Nutrition do’s and don’ts have been around for a while. For centuries, certain foods have been thought to improve mental and physical health. The ancient Greeks recommended foods rich in Omega-3 for psychological health and considered protein integral to physical development. Modern science hasn’t confirmed every nutritional theory presented as fact, but it has proven food’s ability to affect the brain and the body.
You probably know the basics of healthy nutrition — say yes to whole grains, avoid processed food, look to high quality supplements like those developed by EAS for premium nutrition, etc. But if you look beyond the theories and programs, there’s some pretty fascinating science behind food’s influence on your brain and body. It all starts with these things called nutrients, generally divided into two categories: macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macronutrients are the big boys of the nutrient world: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. We require large quantities of macros because they act as the raw energy (calories) that power the brain and body. Research done by The Center For Nutritional Psychology suggests that the type of macronutrients we consume might also play a role in mood management.
In the quest for physical health (or physical anything), protein is the body’s best friend. Made of amino acids (small compounds that are essential to just about everything your body is and does) proteins perform many duties throughout the body — but they’re probably most often associated with muscle development. To maintain tissues and build new muscle cells, our bodies break down the protein we eat into its amino acid building blocks. These raw materials are then joined together to make all different types of protein, some of which support muscle health and growth. But unlike carbs and fats, the body doesn’t have abundant storage space for excess protein. The amino acids we ingest have a limited amount of time to be used to build body protein before they’re converted into fat or transformed into glucose to be used as energy.
So how much protein is enough protein? It depends. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends at least 0.37 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day. But if you have specific fitness goals, that amount goes up to varying degrees. While building strength requires .5 to .8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, only .5 to .6 grams are needed to increase endurance. For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, high-quality protein supplements, like the sports nutrition products from EAS, are convenient and efficient tools to ensure you’re consuming enough protein (and other healthy nutrients) to maximize their workouts. Depending on the intensity of the exercise, between 15 and 45 grams of protein should be consumed within thirty minutes of a workout to help tired muscle tissue repair as it grows.
It’s obvious that protein is essential to our physical existence — we wouldn’t have muscles, organs, hair, nails, or ligaments without it — but its influence on the brain is a little more complex. The brain is composed of neurons, which use chemical messengers called neurotransmitters to send messages to one another that keep our minds and bodies functioning properly. Neuron communication controls the brain’s chemical levels, which affect our mood and mental state. Because neurotransmitters are made of the amino acids found in the protein we eat, this macronutrient is essential to brain function.
But amino acids have an uphill battle as they make their way to the brain through the bloodstream. In the race to snatch up amino acids, brain cells compete with body cells, which dominate the game. Even if they make it past the ravenous body cells, amino acids are confronted with another obstacle: the protective blood/brain barrier. To pass through, they have to find their unique molecule, called a “vehicle,” designed to chaperone them to the one specific path leading through the barrier and into the brain. Whew!
Fortunately, the protein you eat can help amino acids in their quest to become brain fuel. Dietary protein raises the levels of amino acids like tyrosine — the more tyrosine in the blood, the more likely it is that some will make it to the brain. Once there, they can prompt the brain to produce mood-boosting norepinephrine and dopamine, two chemicals associated with energy and alertness. It’s no wonder a protein-rich lunch keeps your brain energized and focused through the afternoon.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the conflicting carb theories out there — but one thing’s for sure: when it comes to energy sources, they’re your body’s favorite thing on the macronutrient menu. From birth, the human brain is chemically hardwired to seek out carbohydrates because they’re rich in glucose, a form of sugar produced when the body breaks down carbs. When glucose enters your bloodstream, your pancreas responds by secreting insulin, the hormone in charge of regulating blood sugar (i.e., the level of glucose in your bloodstream). Insulin invites glucose to leave the bloodstream so your organs, tissues, and muscles can use it as energy. But the body doesn’t respond to all carbohydrates the same way.
Complex carbohydrates — the good guys — are generally found in natural foods and high-quality supplements. They’re made up of long chains of sugar molecules and their cell walls contain cellulose, a fiber that slows the process of breaking down the chains down. These characteristics allow complex carbs to raise insulin levels gradually, keeping you full and energized for a substantial amount of time. Simple carbohydrates — think processed, refined, and sugary foods — are overeager compared to their calm, cool, and complex counterparts. Made of short-chained sugar molecules, simple carbs are rapidly broken down into glucose, causing a steep insulin spike that’s quickly followed by a plunge in satiety and energy.
Our bodies always need carbohydrates, but they’re especially important when we’re exercising. Intense workouts break down the proteins in muscles, requiring additional proteins to repair and then build even more muscle. But your body only uses dietary protein to build muscle when it has enough of its preferred energy source: carbs. When carbs (and fats) are scarce, your hungry body takes what it can get: protein stored in your hard-earned muscles. Not cool, body. Consuming a healthy amount of carbs means your body can use the protein from food and clean supplements to do what you want it to: repair and rebuild your muscles.
When it comes to energy, the brain is pretty greedy — it requires more energy than any other human organ, and uses around 20 percent of the body’s total fuel sources. And like the rest of the body, the brain looks to carbs as its primary power source. Once carbs are broken into glucose, the sugars travel through the bloodstream to the brain where they fuel the neurons that support brain function. While neurons love glucose, they can’t store the sugar for long periods of time; they need a constant supply readily available in the bloodstream. So how do you keep those insatiable neurons well-fed? By consuming the carbohydrates found in dietary starches and sugars — mainly grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. But not all carbs are desirable brain food.
