Food for Thought
Eat Your Way to a Sharper Brain
by Terissa Miller, MS PSY
We’ve all heard it: you are what you eat. But, really? So…I’m a cheesy burrito with salsa and tortilla chips? Despite emerging research that told me otherwise, I’ve snubbed my nose at such silliness. Of course I believe what I eat impacts how I feel (as I recall the traditional Thanksgiving afternoon food-coma), but does it really make a difference in the long run? Does it really make a difference in how I feel and function day-to-day?
I’M DOING WELL FOR MY AGE
Like most Americans, I think I’m doing just fine. Generally healthy, busy lifestyle with work and family, I even occasionally go hiking or work out at the gym. Maybe I’m a little fluffier than I was a decade ago, but that’s a natural part of aging, right? When my kids get frustrated with my forgetfulness, I laugh it off and quote a wizened friend, “sorry, but my brain is like an old pair of pantyhose…it just doesn’t support me like it used to….”
In fact, researchers from New York University recently reported that the aging population has increasingly identified cognitive impairment in the past twenty years, and even those numbers are probably underestimated (1). So I’m comforted with the scientific evidence of normalcy; a little forgetfulness is typical for my age.
BUT, I COULD BE DOING BETTER
Three o’clock in the afternoon and I’m doing the runaround to pick up kids from school; the morning caffeine has worn off and I can hardly keep my eyes open. I struggled to stay focused at work, completely forgot a dentist appointment, and now call the dental office with my excuses and apologies. “Sorry, I just have so much going on! Reschedule? Hmmm, I’ll have to call back; I can’t remember what’s on my calendar next week.” My daughter reminds me of her track meet in an hour, and I’m about to hit the red truck in front of me with distraction and frustration. It occurs to me that I might be generally well, but I sure would like to be weller.
FOCUSING ON BRAIN FITNESS
Revelation: my brain is the least physically-fit part of my body. What if my general health and wellness is more about my brain fitness than my physical fitness? For decades media has been filling my head with dietary plans for being thin, strong, beautiful, and heart-healthy. Yet, in the past year or two it seems the focus has shifted, and so much of what I see and hear is about keeping my brain healthy.
From morning talk shows to evening news reports, a click or two through Google, and I am inundated by ABC (2), NPR (3), and CNN (4) all touting the brain-fitness keys to a healthier, happier, longer life. Sorting through the hype is a brain workout in itself; yet I am a researcher and determined to seek truth underneath the trivia. Thus, I do what any good scientist would, and become my own lab rat.
“What if my general health and wellness is more about my brain fitness than my physical fitness?”
HOW DIET BECAME A WAY TO EAT INSTEAD OF A WAY TO LOSE WEIGHT
The word diet has generally held connotations of restrictive plans to eat little more than rocks and leaves so I can squeeze into my summer swimsuit. The research on my oh-so-slightly aging brain has convinced me otherwise. My body certainly isn’t the same as it was 30 years ago, and come to find out, my brain isn’t either (5).
The top trending overall health diets (6) have nifty little acronyms like DASH and MIND; obviously the MIND (Mediterranean/DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet drew my attention, with the focus on restoring and protecting brain health and cognitive function. And it played out with supporting research both regarding cognitive health (7) and psychological health (8).
So my dietary transition happened like this: SLOWLY. I wish I could say I have the willpower of Superwoman, but since I don’t I confess that my transition to a brain-healthy diet was slow-going. I knew this wasn’t going to be some fad diet; since it was about slowing the decline of my brain and not my ever-fluctuating figure, it needed to be a gradual overhaul that I could stick with for life. (I don’t know about you, but my fear of losing my mind is much greater than my fear of losing my waistline!)
CHANGING MY DIET STARTED WITH ADDING THINGS TO MY PLATE
Instead of restricting what I ate, I started with brain-boosting additions to my diet. More broccoli, fresh spinach and kale, raw basil, cilantro, and other leafy greens landed in my now daily salad (9). And then I added morning and afternoon snacks like raw walnuts or pecans, almond cheese (it’s actually yummy!), pumpkin seeds, and avocado.
