Cycling Wed: Will eating nuts make you smarter?

Let’s talk about eating fat.

And being smart. Or as my refined readers say…having good cognitive function.

Seriously, if you are a cyclist, runner, or triathlete the next most important thing after muscular endurance and strength is brainpower. And the brain isn’t just important for filling time during those long intervals when deceleration incidents force rest. You know what I am talking about: triathlete versus gravel, mountain biker versus tree and crit racers versus anybody in front of you. Brainpower becomes more important over time. Things will change. Eventually, slow-twitch will slow; fast-twitch won’t be so fast and then…well what then?

What will you do? You may want to learn something new, or maybe remember something old. You might even write a blog–and that takes memory and (a little) thinking.

Enter good cognitive function. Look, I’m no Jonah Lehrer, but I am a budding master of the obvious. That’s why I was drawn to this recent Annals of Neurology report on the effects of dietary fats on cognitive function.

My favorite beneficial fat: Almonds

The data comes from a look back at the famous Women’s Heart Study—a trial of low-dose aspirin for the prevention of heart events in middle-aged female health professionals.In a sub-study, Harvard researchers related intake of different kinds of fats to late-life cognitive function. Food-frequency questionnaires were used to document fat intake. Fats were separated into 4 categories:

  • Saturated–animal and dairy fat.
  • Monounsaturated—nuts, olives, avocados and seeds.
  • Polyunsaturated—cold-water fish and plant oils.
  • Trans-fat—hydrogenated oils found in processed food.

Researchers had subjects perform a series of mental stress test over a 4-year period. After all this data collection came the crunching of a serious amount of stats.

The results were not surprising:

  • Women with higher intake of all fats tended to weigh more, exercise less and were more often smokers.
  • Women that ate more trans-fat tended to have lower incomes and less education.
  • Eating less saturated fat and more monounsaturated fat predicted better scores on cognitive tests.
  • The magnitude of improved brain function from least to most favorable fat intake equated to 5-7 years of aging.
  • Surprisingly, associations were not found with polyunsaturated and trans-fat intake.

My take:

As an association trial there’s a chance that confounding variables affect the results. Plus, like most nutrition studies, it suffers from the problems inherent in food questionnaires—namely inaccuracy. But still, though this isn’t a landmark study worthy of front-page news, it merits mention. The results are consistent with prior studies on good versus bad fats; they confirm what we consider nutritionally sound and mostly, they agree with my bias on nutrition.

The majority of my patients could eat a lot healthier. Heck, so could I. And probably you too. At least in the US, most of us consume too much animal flesh and processed food, and not enough plants and nuts.

Eating better isn’t just about better heart health; it’s possible it might make you a better blogger. Pass the almonds.

Nuts tend to like nuts.

JMM

3 comments

  1. When you get old, you’ll just ride slower. It takes awhile to make peace with it, but you do. It’s still better than golf!

  2. Or ride with slower people.

    When I was getting deep into my thirties, the young guys on my basketball team would tell me to stand over by the three point line and wait for the ball. The only time they passed it to me was when my defender got bored standing out there with me and took off to double team somebody. I was ready to quit and take up golf when I discovered a local over-35 masters league. I joined up and all of a sudden I was the young guy on the floor drawing the double teams. Sweet.

  3. It seems to me that those who start off with either less education leading to lower cognitive skills, or vice versa, leading to lower income, are then going to eat more saturated and trans fats and less “good” fat. Lower-income people can’t afford a lot of walnut oil and avocados, if they even have access to them; they have access to processed foods and shortening. And those with less education are less informed about the science that explains why it’s worth making financial sacrifices to avoid the familiar Western diet. I actually believe that the hypothesis is likely correct, but what I’d like to see is whether childhood diet can be correlated with adult cognitive skills.

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