First, a shout out to my man Bob Bilder for inviting me to contribute to the Mind Well blog. I’ve been following blogs for 5 years now, but this is my first post!
Would you like to boost your mental performance? Become a mental athlete? How about feel like a million bucks every day, from the moment you wake up to the second your head hits the pillow at the end of a great day?
Well, something might be getting in your way from achieving these goals…or at least coming closer to them than you are now, a lot closer. I’ve discovered through reading tons of blogs discussing the primary scientific as well as clinical literatures, and by wading through much of the empirical work myself, one of the big secrets to what might be holding you back from your peak performance. Diet. I don’t mean a diet that is designed to help you lose weight, although a healthy diet can do that, too. I mean the way you eat on an ongoing basis. Let me ask you a question. What does a cow eat (I don’t mean those feedlot cattle)? How about a pig, a gorilla, a lion? If you were to design a zoo to keep the animals as healthy and thriving as possible, you’d want to know the answers to these questions. And thriving is not just about physical wellbeing, but also about mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
Are you surprised to hear me say that food and nutrition can profoundly affect the mind? The Mind, after all, is the function of the brain, the endocrine system, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, enteric nervous system, and so forth. Even the microbiome, those denizens of microbes that reside in our guts, on our skin, in our noses, and on every hair follicle, are affected by the nutrients we consume and contribute to our ability to process nutrients. They’re also affected by the toxins we ingest. The functioning of all of these organ systems, among which I include the microbiome, depends on what we put in our mouths. Put the wrong foods into our bodies or the right foods in the wrong amounts, can lead malfunction and promote disease. A malfunctioning brain becomes a malfunctioning mind.
As I’ve said, I’ve spent the past 5 years poring through the literature on the question, what is a healthy human diet, and I’ve put my knowledge to practice through self-experimentation. And you know what? Not only have I lost some girth around the midsection, leaned out overall, put hunger cravings at bay, seen dramatic improvements in seasonal allergies and recover from common colds and flues much more rapidly, and put a genetically based autoimmune disorder called EPP (erythropoietic protoporphyria) into remission. I also feel better mentally, more optimistic and full of energy. I don’t suffer from brain fog anymore, especially in the afternoon about an hour after lunch. Brain fog has plagued me all my life (I even blame it in part for the fact that I had to be held back to repeat second grade). My mental focus, clarity, and elevated even-keeled mood are likely due to the big dietary change I went through in adopting what is sometimes referred to as the paleo diet, though I prefer the term ancestral diet (for reasons I’ll get into another time).
So, the foods we consume and choose to avoid, that is, our diet, can play a big…no, a HUGE role in both our physical and mental health. Not only that, but a recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that costs for dementia car in 2010 were about $200 billion, which is about double the costs expended on heart disease, and nearly three times the costs spent on treating cancer patients!
Clearly, we need to reverse course as individuals AND on a population scale. Diet is a low-hanging fruit, so to speak. Unlike the toxins in our environment from chemical (e.g., fire retardants in furniture, particulate matter and smog from the burning of fossil fuels, etc.) and technology sources (e.g., EMF exposure), what we put in our mouths is something we have inherently greater control over. What are some of the things I learned about what an optimal diet is for the human animal?
First, avoid industrially-processed foods. The primary culprits here are the three biggies: sugar, industrial-seed oils (aka vegetable oils), and refined carbohydrates (i.e., anything turned into a flour, or made from a flour). There is a burgeoning literature, growing every day (like our waistlines, eh?) implicating these types of highly processed and refined foods in all kinds of disease and unwellness states, such as cancer, autoimmune disease, metabolic disorders (including obesity and type 2 diabetes mellitus), chronic cardiovascular disease, such as heart disease, atherosclerosis, and stroke, neurodegenerative diseases, mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, and impaired cognition. The evidence comes from all facets of science, from epidemiological studies (that typically only provide data on associations between factors, but not causal information), bench science from physiologists and biochemists, and clinical trials.
Second, put the right food in your body. What foods should we be consuming to optimize our physical and mental health, to Be Fit? In two words: Real Food (am I channeling Michal Pollen?). What is real food? Animals and plants. More specifically, those animal and plant foods that don’t require industrial processes, chemicals, and synthetics to get it into a consumable form on your plate. This list includes animal products, especially from pastured animals and wild caught seafood (fish and shellfish). Our human ancestors, including contemporary hunter-gatherers, foragers, and pastoralists, in particular prized the most nutrient dense part of the animals, which includes the organ meats and bone marrow. These organs contain much of the healthy fats that contain the much needed fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., preformed Vitamin A, K2, and D3), which are critical to physical and brain health. And organic plants, especially those low in toxins. The plants highest in toxins include grains and legumes, which are the embryos of the plant and thus have a diverse array of anti-predatory chemical defenses. Traditional cultures that consumed grains and legumes knew to treat them with respect, by sprouting and/or soaking them, or lacto-fermenting them. These traditional food preparation techniques dramatically reduce many of the anti-nutrients contained in the seeds, as well as increased the bio-availability of the nutrients that are present but locked-into the seed (e.g., minerals). Also, if you’re going to cook, don’t use a can of spray-on “fat” like Pam, or any industrially produced seed-oils (aka vegetable oils). Instead use animal fats (tallow, lard, duck fat), and plant oils that can be extracted without industrial processes, such as coconut oil and olive oil. These oils are much lower in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs; especially lower in omega-6 fatty acids), and thus are more shelf stable (won’t oxidize and create free radicals), and the saturated fats are in particular very heat stable and thus are the best cooking oils.
I’m not an expert in any of these areas, but I’ve read a ton of research and blogs that review this research. So instead of taking my word for it; I’ve provided a list of some of the top blogs and web-accessible discussions of this literature. I hope you will take the time to peruse this (dive in anywhere that looks interesting and let the ship take you where it will). Come back here with comments and questions. The only way forward is through an open, but critical mind, and open respectful debate and discussion.
These blogs are chock full of interesting topics, some more specific in focus and others quite broad.
Yours in health,
~Aaron Blaisdell is UCLA Professor of Psychology and a member of the Brain Research Institute. He is also a member of the UCLA Evolutionary Medicine program. Dr. Blaisdell serves as one of three Editors-in-Chief of the nascent Journal of Evolution and Health. His research focuses on comparative animal learning and cognition. Recently, he has studied the role of diet quality on cognition in rats. He lives an ancestral health lifestyle in the climatological mecca of Southern California.