Tag Archives: National Nutrition Month

Boost your mental performance with better nutrition

Smoothie bowl with fresh blackberries, blueberries, banana, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia  seeds and coconut

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest blog provided courtesy of the Human Performance Resource Center. Navy Suicide Prevention Branch is a proud partner of the Human Performance Resource Center. To learn more, visit https://www.hprc-online.org/.

Have you ever felt tired, sluggish, or foggy after eating a big meal? Have you seen how kids (and kids at heart) get hyper or seem like they’re not thinking straight after a candy binge? Then you probably know that what you eat affects how you feel.

In a state of optimal nutritional fitness, what you eat supports healing and your immune system, helps prevent injury, improves energy levels, and allows you to achieve optimal emotional, cognitive, and physical performance. When you eat right, you’re likely to feel more energized, less fatigued, and have better focus, judgment, accuracy, and reaction time. The opposite is true when you fuel your body improperly. Whether you’re at home or deployed, follow these tips to help you to stay alert, focused, and performing at your best.

Mental Performance Nutrition Tips

To achieve nutritional fitness, focus on a balanced diet rich in whole foods, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meats. Read more on the recommended diet for Military Service Members.

  • Boost your intake of magnesium. Magnesium is important to regulate muscle and nerve functions, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure. It also helps make protein, bone, and DNA. Nearly half of all Americans over age one are deficient in magnesium, and the deficiency is even greater for some gender and age groups. Foods high in magnesium include legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables (such as spinach), fortified breakfast cereals, milk, and yogurt.
  • Eat plenty of foods high in B vitamins. These nutrients support metabolism, brain development, blood and nerve cell health, DNA production, and the development of serotonin, which impacts mood, memory, and emotions. Foods high in B6 include poultry, fish, organ meats, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, and noncitrus fruits. Foods high in B12 include beef, liver, clams, fish, poultry, eggs, milk and other dairy, and fortified breakfast cereals. Foods high in folate include asparagus, brussels sprouts, spinach, oranges, nuts, beans, peas, and grains. Food is the best source of most vitamins, but supplements can help if you’re unable to eat some of these foods.

“We don’t eat nutrients, we eat food.”

Paul Jacques and Katherine Tucker,
Tufts Human Performance Research Center on Aging

  • Fuel your body consistently. Eat meals regularly to maintain blood glucose (sugar) and muscle glycogen (stored energy) levels throughout the day. Balance meals and snacks with whole grains, lean protein, fiber, and healthy fats to help keep your blood sugar steady. Avoid skipping meals, too much sugar, and imbalanced meals that are mainly refined flours (carbohydrates). Dips and spikes in your blood sugar can make you feel tired, shaky, or less focused. If you skip meals or don’t eat enough, your blood sugar can drop, resulting in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and a decline in performance. Symptoms of low blood sugar include headache, dizziness, blurred vision, weakness, fatigue, sweating, confusion, and fainting. You don’t actually need to have full-blown hypoglycemia to begin feeling these effects.
  • Rethink your meal choices on the night shift. At night, your body’s metabolic processes slow down. Eating at night has been shown to be bad for your health, including an increased incidence of obesity, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and infections. But for night-shift workers, it can mean the difference between staying alert—or not—on the job. The right type and amount of foods and beverages can help keep up your blood sugar to stay alert.
  • Get a caffeine boost, but not too much. Caffeine improves alertness, vigilance, attention, and reaction time when taken in small to moderate amounts. Caffeine can also help mental performance in sleep-deprived situations. But dose and timing matter;  refer to Operation Supplement Safety for more information.
  • Drink enough water. Water is the most abundant component of the human body—around 50–70% of your weight—so your body needs fluids regularly to function properly. Performance can start to decline once you’ve lost as little as 2% of your body weight. Even mild to moderate dehydration can reduce alertness and cause fatigue, tension, and difficulty concentrating. Carry a water bottle with you and refill it throughout the day. Aim to drink half your body weight in water each day to stay hydrated (e.g. 100 oz if you weigh 200 lbs). And don’t rely on thirst as a good indicator of your fluid needs. By the time you feel thirsty, you’re already a little dehydrated.

Bottom Line

Mental performance is just as important as physical performance. Fortunately, proper nutrition can help with both.

The Costs of Hidden Sugar

Soda_Cans

The average American eats about 5,000 tablespoons of sugar per year, amounting to roughly 152 pounds (or the weight of one person)[i].  That’s three pounds or six cups of sugar per week! Many of today’s health disparities are related to the increased consumption of added sugar and refined fats, including the rise of diabetes, hypertension and childhood obesity[ii].

Unlike naturally occurring sugar – such as the sugar found in milk or fresh fruit – added sugars are those that do not naturally occur in the food themselves. Rather, these sugars are added to a food or beverage during processing or preparation before packaging. Added sugars appear in many forms and often crop up unexpectedly, along with added fats and other harmful ingredients. We consume them so frequently that our bodies begin to crave them, deteriorating our health while boosting the packaged and fast food industry’s profit margins.

You may have experienced the power of a sugar craving and chalked the urge up to your “sweet tooth.” But you may not be aware of how addictive these sugars actually are. Studies have shown that Oreo cookies are more addictive than heroin[iii].  The brain views sugar as a reward, so the more we eat it, the more we want. Since the 1970s, added sugar intake in the United States has risen dramatically. The increased consumption of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – the prevailing sweetener used to flavor popular beverages in the United States – has been found to mirror the growth of the obesity epidemic.