With so much research on the brain benefits of omega fats, adding lots more fish to my diet was also a no-brainer (pun intended; smile). Unfortunately, with the addition of those extra calories, I put on a few pounds within just a couple of weeks…yet strangely without the systemic sluggishness (if I’m not being too subtle) usually accompanying weight gain. But I knew it was time to start cutting back on the things that weren’t helping my noggin.
WHAT AM I EATING THAT EATS AWAY AT MY BRAIN?
I had done the research on what was good for my brain; now to dig into what was hurting my brain. With grief and resignation, I realized the research on glucose and neural decline (10) pointed to one thing: sugars had to go. The studies I sorted through on brain health were incontrovertible; my brain (and yours too) is addicted to glucose. The word glucose brings to mind candy, syrups, and sugary drinks. Yet in fact my body and brain turn most any simple carbs into glucose. What’s even more disturbing, apparently as my brain ages it gradually loses efficiency to use that glucose as fuel…thus my declining memory and sharpness.
Although the mental motivation was strong, I admit it took weeks to definitively cut out sugars and carbs. It was hard! No candy, no soda, no pasta, no bread, no chips, no potatoes, no granola bars, no cookies or cakes or pies or muffins or baked goods at all! (Did you hear the word NO in there a lot, or is it just me?)
If you’re feeling a little less than motivated to try this out yourself, let me offer you the silver lining in that great-big-grumpy storm cloud: after about 3 weeks of absolutely zero sugars in my diet I stopped craving it. It’s the gods-honest-truth. At this point I can sit in the house all alone with a heart-full of Valentine chocolates and literally not want to eat one. If it sounds like some twilight-zone miracle, let me tell you, it feels like one too!
FAT IS NOT MY ENEMY AFTER ALL
The second twilight-zone experience I discovered was about fat. I’m nearing 50, which means I grew up convinced fats were my enemy. The staples of my teen and young adult diet contained some description of ‘low fat.’ What an eye opener to discover that my brain needs fat! I know, I know…you’re probably rolling your eyes like I did a few months ago, muttering, “pish-posh, this keto business is just the latest trend.” Yet the brain needs two types of fuel: glucose and ketones. And of course, you’re right.
But alas, as with most trends, there is truth mingled with trivia. The reality is, my brain (and yours) has been munching glucose and craving glucose for so many years, it hardly recognizes a ketone body. Yet the brain needs two types of fuel: glucose and ketones.
KETONES MAKE MY BRAIN SMARTER, STRONGER, SHARPER
As we age, our brains have a decreasing ability to access glucose as fuel, and thus need increasing ketones to function well (11). In a perfect world our brains get to snack on ketones during a good night’s sleep and after hard work; intermittent fasting and aerobic exercise create mild ketosis, which releases ketones.
But let’s be honest: how many of us actually get decent sleep (without eating anything for a good 10-12 hours) and aerobic exercise (enough to suck wind and break a serious sweat) on a consistent basis (or at all)?
Ketones help maintain the health, growth, and wellness of the brain, and with aging can actually restore brain matter (12). Clearly I needed to pursue ways to offer my brain ketones, and since my intake of sugars (glucose) was already so diminished, the next step was to add more brain-fuel fats. This was the happy part of eating my way to a sharper brain: fried eggs in coconut oil, broccoli dripping with olive oil, salmon slathered in grass-fed butter, an avocado a day spooned right out of the peel…yum!
A SHARPER BRAIN FEELS LIKE A BETTER LIFE
The really hap-hap-happiest part of the story is how this new brain-healthy diet made me feel. The first thing I noticed was a lifting of brain-fog which had been plaguing me in the afternoons. I had more energy, and more energy, increasing with each passing week…until I found the motivation to start working out at the gym consistently.
