Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Recipe Rescue: Nutrition for your brain

October 13, 2020
By Patrick Mathieu
Blackened Salmon with Strawberry Avocado Salsa

We have learned over the years through clinical research and from the amazing work of our brothers and sisters from the IAFF peer support training team that the link between physical and mental health are very much intertwined. It only makes sense that if we take care of our bodies then our minds will follow suit. Our peer support trainers provide us with guidance and programs to keep our bodies and minds fit, but there is another vital piece of the puzzle that keeps physical and mental health tightly linked and that is nutrition. Nutrition helps with a person’s physical health and as we know when you take care of your physical health your mental health is sure to benefit and vice versa.

If you think about it, your brain works nonstop 24/7. There are the obvious tasks, like taking care of our thoughts and our movements and the less obvious tasks like making us breathe, keeping our heartbeat and controlling our senses. It is always on, even while we sleep. If you think of this constant activity that our brain is enduring, this means it requires a constant supply of fuel. This fuel comes from the foods we eat — and what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. What you eat directly affects your brain and ultimately your physical well-being, your mood and your mental health.

Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel. Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants will nourish and feed the brain. Unfortunately, just like an expensive car, your brain can be damaged if you ingest anything other than premium fuel. Diets high in refined sugars and processed foods are not only harmful to the body but the brain as well. Studies have shown that traditional diets high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, and containing only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy contribute to elevated mood and feelings of well-being. These traditional diets are also void of processed and refined foods and sugars.

A change in diet doesn’t have to be drastic. Below is a list of seven foods that are typically found in a traditional diet and are proven to be brain beneficial and mood boosters:


Oily fish: We’ve always heard that fish is ‘brain food’ and that is because of the little fatty acid known as DHA. DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid, which helps improve both short and long-term memory, contributing to optimal brain health. Additionally, a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids can also help to boost feelings of mental health and wellness and reduce levels of anxiety. Find DHA in fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and prawns.

Berries: Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries – if you’re looking for the perfect snack to get your antioxidant fix, this is it. Antioxidants assist in repairing cells, as well as combating inflammation. These antioxidants have also been found to assist in improving symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. As an added bonus, berries (blueberries and strawberries) also contain a compound called polyphenolics, which have been found to improve memory, concentration and attention span.

Yogurt: Many people enjoy yogurt for the benefit of probiotics (which help your digestive system to run smoothly), however recent research from the University of Virginia Healthy System has shown thanks to the brain-gut connection, probiotics found in cultures such as yogurt might also be able to impact a person’s mental health, assisting in lowering levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

Whole grains: I know I couldn’t cut carbs out of my diet entirely, we just have to rethink how we eat them. Whole grains are a rich source of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps to produce serotonin (the ‘feel good hormone’). Serotonin assists in calming the mind, improving your mood and maintaining a steady sleep cycle.

Walnuts: If you’re after a snack that happens to help your long-term brain health, make it a handful of walnuts. They look like a brain for a reason. Walnuts are full of antioxidants, helping to inhibit oxidation in the brain and body.

Leafy greens: Leafy greens seem to benefit almost everything in the body, including our brain. Harvard Health reported that research suggests people who regularly consumed daily servings of leafy greens such as spinach, kale and collard greens may have a slower rate of cognitive decline compared to those who avoided piling their plates with greens.

Beans: Yes they’re the musical fruit, but did you know beans are also one of the top food choices for a happy, healthy brain? Full of fibre and antioxidants, beans and legumes (chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans, for example) keep you fuller for longer, keeping your blood sugar stable and enabling you to burn more energy (which, as we know is essential for good mental health). Beans also contain thiamine, a vitamin needed for the production of acetylcholine (the neurotransmitter essential for memory).

Try to make these foods the staples in your diet and you will see and feel the benefits in your mental and physical well being. I’ve also included a recipe for you all to try, my blackened salmon with strawberry avocado salsa. It checks off as both brain and body healthy! Eat well and stay healthy.

Blackened Salmon with Strawberry Avocado Salsa


  • 2 pounds fresh skin on salmon, about 4 fillets
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive or avocado oil


  • 8oz strawberries, diced
  • 1/2 small red onion, diced
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 large avocado, peeled, seeded and diced
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
  • To serve, quinoa or farro and a leafy green salad

Mix all seasonings for the salmon together in a small bowl. Sprinkle and then rub the seasoning into salmon to completely coat it.

Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot add the oil. When pan is hot, add the salmon, flesh side down and cook for 3-5 minutes with lid on the pan. Flip the salmon and cook fish all the way through (uncovered), about 5 more minutes depending upon the thickness of your fillets. The fish should reach 145 degrees F on an instant read thermometer and flake easily with a fork at its thickest part.

While salmon is cooking, prepare strawberry avocado salsa by simply mixing all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl and taste for seasoning.

Plate the salmon over farro or quinoa and top with plenty of strawberry avocado salsa. Bon appetit!

Patrick Mathieu is an acting captain at Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He was recently featured on Food Network’s Chopped Canada. @StationHouseCCo

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