Like the body, the brain prefers complex over simple when it comes to carbohydrates. Complex carbs’ long sugar chains are slowly converted to glucose, releasing a steady stream of fuel into the bloodstream where neurons can snatch it up. Conversely, quick and dirty simple carbohydrates are quickly broken down into glucose, which is absorbed through the stomach wall and sent into the bloodstream all at once. This overwhelms your neurons and leaves them hungry and fuel-deprived later. Eventually, these sugar rushes can deplete the brain’s energy supply, making it difficult to concentrate and learn.
Ah, fats: those delicious, oft-vilified macronutrients. But (some) fats are shedding the long-held misconceptions that have plagued them and getting the nutritional credit they deserve. Dietary fat’s role in physical health is often forgotten: it stores energy, insulates our bodies, and protects our organs. Our bodies break the fat we consume into fatty acids, which are snatched out of the bloodstream by cells and used to support immune function, manage reproduction, and control other aspects of basic metabolism. Like carbohydrates, fats are a main source of fuel, so it’s important to have an adequate intake to protect muscle proteins. Between 20 and 35 percent of your total daily calories should come from fat. The problem comes when you consume more fat than your body can use. Excess fatty acids are bundled into packages called triglycerides, and stored as body fat.
And not all fats are created equal.
There are three types: unsaturated, saturated and trans, all of which affect your body, and particularly your heart, differently. The bad guys are saturated and trans fats, which raise “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, among other things. But monounsaturated fats (found in nuts, avocados, and olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in fish) can improve cholesterol levels, decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, and enhance brain function.
Yep, fats also affect the brain. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon and tuna have been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety, all while improving overall brain function. The key to their effect on mental health lies in brain synapses — the tiny gaps where nerve impulses jump from neuron to neuron, powering your cognitive ability. But to reach their destinations, these impulses have to pass through the ormembrane — the wall surrounding each neuron. Since these cell membranes are primarily made of fats, researchers believe that increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids keep them more elastic, thus enhancing the flow of electrical impulses and improving overall blood flow in the brain.
The second class of nutrients — the micros — is larger on the whole, but includes the smaller nutrients like vitamins and minerals. The prefix “micro” actually refers to the small amounts required to keep our bodies functioning properly. Micronutrients encompass all sorts of vitamins and minerals that support your mind and body in myriad ways.
Micronutrients are vital to physical growth and development. Calcium, for instance, keeps bones and teeth healthy, while iodine helps maintain proper thyroid function. Iron is particularly crucial, as it transports oxygen throughout the body, propelling many biological processes that keep us energized. As part of the protein known as hemoglobin, iron binds to oxygen in the lungs and carries it through the arteries to the cells throughout the body. After dropping off its oxygen stash, iron picks up the resulting carbon dioxide and transports it back to the lungs where it can be exhaled.
Like many micronutrients, iron’s importance is made clear in instances of deficiency. Low iron levels slow the production of hemoglobin, which diminishes the flow of oxygen that keeps our cells functioning: muscles become impaired and overall physical health is stunted. When you’re not getting enough iron, your body experiences exhaustion, dizziness, lowered immunity, and reduced athletic ability. In some cases, the lack of oxygen caused by iron deficiency can lead to anemia, a condition linked to depression, anxiety, and mental fatigue. To avoid these symptoms, men should consume about 8 mg daily, while women need closer to 18 milligrams. Meat (specifically beef, lamb, liver, and pork), eggs, legumes, and nuts are great sources of the iron your body needs to stay energized.
Oxygen is essential to every part of the body — including the brain. The brain has around one hundred-billion cells, all of which require a huge amount of oxygen (ten times that required by the rest of the body) to keep us conscious and alert. So how do we get and keep our brain happily oxygenated? Micronutrients. The vitamins and minerals we ingest bring oxygen to the brain, maintain oxygen balance, and contain the biological superheroes known as antioxidants. Antioxidants combat the villains of the oxygen world: the highly reactive forms of oxygen called free radicals. While free radicals are a normal part of metabolic and biochemical processes, they become dangerous at high levels, inducing damaging chemical reactions in the brain. When free radical levels become unmanageable, the brain can’t repair its cells at the same rate they’re being damaged. Over time, this can lead to diminished brain function.
But antioxidants have a secret weapon in the war against free radicals: the art of seduction. They lure free radicals away from other cells and sacrifice their own electrons to prevent free radicals from stealing from vulnerable membrane fatty acids, mitochondria, DNA, and other sources. So where do these heroic molecules hang out? Look to micronutrients like vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, and selenium.
Clearly, nutrition’s relationship with the brain and body is one helluva love triangle. But understanding the science behind how we process nutrients can guide us toward improved mental and physical capabilities. That’s why EAS relies on science to create effective sports nutrition powders, drinks, and bars for those looking to build muscle, grow stronger, and move faster. Head here to learn more about how EAS products can help you reach your specific goals.
Eleanor Lutz is a freelance designer living in Seattle. Her work has been featured by National Geographic, The Gates Foundation, and Adobe. You can find her on Twitter @eleanor_lutz.