I started bounding up the stairs to my office two-at-a-time, and was able to focus on a project for hours, increasing my productivity exponentially. Then I realized I was sleeping better, so much better in fact, that I was waking up with hope and energy instead of my usual crabby-bleary-where’s-my-coffee face. Speaking of coffee – I had so much energy and clarity I stopped needing (and drinking) the caffeine.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER?
I still live in reality, which means there are days when I’m just plain cranky and tired. I occasionally forget a dental appointment, and my kids and hubby might have to tell me things twice now-and-again. When we went on our Spring break trip last week I indulged in buttery gluten-free pasta and a generous slab of my husband’s famous homemade pizza.
But the honest truth is I wasn’t even tempted by the salted-caramel chocolates or the ice cream. Really! My moods are more even-keel, my step is lighter, my eyes are brighter…and best of all I’m feeling and processing and thinking more clearly. I am happier.
Even if happily-ever-after doesn’t hold out forever, I’ll tell you this – I’m never going back. This brain-health diet has become a way of life for me, and I intend to hold onto my smarter, stronger, sharper brain for as long as I can! MBJ
Top 5 Tips
Eat Your Way to a Sharper Brain
1. Re-define the word diet. This is a way of life, not a fad.
Challenge: Get your household on board for total life transformation.
2. Start by adding foods. Before restricting anything, add brain-boosting foods like leafy greens, raw walnuts or pecans, avocado, and fish.
Challenge: Eat a green salad, raw walnuts, whole avocado, and a serving of fish every single day.
3. Just say no to sugars. This is the hardest part; but if you can break the brain addiction the craving goes away.
Challenge: Carve out 3 weeks of celebration-free days to have absolutely zero sugars or simple carbs.
4. Fat is your friend. Good plant-based fat, that is…pour on the olive oil, nuts, seeds, coconut, and avocado.
Challenge: Pair a tablespoon of olive oil or coconut oil for every ounce of animal fat you eat. For example, one egg + Tbsp olive oil; cheese stick + Tbsp coconut oil.
5. Watch for results! An attitude of expectation prepares your mind to receive results and retain restrictions.
Challenge: Stick a sheet of paper to your fridge and jot down improvements every couple of days.
- Older adults are increasingly identifying — but still likely underestimating — cognitive impairment https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180116123733.htm
- Keto, Whole30 diets rank last on one best diets of 2018 list http://abcnews.go.com/Health/keto-whole30-diets-rank-best-diets-2018-list/story?id=51953127
- Eating Leafy Greens Each Day Tied to Sharper Memory, Slower Decline https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/02/05/582715067/eating-leafy-greens-daily-may-help-keep-minds-sharp
- Some foods better for your brain, memory https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/07/health/brain-food-drayer/index.html
- Morris, M. (2016). Nutrition and risk of dementia: overview and methodological issues. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1367(1), 31-.37. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13047
- Best Diets Overall https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-diets-overall
- Bredesen, D. (2014). Reversal of cognitive decline: A novel therapeutic program. Aging, 6(9), 707-717. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4221920/
- Selhub, E. (2015). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
- Morris et al. (2018). Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline . Neurology, 90(3), 214-222. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29263222
- Walton, A. (2017). Too Much Sugar Linked to Reduced Memory, Brain Volume https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2017/04/21/sugary-drink-consumption-linked-to-reduced-memory-brain-volume/#ff54d8c5dade
- Nugent et a;. (2014). Brain glucose and acetoacetate metabolism: a comparison of young and older adults. Neurobiology of Aging, 35(6), 1386-1395. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24388785
- Cunnane et al. (2016). Can ketones help rescue brain fuel supply in later life? Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, 9(53), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4937039/
About the Author
Ms. Miller is a psychology research associate, parenting advisor, and extreme health nut. She is passionate about brain health and interventions to reverse cognitive disability and decline. [email protected]