“You are what you eat”
Having read the book Genius Foods by Max Lugavere, I learned an absolute shitload of in-depth, practical information that I could immediately begin implementing in my own life, even before I had turned the last page. In a highly-readable, easy-to-understand format, Lugavere uncovered the striking link between our dietary and lifestyle choices and how our brains function, revealing how the foods we eat directly affect our ability to focus, learn, remember, create, analyse new ideas, and maintain a balanced mood. It subsequently climbed firmly aboard my recommendation-train, and so if you are looking for a good read on the link between your brain and the food you eat, with guidelines for crafting a diet to eliminate brain fog, optimise brain health, and achieve peak mental performance, then I highly advise buying it! But I realised that people may not necessarily feel the urge to buy a book off a simple recommendation, so I thought that I would instead create a post to offer a taste (Ha, mind the pun) of some food-focussed strategies for you to start making better food choices and upgrade your brain.
The brain is highly sensitive to every bite you take, and how well you function relies on the fuel you put into your body. We must treat our brain like the queen/king/princess that it is, and eat like our lives depend on it. Unfortunately, the modern diet largely consists of highly processed, genetically-modified, pro-inflammatory foods that are, quite honestly, slowly killing us. What makes it even more problematic for us is that the food industry has a special knack for labelling and marketing their products directly to the consumer, and by creating mouth-watering, tastebud-hijacking, highly addictive, Frankenstein-like foods, often made with 10287167+ unnatural ingredients, it’s like we’re just biding our time on death row!
The low-fat dilemma
Before I get to my list of brain-optimising foods, we need to start altering our perceptions of fat. Fat has long been demonised for its apparent negative side-effects on cardiovascular health and weight-gain, because fat clogs your arteries and makes you, ahhh, fat, right?
Decades ago, a man named Dr. Ancel Keys, who actually got his Ph.D. studying saltwater eels funnily enough, used highly selective, inaccurate and biased statistical data to suggest a connection between cardiovascular disease and a high-fat diet. This suggestion gave birth to the low-fat craze, which we now know to be totally bogus and actually damaging to human health, due to the insurmountable current research negating this theory. Pair Keys’ idea with the fact that we’re talking about fat from food, and people also began to immediately assume that this would also cause fat on your body. This can be true only if your total daily calories (the energy in food) from all of the fat/food consumption exceeds the number of calories that you burnt, but it is not exactly fat's fault. For example, if each day you ate 2000 calories worth of pork crackle (which is not advised, lol) and only burnt 1800 calories day-in and day-out, over time you would begin gaining weight. Similarly, if each day you ate 2000 calories worth of carrots (which contains no fat, and is also not advised, lol) and only burnt 1800 calories day-in and day-out, over time you would also begin gaining weight.
So in short, it’s not exactly the type of food you consume or what macronutrients it consists of that causes weight gain, but a matter of energy balance; Are you burning more than you are consuming, or consuming more than you are burning?
But this post is not about gaining or losing weight, it’s about brain-optimising foods, and good fats are a key component in our diets that a lot of people are missing out on. We must understand that fat, for centuries, has been an integral part of many ancestral diets. Our genes have developed over millennia to utilise fat as fuel and to construct our complex cardiovascular and neural systems, and so steering towards a low-fat diet can eventually lead to bodily dysfunction. Fatty acids are vital in determining our brains ability to perform, and essential fatty acids (EFA’s) are even more important because they are required for optimal health but your body cannot produce them on its own, meaning they must be obtained through diet.
Unfortunately, our modern-day diet generally consists of too little “good” EFA’s, such as omega-3’s, and much too high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which usually come from highly damaged and processed vegetable oils such as regular vegetable oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, safflower oil or soybean oil, creating an imbalanced ratio between these 2 types. An increase in omega-6 fats has been linked to chronic diseases such as liver disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. Not all foods that are high in omega-6 fats are necessarily bad (flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds and pistachios for example), but what we want to do is “balance the ship” by increasing the omega-3’s, and limiting our consumption of the omega-6’s, especially from all of these processed, damaged oils.
Apologies if that was a lot of information to handle right off the bat, but I felt that I needed to clarify any misconceptions about fat before we began, and you’ll soon learn why! So without any further ado, here are my 8 foods to instantly upgrade your brain.
Almonds are the ultimate superfood snack. They are first on my list mainly because of the ease at which they can be incorporated into a diet- just keep a whole bag in your pantry, and grab a small handful for a snack on your way out the door! Almonds are high in healthy monounsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and are a famously rich source of polyphenols and Vitamin E, which supports neuroplasticity (changes and growth in the brain).
Be careful though to only buy natural almonds and not roasted, as the roasted almonds are usually doused in unhealthy vegetable oils. If you must roast, just look at the ingredients label to check that no unhealthy oils have been added.
