Must Have/Must Do: Tuesday's book: Foods for Mind and Body by Michael van Straten

She's a startling icon of the Nineties: hair of flying herrings and strips of lean meat, kiss-curls of ginger and mussels, oysters for ears, a complexion of mixed pulses, a carrot nose, rosy apple cheeks, blackcurrant pupils set on apricot eyes, a collar of celery laced with basil leaves and rosemary, studded with hazelnuts. Not only is she unforgettable, but she's good for your memory: an edible mnemonic of the foods to tone up your little grey cells.

Everyone I've shown her to so far has wanted the book in which she appears. For van Straten's goddess of brain-food prefaces illuminating advice about which foods increase your mental energy and concentration. And mental energy is today's philosopher's stone: a healthy brain is worth far more than gold these days. The prospect of spending a fifth of our lengthened lives short of several essential marbles haunts us all.

The biggest irony of the current obsession with food is that it's harder than ever before to eat right. We are so deluged with contradictory research that none of us can remember what's good for us and what isn't. Moreover, the range of choice is so infinite, and so deeply tangled up with convenience, fashion and fear, that most of us simply don't know where to start.

Michael van Straten, a renowned naturopath, leads us through the jungle of rumour and offers lucid answers in a highly palatable fashion informed by both modern medicine and traditional herbal lore.

He explains what key foods we need to maintain physical strength, stamina and mobility, and why men and women should be eating different things. Then he maps our needs at different stages in our lifecycle, from infancy, through teenage, twentysomethings, "prime time" and third age.

The next section covers the role food plays in mental energy, concentration, sleep and mood. Then there's a whistlestop tour of fashionable diets, and a detailed and dashingly designed food index explaining what the good- for-you foods do for you. Finally - and hypochondriacs may well have started here - there's an ailments index which explains how food can help everything from asthma and arthritis to TB and varicose veins.

Van Straten is not promising miracles, but what he says makes a whole lot more sense than the official medical line of hitting everything on the head with costly wonderdrugs. Nor is he a fanatic: chocolate eclairs are allowed occasionally if you eat wholemeal bread most of the time.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Since I read the book two weeks ago, I have been religiously (and food is, of course, now a religion) snacking on "trail mix" to keep my blood sugar in balance, sipping rosemary tea for remembrance (so that's what the Bard meant) and wrapping myself round five fresh fruits and vegetables a day. The result? Pinky and Perky have nothing on the new bright-eyed bushy-tailed me.

HarperCollins, pounds 19.99

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