pong ball of food science—one day it’s good for you, one day it’s not. But thanks to its two main constituents, caffeine and antioxidants, coffee can improve concentration and mood, and as we all know, keep you alert. Here’s a little-known piece of coffee trivia: Back in the 1980s, the coffee industry ran an advertising campaign that claimed “coffee lets you calm yourself down and it picks you up.” That will get your brain thinking.
- Dark chocolate—Ahh, we know you were waiting for this one. Once again, it’s the caffeine and the antioxidants, in this case, specifically the flavonoids that appear to be responsible for the alertness, focus and just all-around happiness conferred by dark chocolate. But remember, ingest in moderation.
- Broccoli—One of our former presidents (we won’t mention names) may not have been a fan, but interest in broccoli has come a long way since those days. Steamed or roasted, seasoned with garlic and olive oil (and maybe add pine nuts or breadcrumbs), broccoli is both flavorful and good for you. When it comes to the brain and broccoli, some research shows two of its nutrients—choline and vitamin K—may help improve memory and strengthen cognitive abilities, respectively.
- Water—This one may be surprising but it makes good sense when you think about it. And drinking enough water will actually help you think about it. Water is essential for delivering nutrients to the brain and it helps keep cells active and balances the brain’s chemical processes, thereby regulating stress and anxiety. Plus, we know that if our water intake is insufficient, our brain cells don’t work the way they should, and performing cognitively becomes difficult if not impossible. So, drink up.
Back to the brain benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, we’ll leave you with these last two roundups. When your mom told you to eat your fish because it would make you smarter, she wasn’t just sharing an old wives’ tale.
It turns out that today’s science continues to point to new and positive associations between omega-3 and brain health. And while consuming long chain omega-3 EPA and DHA found in fatty fish (and supplements) may not technically make you smarter, the scientific research is digging up brain-related benefits from this nutrient across a variety of brain-related functions. Last summer, we blogged about three recent studies focusing on a different area of brain health: brain aging, Alzheimer’s disease and depression. Although the studies didn’t provide definitive answers in those areas, they did provide food for thought. You can read more here.
If you want to read about two published meta-analyses that also add to the emerging body of research studying the association between the intake of omega-3 fatty acids and certain aspects of brain health, we blogged about the topic a year ago.
The two findings suggest that 1) omega-3s could provide a mild memory benefit in non-demented older adults and 2) that while there is not a definitive answer, there was a hint that indicated supplementing with omega-3s may improve cognition for those older adults with mild cognitive impairment when compared to the results for the placebo population. The blog also called attention to the importance of the scientific results being dependent on the clear connection that dose plays in accessing those potential benefits. Take a look at this blog.