The type of diet we eat affects so much more than the way we look.
If you're old enough to remember television public service announcements
from the '80s, you'll likely recall one from A Partnership for
a Drug-Free America. In the brief spot, an egg frying in a pan symbolizes
the effects of chronic, illicit drug use on the brain. It was a campaign
that ran for a while. More recent research got me thinking about the interesting
correlation between a "fried brain" and the totally-legal and
readily-available foods we eat in America.
I've written extensively for the public on the benefits of exercise,
sleep, and mindfulness meditation on brain health over the lifespan. I've
not-as-frequently touched on the impact of diet. But what we put into
our bodies by way of the foods we eat affects our brain health. Research
this year out of the
Royal Society for Open Science correlates study subject exposure to just one week of a "Western-Style
Diet" with a decline in learning and memory. What do the study authors
mean when they say "Western-Style Diet?" This is a way of eating
that is heavy on sugar, rich in saturated fats, and low on whole foods
like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
I believe many people understand our diets' effects on our physiques
and our internal organs, like the heart. What folks may not realize is
just how much influence what we eat has on how optimally our brains function.
When you think about it, like your heart, your brain is always "on."
Even when you're asleep, it's busy cleaning out the clutter from
your mind, organizing and consolidating your memories, and so much more.
But "fuel" is required for your brain to complete such tasks
efficiently. And what you eat and drink provides that fuel – so
what that fuel is made up of matters quite a bit.
Additionally, what we eat has a significant impact on our mood, which is
also regulated by the brain. Many studies have been conducted on the subject
of diet and mood disorders, including depression. As one can imagine,
our moods fare far worse when we aren't consuming nutritious foods.
One important reason this occurs is that food that is full of refined
(not naturally occurring, like it is in fruits) sugar and fat-heavy tends
to set off a cascade of inflammatory processes in the body – resulting
in the release of free radicals and something called oxidative stress.
Simply put, the term oxidative stress refers to waste in the form of free
radicals that are harmful to the cells of the human body. They have been
linked to a wide range of conditions, disorders, and illnesses, including
Alzheimer's Disease and certain types of cancer. Surprisingly, it
has only been in more recent years that researchers and the broader medical
community have recognized how significant an impact what we eat has on
our brain health.
So, I've explained a bit about the bad news regarding diet and brain
health. Now for some good news. What you eat is mostly something YOU can
control. To an extent, I recognize that not everyone has access to or
can readily afford high-quality, nutritious foods. But you might be surprised
at how much power each of us does have in the food choices we make. For
example, if the drive-thru window is the only option for a meal, consider
forgoing the bun and asking for a burger protein-style (wrapped in lettuce)
and without sauce. Of course, this still isn't the highest-quality
nutrition. But if it's what's available, there are modifications
you can make at most drive-throughs that help reduce the sugar, fat, and
refined carbohydrate intake you might have otherwise consumed. Of course,
when access and funds DO allow for healthier food choices, invest in staples
like plant-based or lean proteins, colorful vegetables and fruits, and
whole grains. Keep foods that are high in saturated fats and sugars as
"sometimes foods." Not totally off the table so you don't
"crave what you can't have," but not something that is otherwise
part of your everyday meal planning.
Finally, I have a little word of caution. If your diet has been heavy in
saturated fats and refined sugars for a long time, dramatically changing
what you eat to healthier fare might have some temporary withdrawal side
effects. The most-reported effect that a switch to healthier food options
has in the short term is headaches. I know this seems counterintuitive
since healthy food is supposed to make your brain better, but I assure
you these effects are often temporary. The headaches are essentially your
brain's way of "detoxing" from many years of a poor diet.
Stick with it. When the fog clears, and it will, you will likely be amazed
at how much more mental clarity, real energy, and concentration you end
up with as a result.