How to use:
Consume raw as a snack
Use almond flour in baking recipes
Smear almond butter on a banana and sprinkle with a little sea salt (just be sure that the almond butter has no nasties hidden inside, just 100% almonds)
Use almond milk as a substitute for dairy milk
Pair with dark chocolate for an upgraded trail mix
Blueberries, or, as neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Amen calls them, “brain berries”, are very high in antioxidants, which have been found in studies to significantly reduce the risk of developing cognitive impairment. Researchers have recently discovered that eating blueberries can help stimulate clean-up of the bad brain debris that leads to aging, whilst improving learning capacity and motor skills.
How to use:
Buy frozen and consume as a refreshing snack on a hot day
Munch on a few fresh blueberries before or after a meal
Throw a handful into a blender with other superfood ingredients
Pair with avocado, sprinkle with sea salt and enjoy with a spoon (don’t knock it until you try it!)
More good news for all of you non-meat eaters! Thanks to a recent study, we now know that mushrooms have the highest natural source of two extremely powerful antioxidants, ergothioneine and glutathione, both of which have been linked directly to longevity. The study shows a strong correlation between mushroom lovers and a reduced risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease, so loading up on mushrooms may very well increase your chances of warding off these neurodegenerative disorder.
How to use:
Use the tops of Portobello mushrooms in replacement of bread or burger buns
Slice, dice and sprinkle white button mushrooms generously through salads
Add to your omelettes
Slice and dice, then sneak into your pasta sauce
Sauté some porcini mushrooms in grass-fed, organic butter and garlic
Not only is turmeric a powerful anti-inflammatory, it’s also been shown to enhance working memory and have positive effects on symptoms of depression.
How to use:
Include turmeric in your cooking as much as possible, making sure to combine with black pepper, as this enhances the bodies absorption of the beneficial compounds. Cool, right?!
You can find some pretty decent turmeric teas these days also
Dark Leafy Greens
This specific type of veggie will soon become your brains best friend. Alongside the many other bodily benefits, dark leafy greens such as kale and spinach have been shown to enhance brain function by fostering a better working memory, faster processing speeds, and a greater ability to use learned knowledge and experience.
How to use:
Incorporate different types of lettuce, rocket and kale into salads
Throw handfuls of spinach into your smoothie or on your omelette
Use sturdy lettuce leaves in place of store-bought, highly processed wraps
Steam or fry broccoli and add into your omelette, or include as a side with dinner
Sauté some garlic and walnuts, then add a whopping amount of lemon-drizzled silver beet leaves and sauté some more
Fatty Fish (such as wild salmon and sardines)
There’s now several studies that show links between fish consumption, and better brain health and memory function. These types of fatty fish are rich in the omega-3 fatty acids we spoke about before, powerful anti-inflammatory compounds, and consuming them regularly leads to better overall brain health and memory function, protection of brain cells and actually promotes the creation of new brain cells.
How to use:
Eat wild caught sardines from the can (just make sure to check the ingredients list to see if any hidden nasties are included- extra virgin olive oil and lemon/salt/pepper are fine), and pair with avocado for a snack
Consume fatty fish such as salmon 2-3x per week, seasoning with salt and pepper and baking in the oven, then pairing with a superfood-loaded salad!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
If you take nothing else from this post, all I hope is that you learn something about oils. We’ve already covered the damaging effects of the widely-used, conventional vegetable oils that are high in omega-6’s, and the need to steer clear of these as much as possible, but EVOO, on the other hand, is one of the best damn things this planet has been blessed with.
EVOO is an anti-inflammatory, so it helps protect against illnesses like cancer and heart diseases, and also encourages autophagy (internal clean up), which is important for long-term brain health, improves cognitive function, may correct learning deficits, and enhances your memory.
Pro Tip: Make sure to buy extra-virgin olive oil, as these are made from pure, cold-pressed olives, and not a mixture of both cold-pressed and processed oils like your regular olive oil. Also, be diligent about finding the highest quality brands and look for darker bottles that protect its delicate compounds from light.
How to use:
PUT IT ON EVERYTHING. Studies have shown that using UP TO A LITRE per week can have major health benefits, considering it’s part of a well-balanced diet and other health factors are being met, e.g. not smoking a packet of cigarettes a day and eating a fast-food-only diet
Drizzle generously with a squeeze of lemon over your salads
Use it to cook meat and sauté your vegetables
Also known as nature’s multivitamin, eggs are right up there with the best of the best in the superfood family. Eggs contain small amounts of nearly every essential vitamin and mineral needed by the human body to function, and, with regards to the brain, they enhance learning, improve verbal and visual memory and deep sleep, and they’re so damn versatile in the kitchen too!
How to use:
Fry, scramble, poach, or boil and serve on top of some organic sourdough toast for breakfast
Cook as an omelette pimped with an array of colourful vegetables
Whisk together with capsicum, tomato, onion, and Kalamata olives, and bake into quiches
Soft boil and add to salads
You truly are what you eat, so why not eat the foods that are going to give you the most positive, longevity-supporting, brain-enhancing benefits, and steer away from all of the nasties? For the best food sources, stick to the things that have remained closest to nature, with limited packaging, processing or unhealthy additives, and buy organic and local where possible.
Try incorporating some of these superfoods into your diet throughout the next week, and let me know how you go!
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