When you think of food, you probably think of that dreaded four-letter word: DIET.
Or maybe you think of fuel for your body… Or a source of happiness (or frustration!) in your life.
What you probably don’t think of is a powerful influence that affects your emotions, your personality, the quality and quantity of your memories, and even WHO you are as a person…
But surprise: What you eat directly impacts all of the above.
This may sound hard to believe, but it’s true. Let me explain…
Your Brain: A Calorie Hungry Machine
Your brain represents only 2 – 4% of your total body mass, which is about 2 – 4 pounds for the average person. However, your brain also consumes about 20% of all the energy from your food.
I’ll say that again: Your brain consumes 20% of the food energy you consume.
Plus, the type of fuel you give your brain through food and supplements has a critical influence on how you think, feel and experience life.
You—and your entire human experience—actually ARE what you eat.
As Dr. Fotuhi put it: What you eat will re-shape your brain… for better or for worse.
So, once again, we need to put our brains first when it comes to improving our health and happiness.
Which nutrients does my brain need… And how much?
There are certain nutrients your brain absolutely needs, some you can consume in higher doses to increase performance… and some nutrients your body absolutely doesn’t want.
Let’s start with what your brain absolutely needs each day: Fuel.
To function properly and consistently repair cells, your brain needs the energy you get from food. This is a no-brainer (ha ha, pun intended).
However, if you go on an extreme calorie restricting diet, not only are you restricting the fuel you’re giving your body— you’re also restricting the fuel you’re giving your brain.
Why is this dangerous?
While your intentions may be in the right place, you may effectively be starving your brain, which leads to brain fog, mood swings, anxiety, slower and more difficult learning, feeling unmotivated, etc. And most dangerously, malnutrition over prolonged periods can even physically shrink your brain.
Calorie restrictive diets are NOT the way to go.
Let’s say you’re on a strict calorie restrictive diet that limits you to 70% of the actual caloric fuel you (and your brain) need on an average day. This means you’re not getting 30% of the vitamins, minerals and energy you need just to operate at baseline… which equates to about 6% direct malnutrition to your brain.
Here’s an example of what this feels like:
You wake up and eat a small (hopefully) healthy breakfast with a vegetable, a small fruit smoothie and an egg. By mid-morning you’re hungry again, but you’re determined to lose this weight and your willpower is strong. (Grrrr!)
By the time lunch rolls around, you’re a little on edge and have been unusually short with your co-workers. You decide a light chicken salad is just what you need. This boost of energy spikes your insulin levels, which turns on the dopamine receptors in your brain, and you immediately feel much better. (Ahh…)
However, the small “healthy” salad wasn’t enough to sustain you for very long; and because you were depleted coming into lunch, your body burns through that salad VERY quickly.
By 3:00 pm, you’re absolutely starving again. You have an annoying headache and are struggling through the same tasks you normally breeze through every day. But darn it, you’re DETERMINED to lose that weight so you’re sticking with it. You want to feel proud of yourself, right?
By the time you get home, you have one thought on your mind: FOOD!
You’re flat out grumpy and not interested in your family’s usual dinnertime stories about the day because—why can’t they understand?!— You don’t have energy for their chatter. You just need to eat.
You allow yourself to have a small but “healthy” dinner of fish and asparagus, which calms you for another two hours, and eventually you lumber off to bed early instead of spending time with your family… because if you’re sleeping, you won’t be thinking about food.
However your mind is still awake, so you toss and turn with frustration for the next couple hours. When you finally get to sleep, it’s a long, bumpy ride through the night as hunger keeps knocking you awake.
The next morning, you roll out of bed feeling groggy and tired, with less willpower than the day before. Frankly, you just don’t feel like talking to anyone right now.
You have that morning smoothie and an egg, and today you double your cup of coffee to help curve the cravings. However two hours later, the caffeine spike wears off and your head is pounding like a hammer.
Your willpower is now officially down to around 40% of peak state… and the doughnuts someone brought into work suddenly developed voices that are calling your name… Loudly and repeatedly.
Justification swoops in: You’ve been eating well, so just one little treat won’t hurt, right?
After the sugar rush passes, you’re feeling worse than ever. With your willpower in the red zone, you stuff your face at dinner… and figure you’ll just start over tomorrow.
