The Willpower Diet for a Healthy Brain

By Frank Ryan

The first step in preparing to train your willpower (your ability to control your actions and impulses) is to do some basic brain maintenance to ensure that your brain is healthy. Like any bodily organ, the brain requires nutrition to do its job and stay healthy.

Brain cells, in common with other cells in the human body, can be damaged by rogue atoms or molecules known as free radicals. Fatty acids are important for maintaining healthy brain cells and good connections between them.

If your brain could choose food from the menu, it would make sure the dishes contained a plentiful supply of glucose derived from foods that release it slowly, such as nuts, vegetables and legumes such as beans and lentils. For maintaining a healthy brain, fatty acids such as omega-3s and antioxidants including vitamin E and vitamin C should also be on the menu.

A popular theory links ageing, especially that of the skin, to the effects of free radicals. These potentially toxic chemicals come from a variety of sources including environmental pollution, cigarette smoking and exposure to the sun, and are produced by the body’s own metabolic processes. A free radical is unstable and needs to bond with molecules in other cells, but in the process can disrupt the functioning of its new-found host. An analogy for this is rusting, an example of oxidation.

Brain cells are especially vulnerable to oxidative damage linked to free radicals, so foods such as spinach, broccoli and potatoes, which contain antioxidants, are the ones to go for. Vitamin E, found in vegetable oils, green leafy vegetable and nuts is another good antioxidant. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits and vegetables. By eating these foods, you are, in effect, rust-proofing your brain!

Avoid sugary foods such as sweets and fizzy drinks. True, these can increase your blood sugar levels, and this can temporarily boost your willpower. That is precisely why willpower researchers use glucose drinks in the laboratory. In the lab, the rapid change in glucose levels is important to clearly demonstrate its relationship with willpower. But a sudden increase in glucose levels also triggers the release of insulin to reduce the spike in blood sugar, so outside the lab the benefits may be minimal and/or short lived.

Fatty acids, such as omega-3s, and antioxidants are important to maintain the smooth and efficient operation of the brain. They act a bit like the lubricants and cleaning agents in an engine. But glucose (blood sugar) is more like fuel. The harder you work your brain, especially in tasks requiring willpower, the more glucose you need.