Brain Food: How Our Meals Are Shaping Our Brains

When the concept of 'food for thought' takes a whole new meaning

Posted May 02, 2018

Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels
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Source: Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels

It seems like we're constantly bombarded by the newest superfoods, how matcha is the coffee, and why Himalayan salt is "so much better" than sea salt (spoiler alert: it's not, but its pink hue definitely makes cooking more fun). Dieting has always been an on/off kind of activity in my life which is why I've struggled to jump on this train for a while.

With the new wave of mindful eating, I feel like we're getting a step closer to eliminate the "diet culture" that is constantly sending us messages that our bodies aren't enough, how we need to comply with certain beauty standards, and restrict ourselves from certain meals because they affect the way we look. An important shift needs to be made in the latter: we should pay attention to the way food makes us feel, not to the way it makes us look. 

This is why it was so refreshing to stumble across Dr. Lisa Mosconi's new book "Brain Food: The Surprising Power of Eating for Cognitive Power" "Our brains aren't keeping up with the historical change in dietary consumptions", says Dr. Lisa. And it's quite evident in her book when she does a historical overview and draws an important relationship between what our ancestors were eating and the concept of longevity. Her contribution to the fascinating new world of "neuro-nutrition" differs drastically from the diet culture we are all so used to and can help us understand why including (and excluding) certain foods, will actually boost our brain health. 

What is neuronutrition?

According to Dr. Lisa, "neuro-nutrition is how our internal work translates to the external, for instance how we perform, behave, and use our strength, as opposed to 'dieting' which has an external (aesthetic) goal." An important portion of her research and theories on this matter root from her Mediterranean upbringing. She recalls immediately noticing how drastically different was the Western's culture in regards to food upon her arrival to the U.S. Interestingly enough, a recent study published in the British Medical Journal showed just how stark the difference between these lifestyles are and concluded that the Western lifestyle usually leads to "accelerated aging and increased risk of future dementia." 

Is lifestyle truly important, though? According to Dr. Lisa, "genes load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger." As someone who grew up very aware of my genetic predisposition (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, breast cancer — you name it and someone in my family has it), I always thought that this weighed heavily on whether or not someone manifests an illness. But, groundbreaking research on epigenetics actually states the contrary. 

A study published in the Journal of Environmental Healths Perspective stated that "researchers, physicians, and others poked around in the dark crevices of the gene, (are) trying to untangle the clues that suggested gene function could be altered by more than just changes in sequence." This ties in perfectly with what Dr. Lisa mentions about how our lifestyles play a crucial role in how/if we manifest a certain cognitive disfunction. Which brings us to our next question: What kind of "brain diet" can help support this lifestyle?

The brain is a picky eater. 

"Instead of messing it up, we should be appreciating something that nature has taken years to optimize," Dr. Lisa mentions. But, we aren't messing it up voluntarily or, at the very least, on any conscious or malicious level. She attributes our disregard for neuro-nutrition to a series of factors, which include the portion size of meals, how parents don't have the time to cook or teach children how to eat healthily, the big influence of cafeteria food, and our "always on the go" culture. According to her, this leads us to unconsciously choose meals which are poor quality and high in sugars, a deathly combination for our brains.

In addition to this, privilege also plays an important role in this epidemic. "Not everyone has access to eat healthily", she mentions. In fact, she recalls an anecdote in which a supermarket owner noticed how people living off food stamps rarely use them to buy fruits and vegetables. Curious about this trend, the owner approached someone with food stamps, to which she admitted she didn't buy them because she didn't know the price prior to weighing them and felt ashamed of asking. His solution? Pre-cutting and packaging fruits in order to make them more accessible to those with lower incomes. 

As a result of her years of research in this area, Dr. Lisa proposes a variety of foods that lead to better cognitive functioning and those which, in contrast, minimize cognitive functioning. "The best four foods one can consume to boost brain power are fish, dark leafy green veggies, berries, and water," she explains. And the worst? "Fast food, processed foods and poor quality meat." 

What's the connection with mental health

Thanks to the many years of research in the field, we know now that what we eat can have a strong impact on our mental health. Not only can it protect us from developing Alzheimer's, but it's an act of self-care on its own. "Biology is all about harmony, about finding equilibrium and homeostasis," says Dr. Lisa, which is why her approach differs from food restrictions and focuses on minimizing intake of those foods that don't help us feel better. 

In fact, this body-mind connection has become so relevant to our current era that communities like Mental Health America are devoting their efforts to create a challenge that raises awareness on how lifestyle plays an important role on our mental health. While our generation is definitely more conscious of our bodies and the importance of a healthy lifestyle, it's a good reminder that the body is like a machine and we should listen to it, tune it up, and update the system every so often. 

Read more on Dr. Lisa Mosconi's work here. 

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