It’s called setting yourself up for failure.
We’ve all been there. Starving your brain makes you angry, short tempered, dull and emotional. And frankly, it never gets you to your goal.
Do you know where the willpower comes from to stick with a healthy practice? It comes from feeding your brain the right fuel in the right amounts to stay strong.
On the topic of vegetarian or vegan diets… Well I’m not going to take up the argument about whether you should or shouldn’t go that route. What I will say to is that vitamin B-12, which is primarily found in meat, fish and dairy products, is CRITICAL to brain health. (B-12 is also found in dirt, but I don’t plan on eating dirt anytime soon.)
Why is B-12 so important?
B-12 helps transform the food you eat into the usable energy form your body and brain need to perform.
Interestingly, up to 40% of older adults have B-12 deficiencies, which leads to mental fogginess and memory problems.
Eventually, long-term B12 deficiency can lead to permanent nerve and brain damage, brain atrophy, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
(There is tons of research on this topic—Click here to see more references about B-12 and the brain.)
So this should go without saying: If you are vegan or vegetarian, or any adult over age 40, you should be watching and most likely supplementing your vitamin B-12.
And this is just ONE small example of the critical role food plays in your brain health.
There are countless other examples, but I want to focus on one particular killer that is extremely dangerous for your brain: Sugar.
WebMD even asks the question: “Is sugar worse for you than say, cocaine?”
When up to 80% of all foods we can buy in a grocery store contain sugar, it can feel like a losing battle.
Not only is sugar proven to be highly addictive—meaning the more you eat, the more you want to eat—we’re finding that over time, sugar can contribute to the shrinking of your hippocampus (the memory sector of your brain), which is a hallmark symptom of memory problems.
How Does Sugar Affect Your Memory?
Research out of the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that sugar forms free radicals in the brain and compromises the nerve cells’ ability to communicate. This can have serious repercussions in how well we remember instructions, process ideas, and manage our moods, says Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, Ph.D., author of the UCLA study.
In the short term, you’ve probably seen how sugar can mess with your emotions and adrenaline surges, a.k.a.: the stress hormone.
So something to consider:
Your memory issues may NOT be age-related. It might be what you’re eating.
What happens when you eat sugar?
When you eat sugar, your insulin spikes, which briefly increases your dopamine levels. (Think of dopamine as the “happy chemical.”) For a short period, you feel happy and energized… perhaps a little hyper.
But this high quickly wears off (i.e. NOT a stable source of energy), and eventually you come crashing down. This familiar “sugar crash” produces the stress chemical adrenaline, which can leave you feeling anxious, moody, exhausted and even depressed in the aftermath.
How MUCH sugar is safe?
The USDA recommends staying under 10 teaspoons (40 grams) of added sugar a day. This is about the equivalent of a bagel or one cup of your typical non-fat yogurt—which has a tendency to be surprisingly high in sugar. (Check the label of the yogurt in your fridge and see what I mean.)
Now don’t worry: This daily sugar limit doesn’t include natural fruit and vegetable sugars in their pure forms like an apple.
But DO avoid those mocha lattes at all costs.
Personally, I think sugar is the real reason why gluten-free diets tend to work so well for many people in terms of improving overall body and brain health. It’s not because they’re removing the gluten. (Only 1% of the population has Celiac disease, in which case the body can’t tolerate gluten).
I believe it’s because most foods that contain gluten also contain a lot of added sugar: Breads, baked goods, etc. Removing the sugars alone can have a massive impact on your mood, memory and clarity of thought.
My Movie Recommendation:
To learn more about the effects of sugar on your brain and body, I highly recommend watching That Sugar Film, a documentary available on iTunes. In the vein of Supersize Me, this film follows a man who doesn’t normally eat added sugar… who then experiments with eating nothing but processed foods for 60 days, including popular products with added sugars that are marketed to be “good for you”. (Think low calorie foods.)
The results are alarming. Check it out on your next movie night.
We also know through countless studies, that obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes can shrink the size and performance of your brain.
So if you want to cut the risk of memory loss, the first and fastest thing you can do is educate yourself on brain-healthy foods vs brain-shrinking foods— and immediately remove the dangerous foods from your diet.
What are the WORST foods for your memory and cognition?
