Food as Fuel for Maximal Performance

By Shirin Karimi Hund, M.D.

When you fill up your car’s gas tank, do you ever stop to think about what type of gas you are purchasing? Probably not. If you are a responsible car owner, you likely know which type of gasoline is appropriate for your car…and you don’t deviate.

If gasoline is the essential fuel that drives the car, how is food any different when it comes to our bodies and health? We select our food, we pay for it, and we see for ourselves manifestly if the selection was a smart choice that left us with more energy or more tired and sluggish than before.

Much of the current commentary on nutrition has been geared towards reducing the overwhelming prevalence of diseases of the modern age. It makes sense as the greatest global mortality comes from these “preventable” conditions that can be significantly improved with lifestyle modifications like dietary change and physical activity.

As we are bombarded by new dietary regulations and suggestions for various optimal diets, it is much easier to think of the proper nutritional food to optimize physical and mental function and immunity in terms of three categories.

  1. Vitamins: These are the building blocks required for the body to run each metabolic process and function at its optimal level. There are 13 vitamins that we require and must obtain from food and a deficiency in any vitamin can lead to a variety of health problems. Think of green, leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, broccoli) to provide a healthy dose of vitamin K  (which is important in forming the fatty barriers constructing brain cells), nuts like walnuts and almonds for providing vitamin E (the defense mechanism against free radical damage against cells), oranges, kiwis, strawberries, and tomatoes for vitamin C (protecting against mental decline), and eggs for vitamin B6 and B12 (vital nutrients to protect against mental decline, memory loss, and depression).
  2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Don’t be scared off by these fats! These are healthy unsaturated fats which compose brain and nerve cells (very different from the saturated fats lead to heart disease) that have been associated with a reduction of beta-amyloid (the tangles of protein in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease) as well as protecting against learning impairments and depression. If you like fish, the best types of fish with omega-3 fatty acids but are low in mercury include salmon, cod, tuna, anchovies, and sardines. If you prefer alternatives to having fish twice a week, try some flaxseeds, or avocadoes or use extra virgin olive oil in your cooking.
  3. Antioxidants. These are the compounds that fight against free radical damage caused by a chemical reaction called oxidation. Free radicals damage the cell membranes (the protective barrier of the cell), thereby inhibiting function of the cells and promoting disease and infection. There are many types of antioxidants and various ways to include them in your diet. Grab a handful of berries (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries) or a square of dark chocolate for their flavonoids to prevent memory decline. Add some turmeric or curry powder into your recipes to boost memory, help new brain cells grow, and ease depression.

In this current pandemic, many of us are concerned about the question of ways to boost our immunity to better withstand infections (please note that this is not an endorsement that certain vitamins can cure or completely prevent infection, but rather help to improve the immune system’s various functions). While the above mentioned ingredients will definitely offer a variety of health-improving functions, a salient point to consider is that certain foods are especially potent in offering immunity benefits. The most important vitamin to consider with fighting infections is Vitamin C, which has been especially beneficial in protecting against respiratory viral infections, so it would be a good time to stock up on red bell peppers, broccoli, and berries. There are additional categories of nutrients to consider that are helpful in immunity. One might consider adding garlic to season their food as garlic contains sulfur-containing compounds that helps prevent certain infection. Probiotics are especially important given their essential role in supporting the gut microbiome, where 70% of the immune system resides in the form of infection fighting bacteria. You can find probiotics in plain yogurt, certain cheeses (Gouda, cheddar, mozzarella, and cottage cheese) and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, pickles, kombucha, and kefir. Zinc is also particularly important, as it has been found that zinc supports the activation of T cells, the infection fighting cells of our immune system, and is found in beans, nuts, fish and seafood, whole grain cereals, beef, and pork.

By eating appropriate portions of a variety of fresh, unprocessed foods, you can be sure that you will receive the right vitamins, fatty acids, and antioxidants for optimal health and to support your immune system. You don’t need to stress about exact quantities or chemical names…. Just try to implement a few of these suggestions into your diet and see if you feel the difference in mental clarity, concentration, and memory and be sure to help your ability to fight against infection.. With a little bit of education on healthy food choices, you can be sure to always pick the right fuel for your engine and get ready to perform!

This blog was written by Dr. Shirin Karimi Hund, who is a Internal Medicine physician (General Practitioner). She graduated from the University of Connecticut School of Medicine where she was inducted into the Arnold P. Gold Humanism Honor Society for her contributions to medical humanities, and did her residency at Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts (a Harvard Medical School affiliated program). During her residency, she was accepted to the Harvard Macy Institute for her work and interest in medical education. She is board certified in internal medicine and licensed in Connecticut.

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