Boosting One’s Brain Functioning Through Diet


Recent research shows that the food we eat, and don’t eat, has a huge impact on the health of our body and brain. This post focuses on answering the following two questions:
  • Which food is unhealthy for one’s brain and why is this so?
  • Which food provides the essential nutrients required for a healthy brain?

1. Introduction

Certain foodstuff, including sugar, refined carbohydrates, chemically-laden (i.e. processed) food, and many industrially refined fats all have a potentially negative effect on the brain. Research shows that this diet is often associated with cognitive deficits and a worsening of mental health status, including increased levels of anxiety and the experience of depressive symptoms. Conversely, research has found a lower risk for mental health problems when we eat better-quality diets. In fact, improvements are often quickly seen in an individual’s mental health with the tweaking of the diet to eliminate some of the above notorious culinary culprits. The reason that food can have such a profound effect on brain functioning and mental health is, however, somewhat stranger than fiction!

2. Modern food

Most of us eat what is termed “the modern diet”, involving the consumption of refined and/or processed foods, whenever we sit down to eat a meal, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, and/or the snacks in between our meals. The emerging evidence suggests that such a diet results in some level of chronic inflammation occurring within the cells and tissues of one’s body and brain. This prevents the optimal functioning of one’s brain by limiting the availability of critical brain chemicals/neurotransmitters.

So, why does this happen? Well, the regular intake of “modern food” has a negative impact on the micro-organisms living in one’s gut (i.e. the microbiome). Research indicates that such a diet causes “bad” micro-organisms to multiply and good organisms to diminish. This imbalance in the microbiome, termed dysbiosis, generally results in chronic inflammation occurring throughout one’s brain (and body). This, not surprisingly, has a negative impact on the functioning of our brains and, thus, on our mental health. The neural network in the gut, called the enteric nervous system, or the “2nd brain”, is likely to be involved as it appears to act as a regulatory housekeeper of the cellular border of our gut.

Refined carbohydrates and added sugar

The intake of refined carbohydrates and simple sugars is linked with cognitive deficits and poorer cognitive function. Higher intake of carbohydrates is linked with a risk of developing mild cognitive impairment that is as much as 3.6 times greater than those on low-carbohydrate diets. Neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, argues that processed carbohydrates and sugars increase the risk for mental health problems, such as dementia, partly by raising the glycaemic index.

A diet high in refined carbohydrates also has a very potent negative impact on brain proteins (neurotrophins) that are extremely important in depression, protecting the brain against oxidative stress and promoting the growth of new brain cells.

Fructose

Research suggests that fructose intake, especially from very sweet fruit and non-natural sources such as in sugar sweetened beverages, also has a negative impact on cognitive functioning by impairing neuronal connections and spatial memory.

Fructose also appears to cause some level of inflammation within one’s brain tissue which has many negative impacts including the impairment of memory consolidation. Mechanisms may include impaired hippocampal synaptogenesis, or the ability of brain cell connectivity in the hippocampus, an area of the brain implicated in memory.

Processed Food

Food that has undergone some level of industrial processing is generally chemically-laden. These chemicals include flavourants, colourants, preservatives, emulsifiers, acidifying agents, etc. As with all of the other ‘modern’ foodstuffs mentioned, research indicates that these chemicals generally result in the death and deterioration of the micro-organisms that inhabit our gut which, in turn, causes systemic inflammatory processes to set in.

Seed oils and Trans fats

A detrimental relationship also appears to exist between the intake of refined seed oils and/or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (also termed trans fats) and the risk of mental health problems, including depression. Intake of these oils seems to trigger a systemic inflammatory response and, as a result, may have an impact on the stress response system, which is important in both depression and anxiety. There is an inverse association between depression and monounsaturated & polyunsaturated fatty acids and olive oil.

Trans fat is considered by many doctors to be the worst type of fat you can eat. Trans fat, also called trans-fatty acids, both raises your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lowers your HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

Although some meat and dairy products contain small amounts of naturally occurring trans fat, most trans fat is formed through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, which causes the oil to become solid at room temperature.

This partially hydrogenated oil is less likely to spoil, so foods made with it have a longer shelf life. Some restaurants use partially hydrogenated vegetable oil in their deep fryers, because it doesn’t have to be changed as often as do other oils. The manufactured form of trans fat, known as partially hydrogenated oil, is found in a variety of food products, including:

  • Baked goods. Most cakes, cookies, pie crusts and crackers.
  • Snacks. Potato, corn and tortilla chips and most packaged or microwave popcorn.
  • Fried food. Foods that are deep fried, including French fries, doughnuts and fried chicken.
  • Refrigerator dough. Canned biscuits, cinnamon rolls and frozen pizza crusts, etc.
  • Creamer and margarine. Non-dairy coffee creamer and stick margarines.