Finding ways to cut down or eliminate added sugar from your diet can be tricky if you don’t know what to look for (not all sources are as obvious as Oreos). Here are a few facts and FAQs to help you uncover hidden sugars and make more informed decisions.

Added sugars hiding out on your food labels go by different names. Here are just a few to look out for (there are more!):

Anhydrous Dextrose Molasses
Brown Sugar Nectars (e.g., Peach Nectar, Pear Nectar)
Confectioner’s Powdered Sugar Pancake Syrup
Corn Syrup Raw Sugar
Corn Syrup Solids Sucrose
Dextrose Sugar
Fructose White Granulated Sugar
High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) Cane Juice
Honey Evaporated Corn Sweetener
Invert Sugar Crystal Dextrose
Lactose Glucose
Malt Syrup Liquid Fructose
Maltose Sugar Cane Juice
Maple Syrup Fruit Nectar
Agave Allulose

Know the foods that often have sugars added to them. Again, there are more! Be sure to read the labels to look for the aliases above.

Peanut Butter Ketchup
Salad Dressing Yogurt
Granola Bars Frozen Meals
Spaghetti Sauce Dried Fruit
Fruit Juice BBQ, Sauces and Marinades
White Wine Canned Fruit and Vegetables
Applesauce Breakfast Cereal
Protein Drinks (including Ensure or Boost) Soups
Breads & Crackers Baked Beans
Pastries (Cake, Pies, Cookies, Muffins) Energy Drinks (Monster, Red Bull)
Candy and Ice Cream Electrolyte Drinks (Gatorade, Powerade)
Beverages (Soda/Coffee/Vitamin Water) Flavored Potato Chips


Know how much sugar is recommended and safe to consume.
Dietitians and other health experts recommend getting ten percent or less of your daily calories from sugar. This equals 13.3 teaspoons of sugar per day if you’re consuming 2,000 calories. Beware, the average 12-ounce soda contains 16 teaspoons of sugar! Just one soda per day could lead to a weight gain of 15 pounds in a year.

Sugar does not provide any additional vitamins or minerals that assist the body in its daily functions to promote energy and a healthy lifestyle.  For example, a two-ounce chocolate bar has 30 grams of sugar and the same calories as three medium bananas. Bananas are low in fat and high in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Despite containing natural sugar, bananas will satisfy your sweet craving while helping you feel fuller longer. Natural sugars found in whole fruit don’t affect the body the same way due to their naturally occurring fiber.

So, are artificial sweeteners a better swap?
Artificial sweeteners may seem like an appealing substitute for the taste of sugar without the calories, but they come with some not-so-sweet trade-offs. Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), artificial sweeteners that have been approved for use and are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) include sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame and neotame. However, studies have shown that frequent consumption of artificial sweeteners may lead to increased weight gain and overall increase in body mass index (BMI)[iv] . The perception of saving calories from artificially sweetened snacks or sodas may lead to replacing those calories through other sources. In other words, you may give a slice of cake the greenlight because you feel like you’ve made a healthy choice by drinking a diet soda with your lunch. Additionally, artificial sweeteners may alter the way we taste food due to their intensity, which can make less sweet foods – such as fruits and vegetables – undesirable[v].

Are fat-free snacks better?
No. Typically foods are flavored three ways: with fat, sugar and sodium. So, if one of the item is removed then other two are likely increased. Fat-free cakes, cookies and ice cream can have up to twice as much sugar than the regular serving.  Looking at the food label ingredient can help determine if that food item is a smart choice.

How to read the ingredients list.
Names of ingredients are listed in the order of the amount that the food contains, from the most to the least. For example, the Kellogg’s Raisin Bran Crunch ingredients list begins with whole grain wheat, sugar, raisins, and rice. The most abundant item found is whole grain wheat, the second most abundant is sugar, then raisins and so forth. Brown sugar syrup, glycerin, corn syrup, molasses and honey are also on the list (sources of added sugar). This one cereal contains five different types of sugar or sugar-like substance. Not quite as healthy as you may have thought.

So, what can I eat?
Practice small swaps to help you see progress, such as exchanging your lunchtime soda for twelve ounces of water (sparkling water is a healthy bubbly alternative), or packing fresh fruit and nuts rather than heading to the vending machine during your mid-day slump. Weaning yourself off of sugar isn’t easy, but you can find balance by integrating more complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains) into your diet and allowing yourself a small portion of a sweet treat every once in a while rather than quitting “cold turkey.”

Sugar takes a toll on the body and mind, with the slump following a sugar rush possibly accelerating mood disorder symptoms. It’s also been shown to negatively impact memory. With excess sugar leading to short-term impacts, such as weight gain, and long-term impacts that can shorten your lifespan, such as diabetes, it’s increasingly important to pay closer attention to what you eat. For more information, check out the healthy eating resources at Navy & Marine Corps Public Health Center, NOFFS Fueling Series and eatright.org.

LT Pamela Gregory, OPNAV N17 Nutrition Program Manager, is a Registered Dietitian with nine years’ experience in counseling a wide variety of clientele on nutrition and health-related diseases/ topics. LT Gregory uses a functional nutrition approach to assist clients in their treatment phase.

 

[i] http://www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/nhp/documents/sugar.pdf

[ii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892765/

[iii] http://www.sugarscience.org/the-growing-concern-of-overconsumption/#.WJit4Gq7pIB

[iv] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3210834

[v] http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030