You know those thoughts that come from time to time, making you smile as you remember? The Greeks had a word for it, νημονικός mnēmonikós from Mnemosyne (“remembrance”), the goddess of memory.
Exercising your own memory requires both thinking and feeling, abilities powered by both your frontal lobes (the part of your brain associated with cognition) and your limbic system (the parts of your brain commonly associated with emotion).
Once upon a time, neurologists thought that after a certain age, say, 30, the human brain and these various parts began to shrink away until they simply shriveled into nothing, taking your memories with them. Today, scientists who have actually taken the time to sit down and count brain cells find practically no age-related loss of cells responsible for thinking and remembering.
But as you age, like the rest of the estimated 37 trillion cells in your body, your brain cells do face two oxygen-related enemies: Stress and inflammation. Together these two reactions may lead to mild cognitive impairment like the inability to remember your neighbor’s last name even when he is standing right in front of you. One Mayo Clinic study suggested this is more common in men. In other words, the stereotypical mis-remembering male isn’t a stereotype. He’s really 1.6 percent more likely than a woman to forget important details such as birthdays and anniversaries.
Happily, while nothing will turn back the clock, there is a nutritional strategy to reduce the effects of oxidative stress. It’s called “Eating the Rainbow,” a fancy way of saying you should paint your dinner plate with plant foods of different colors. Each one delivers an antioxidant compound that prevents oxygen damage and theoretically enables an older healthy brain to keep sending messages back and forth between cells, thus preserving many functions including the ability to make new memories and pull old ones out of the filing cabinet in your head.
These naturally occurring chemicals are called flavonoids. The list includes the orange pigment beta carotene, the blue and red anthocyanins, and – yes, white is a color – the white anthoxanthins.
One way to determine the health value of a flavonoid-rich antioxidant food is ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), a measurement system created in 1994 at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center On Aging at Tufts University in Boston. ORAC rates foods based on the amount of antioxidant units they deliver via one 100 g/3.5 oz portion. The numbers in the following paragraphs, derived from the handy website
http://gardeningplaces.com/articles/charts/antioxidant-levels-common-foods.pdf , which shows what ORAC numbers in 3.5 ounces of several common foods, an amount that is often larger or smaller than a normal portion.
Start with what’s familiar, the orange and yellow foods such as red cabbage (3,146 ORAC units/3.5 ounces), oranges (750), carrots (207) and bananas (221).
Warm up the plate with red strawberries (1,540), deep red beets (841), red peppers (713) and cherries (670).
Green’s cool and surprising: Who knew that avocado would clock in at 1,933? Spinach (909), Brussels sprouts (980), and broccoli (890) are as expected.
Moving on to dark blue and purple, the stars of the show are prunes (5,770), blueberries (2,400), raisins (2,830) and blackberries (2,036).
End with white, where there’s another surprise. The plain potato (313) beats the totally unrelated sweet potato (301). But for the grand finale, consider cauliflower. Plain and simple, the white cruciferous veggie provides 377 ORAC units per 3.5 ounces.
But nobody’s ever counted up ORAC units for the orange or “cheddar” cauliflower, a spontaneous mutation packed with extra yellow beta-carotene that popped up in Canada 50 years ago. It was sent straightaway to Cornell University where agricultural scientists crossbred it with white varieties to create the creamy stunner you may come across one day in local swap meets and greenmarkets.
If you do, remember to grab it.