In summary, the worst offenders in terms of triggering systemic inflammation and mood- and cognition-sabotaging foods include:

  1. White carbohydrate products e.g. pasta, mielie meal, white rice, most breads, ‘normal’ potatoes.
  2. Sugar-rich products, e.g. Milk chocolate, biscuits, fizzy drinks, cakes, & sugary breakfast cereals.
  3. Food cooked in seed oil and/or containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
  4. Processed foods, which have various chemicals added to boost flavour, colour & shelf-life, etc.

The simplest way to start limiting your intake of the above foodstuff is to always read the list of Ingredients as well as the Nutritional Information on the food packaging.

Boosting One’s Brain Functioning Through Diet
(Part II)

Research shows that the ‘modern’ food we eat often causes chronic, systemic inflammation. Not only this, but much of the ‘modern’ food we eat is also lacking in nutrients (including vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) that are essential for the health of the cells and tissues of our bodies and brains!

On the other hand, research shows that food which is close to its natural state, including fresh and frozen vegetables and meat from grass-fed animals, will provide all of the nutrients required for the optimal functioning of one’s body and brain. As such, this section focuses on answering the following question:

  • Which food provides the essential nutrients required for a healthy brain?

3. Changing one’s dietary patterns

Certain foodstuff, including sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed food, contain very few of the nutrients that we require for optimal functioning. Research shows that this diet is often associated with cognitive deficits and a worsening of mental health status, including increased levels of anxiety and the experience of depressive symptoms. Conversely, research has found a lower risk for mental health problems when we eat better-quality diets. Improvements are often seen in an individual’s mental health with the tweaking of the diet to ensure the intake of the nutrients, including various vitamins and minerals, that are essential for brain functioning. This is especially so when we are dealing with chronic stress which, research shows, quickly depletes the body’s nutrient levels.

We should all be able to enjoy food, but we should try to include more nutrient-dense foods. When it comes to benefiting cognitive function, the diet that may be the most beneficial is the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in seafood, omega-3 fatty acids, and plant-based foods. If you think about eating the modern diet ― empty carbs, industrial fat, and very few phytonutrients ― and you shift to a whole-food, nutrient-dense diet, consisting of leafy greens, seafood, whole grains, and nuts, most of us will have an improvement in mood and general brain functioning. What matters most is the diet as a whole, i.e. one’s dietary patterns.

4. Food Replacements and Alternatives

It is possible to replace all of the unhealthy ‘modern’ food that we eat with the healthy alternatives listed below. We need to educate ourselves and then make wiser choices when grocery shopping:

Seed oils and foods high in trans fats need to be replaced with foods high in monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fats. Saturated fat is also critical for brain health. This means eating fish and nuts, and cooking food with ghee or plant oils such as coconut oil & avocado oil.

Sugar can be replaced with Stevia, in either powder or liquid form. Both products are simply made from the dried and ground up leaves of this plant. If you crave something sweet, then try to stick to the less sweet fruit, such as green apples, raspberries and/or other berries, etc. Dark chocolate, with at least 70% cocoa solids, is also a healthy option. Sugar alcohols, such as Xylitol, can also be used.

Refined carbohydrate foods, such as most bread, white rice, ‘normal’ pasta, mealie meal, etc, need to be replaced with whole foods, i.e. foods that contain unrefined carbohydrates. Foods that are composed mostly of refined carbohydrate lack most of the important nutrients, such as protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, found in whole foods. Whole foods include whole grains, such as Sorghum, Millet, and Brown rice, as well as the legumes and lentils.

Processed / Chemically-laden foods need to be replaced with food that is as close to its natural state as is possible. This includes fresh and/or frozen vegetables that, if possible, have been treated with few pesticides or herbicides. It also includes meat from animals that are grass-fed/pasture-fed.

5. Ensuring the Adequate Intake of Essential Nutrients

Research indicates that the healthiest / most nutrient-dense diet is one that is plant based and consists of a wide variety of whole foods. Such food will provide you with the best chance of obtaining the full range of nutrients required both by a diverse gut flora and by your brain and body for optimal functioning. Having said this, however, most of our vegetables are grown in the nutrient-depleted soils of large commercial farms, which means that we may not actually be obtaining all of the nutrients we require even when we do change to a plant based whole food diet. As such, most of us will benefit from taking vitamin and mineral supplements.

