Starchy Carbohydrates: Brain & Health Benefits, Plus Cooking Tips
April 3, 2023
The foods we consume play a vital role in maintaining our physical and mental well-being. A growing body of research demonstrates the importance of including nutrient-dense foods in our diet for optimal brain health and cognitive function. In this article we will explore the brain and health benefits of various starchy carbohydrates. By understanding the science behind the positive impact of these foods on our brain, we can make informed dietary choices to support cognitive health throughout our lives.
Potatoes, particularly white and red varieties, offer a range of brain and health benefits. They are rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, and manganese, which contribute to overall brain health and cognitive function . Potatoes also contain resistant starch, which is known to promote gut health and increase the production of short-chain fatty acids, particularly butyrate. Butyrate has been linked to improved brain health and reduced inflammation .
Sweet potatoes are high in antioxidants, particularly beta-carotene, which can help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, potentially lowering the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases . They are also a good source of dietary fiber, which supports gut health and may positively influence brain health through the gut-brain axis . Additionally, sweet potatoes are rich in vitamins A, C, and E, which further contribute to their neuroprotective effects .
Starchy Vegetables (butternut squash, pumpkin, and parsnips)
Starchy vegetables like butternut squash, pumpkin, and parsnips are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, which can have positive effects on brain health. Butternut squash and pumpkin are especially high in beta-carotene, an antioxidant that can protect the brain from oxidative stress . Parsnips are rich in folate, a B vitamin that supports brain function and has been linked to a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia .
Rice provides a variety of nutrients that benefit brain health. It is a good source of B vitamins, including thiamine, niacin, and vitamin B6, which are essential for maintaining proper brain function and neurotransmitter synthesis . Additionally, rice contains magnesium, which is critical for proper brain function and may help reduce the risk of cognitive decline .
Oats are a nutrient-dense food with numerous benefits for brain health. They are a rich source of fiber, which supports gut health and may have a positive impact on brain function through the gut-brain axis . Oats also contain vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and magnesium, which contribute to optimal brain function and may help reduce cognitive decline . Moreover, oats are a good source of antioxidants, including avenanthramides, which can protect brain cells from oxidative stress .
Quinoa is a pseudocereal that is high in protein and essential amino acids, which are crucial for brain function and neurotransmitter synthesis . It also contains vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, phosphorus, and B vitamins, which contribute to proper brain function . Moreover, quinoa is a good source of antioxidants like quercetin and kaempferol, which can protect the brain from oxidative stress and inflammation .
Legumes, such as beans, lentils, and peas, are rich in nutrients that support brain health. They are high in protein and essential amino acids, which are vital for neurotransmitter synthesis and overall brain function . Legumes also contain fiber, which supports gut health and may influence brain health through the gut-brain axis . Additionally, legumes are a good source of vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, magnesium, and iron, which are important for maintaining optimal brain function .
Including nutrient-dense foods in your diet can be made even more enjoyable and beneficial by employing a few simple cooking tips. Here are some suggestions to optimize the brain and health benefits of these foods:
White/Red Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
- To increase the amount of resistant starch in potatoes, cook them and then allow them to cool before consuming. This process changes the structure of the starch, making it more resistant to digestion, which promotes gut health and offers additional brain benefits .
- Try roasting, baking, or steaming potatoes instead of frying them to reduce added fats and retain their nutritional value.
Starchy Vegetables (butternut squash, pumpkin, and parsnips)
- Roasting starchy vegetables can help retain their nutrients while enhancing their natural flavors. Toss them in a small amount of olive oil, sprinkle with your favorite spices, and roast at 400°F (200°C) until tender.
- Steaming or boiling these vegetables can also help preserve their nutrients. Just be sure not to overcook them, as this can cause nutrient loss.
- Occasionally try whole-grain varieties like red or black rice, which contain more nutrients and fiber compared to refined white rice.
- Rinse rice before cooking to remove excess starch, and cook it with a minimal amount of water to reduce the loss of water-soluble vitamins and minerals.
- Cooling rice, overnight in the fridge, also increases the amount of resistant starch.
- Choose whole, rolled, or steel-cut oats over instant or quick-cooking oats for higher fiber and nutrient content.
- Combine oats with nuts, seeds, and fresh or dried fruit to create a nutrient-dense and satisfying breakfast or snack.
- Rinse quinoa thoroughly before cooking to remove its natural bitter coating, called saponins.
- Cook quinoa in a 1:2 ratio of quinoa to water or broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed.
- Soaking dried beans and lentils for a few hours, preferably overnight, before cooking will help to reduce phytate (anti-nutrient) content, and improve their digestibility.
- Incorporate legumes into your meals by adding them to soups, salads, or grain bowls, or using them as a base for veggie burgers and other plant-based protein dishes.
Incorporating nutrient-dense foods such as white/red potatoes, sweet potatoes, starchy vegetables, rice, oats, quinoa, and legumes into our diet can offer significant brain and health benefits. These foods provide a range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other essential nutrients that support optimal brain function, gut health, and overall well-being. By understanding the importance of these foods and their scientifically-backed benefits, we can make informed dietary choices that contribute to improved cognitive health and a reduced risk of cognitive decline. As a result, incorporating these nutrient-rich foods into our daily meals can play a crucial role in fostering a healthy and vibrant mind throughout our lives.