Salt can be a big culprit, mainly due to excess. Salt is an essential mineral we need to survive, however the USDA recommendation is just 1,500 mg a day. The average American eats 3,400 mg/day, primarily because our culture tends to consume a lot of processed and packaged foods. These are the worst when it comes to unknowingly consuming extremely unhealthy doses of salt—which by the way, also increases your risk of stroke.
Trans fats are also dangerous to brain health. Typical trans fats are often found in fried foods, margarine, shortening, non-dairy creamers, ice cream, cake mixes, microwave popcorn, ground beef, frozen dinners, cookies and crackers.
The BEST Foods For Your Brain
To boost your memory, mood and cognition, you want to focus on a “healthy brain” diet.
This involves eating foods that support the growth of new brain cells, as well as taking a quality daily supplement with the right quantities of specific nutrients, to give your brain the building blocks it needs to stay sharp.
One of these nutrients is called DHA, found in Omega 3 fatty acids, which helps reduce inflammation in the brain.
Now there is some controversy on whether or not Omega 3’s are heart-boosting or help with reducing cancer risk. However, there is no controversy about the benefits of adding DHA to your diet to improve your brain health— including the quality of your memory and cognition.
Many researchers have found that people with behavioral problems, children with ADHD and people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease have lower than normal DHA levels.
For example, in Gothenburg, Sweden, scientists conducted a study on over 9,000 students. They found that children who ate one serving of fish per week (a great source of DHA) did 15% better than students who ate less than one serving of fish per week.
I recommend you aim for 1,000 mg of DHA each day through your food and/or supplementation.
As an overall eating style packed with healthy brain foods, most scientists recommend the Mediterranean diet as a great plan to give your body and brain the best quality foods, even if you’re trying to lose weight.
For more tips, I also highly recommend following trusted food gurus like Mike Geary, aka: “The Nutrition Watchdog.”
Need motivation? Here’s a fun fact for you:
Those who follow a healthy diet combined with exercise have a whopping 65% LOWER chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease.
Here’s a Good List of Delicious Brain-Healthy Foods:
Nuts and Seeds
Fatty Fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines
This is obviously not a complete list, but it is a good start!
All of these foods are great for children and adults; for studying, improving memory, and just feeling great all-around.
Warning! A “Healthy Diet” Is Not Enough…
No matter how carefully you choose brain-healthy foods, one thing to understand is that it’s almost impossible to get all the daily vitamins and minerals you need from food alone these days.
Today’s food contains a fraction of the nutrients it used have just 50 years ago. For instance, today’s tomatoes contain about 50% less nutritional value than the tomatoes our grandparents ate.
I consider myself a very healthy person—and very educated on this topic—but I still test my nutritional intake twice a year to prove how much I can get from food alone.
Here’s what I do:
Every six months, I measure ALL of my food intake for two weeks, down to the micro-nutrient level.
(Luckily, there are many free apps and websites today that will help you track this. Two of my favorites are Cronometer if you’re looking for a great food-tracking app, or if you prefer a website, I’ve had great experience with http://nutritiondata.self.com/.)
Now here’s what I’ve found every time:
No matter how hard I work to vary my diet, I always end up short on my metals, such as iron, copper, zinc and magnesium. I also end up short on my B vitamins and Vitamin E.
Until I can get everything my brain needs from food alone, this continues to prove I NEED to be supplementing my diet each day, to think and feel as great as I know I can.
How do you know which supplements to trust?
There are a handful of reputable supplement companies out there, and unfortunately, a TON of big name companies that sell low-quality products made of mostly cheap fillers.
To help you find a good product (that won’t waste your money), check out this article I wrote on how to find a supplement company you can trust.
Your Brain Diet Starts Today!
If you want to see how the right foods and supplements really DO affect your mood, memory and cognition, try tracking your food intake for the next two weeks—starting today—to find out what you need to add or subtract from your diet.
(Use one of the free apps I mentioned above, or whichever service you like best.)
Then, see what happens when you add DHA and MindBoost Day and MindBoost Night to your daily routine (great sources of B-12 and other specific brain boosting nutrients)… And see for yourself if you notice the difference.
I can assure you: You’re in for a pleasant surprise.
PS: I’d love to hear about YOUR experience when you try eating for optimum brain health. It’s made a huge difference in my life. Post your comments and questions below… I’m here to help!