Try to adhere to the following 5 Dietary Principles every day:

  1. Vegetables, legumes, and whole grains should be the primary staples of the diet.
  2. Include protein at each meal, especially that from plants or grass-fed animals.
  3. Eat one small handful of nuts or seeds daily (provides vitamin E).
  4. Take an Omega 3 supplement, (from wild-caught, cold water fish or krill).
  5. Choose multivitamins with Selenium, Magnesium, Zinc, Chromium and B-vitamins (but without iron and copper).

“...the risk of depression increases when you eat a diet of highly processed modern food."

Drew Ramsey, MD, Assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University

6. Using mindfulness to help one move to healthier eating habits

Recent research shows mindfulness practices are a helpful tool in reducing food cravings and making smarter portion choices, which can lead to decreases in body weight. Not only does mindfulness help many to maintain a healthy weight, however, but it also changes our relationship to food through helping us to make far more conscious and empowered decisions. In this regard, those who practice mindfulness meditation regularly show an increased ability to self-regulate their behaviours. Even for those of us who know which foods are best for us to choose, we will often not have the willpower to decline the poorer (and often more addictive) options.

Another aspect of mindful eating is to differentiate emotions from hunger, which for many can be the most difficult part of eating healthfully. Eating unhealthy food often occurs on auto-pilot or as a reaction to anxiety, sadness or loneliness. These are destructive patterns that take us further away from understanding our body’s true hunger signals and nutritional needs. And not only do these habits often result in unhealthy food choices, they take away our awareness of the eating process, leaving a full belly but an unfulfilled brain, which leads to cravings, overeating, and often guilt. Mindfulness helps many to break these patterns.

One large review found that emotional, compulsive, and binge eating are three dietary patterns that can highly benefit from the use of mindfulness techniques. This happens through an increased awareness to internal cues and listening to the body, as opposed to reacting to external ones.

Personal Food Inventory

Current Dietary Pattern

Date: ____________________

Instructions: Write down the different foods that you regularly eat at each meal. Then, indicate whether each food contains Sugar, Refined Carbohydrate, Processed Food and/or Seed oils by ticking the appropriate box.

Breakfast - Food & Beverage/sSugarRefined CarbsProcessed / Chemical-ladenSeed oilsOther
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Lunch - Food & Beverage/sSugarRefined CarbsProcessed / Chemical-ladenSeed oilsOther
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Dinner - Food & Beverage/sSugarRefined CarbsProcessed / Chemical-ladenSeed oilsOther
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Future Dietary Pattern
(The Food I will eat more of)

Instructions: Write down the different foods that you would like to begin to eat more of at each meal. Then, indicate whether each food contains Protein, Whole Food Carbohydrate, Healthy Oils &/or Vitamins/Minerals.

Breakfast - Food & Beverage/sProteinWhole Food CarbohydrateHealthy Fats/OilsVitamins & MineralsOther
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Lunch - Food & Beverage/sProteinWhole Food CarbohydrateHealthy Fats/OilsVitamins & MineralsOther
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Dinner - Food & Beverage/sProteinWhole Food CarbohydrateHealthy Fats/OilsVitamins & MineralsOther
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Black Bean Brownie Recipes (Vegan)

1. Black Bean Brownies (squidgy texture)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups black beans cooked (1 can) drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 T baking powder
  • 1/3 cup cacao powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 2/3 cup chopped dates (soaked in ½ cup hot water and pureed)
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 T Flax seed (ground) + 6 T Water
  • 1/3 cup chocolate chips (optional)

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 180°.
  2. Combine all ingredients except chocolate chips in a food processor and blend completely until smooth. Really blend well.
  3. Stir in the chips, then pour into a well-greased 8"-x-8" pan. Baking parchment helps.
  4. Cook brownies for 30 to 45 minutes. Let cool before cutting them into squares.

Note: You can substitute ½ cup of sugar + ½ cup coconut milk for the 2/3 cup of dates + wat

2. Black Bean Brownies (firm texture)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups black beans cooked (1 can, drained and rinsed very well)
  • 1/2 cup quick oats
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 2 tbsp. cacao powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup (or 2/3 cup dates soaked in ½ cup hot water & pureed)
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup chocolate chips, plus more for topping

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 180°.
  2. Combine all ingredients except chocolate chips in a good food processor and blend completely until smooth. Really blend well.
  3. Stir in the chips, then pour into a well-greased 8"-x-8" pan.
  4. Cook brownies 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool for 10 mins before cutting into squares.