11: A Holistic Approach to Brain Health, Brain Food
YOUR BRAIN’S FAVORITE MENU
We are now going to put the knowledge gained into practice and explore the basic guidelines for optimal brain nutrition. This chapter provides dietary and lifestyle recommendations for everyone who wishes to enhance their brainpower, improve their memory, and protect their cognitive skills. In addition, it assists those specifically interested in harnessing their diet to better optimize brain health, slow its aging, and minimize the risk of Alzheimer’s. These recommendations are based on solid, scientific evidence regarding those nutrient combinations deemed essential and necessary for maintaining peak brain performance that we’ve seen in the previous chapters. In addition, they employ the latest key concepts from the fields of nutritional medicine, microbiome, and nutrigenomics research.
First and foremost, we must find ways to increase your intake of brain-essential nutrients, as these are critical to proper brain function. A rundown of the “superfoods” that best provide these brain-essential nutrients is included, along with several practical tips as to how best combine them to achieve continued brain health. As you embark on eating healthier to extend your life and enhance your mental well-being, remember to focus on the most important foods and add them to your daily meals however you can.
Also remember that it isn’t only about increasing consumption of brain-healthy superfoods but also deliberately doing so while you reduce intake of foods that will instead harm your brain. Pay special attention to those also affecting heart health, such as processed, fried, and fatty foods. Be careful not to overeat red meat and dairy. If this sounds intimidating, don’t worry. I’m here to make sure you won’t have to deprive yourself to eat right for your brain. I have the “how to” when it comes to replacing brain-harmful foods with healthier and even more satisfying alternatives.
Moreover, the plan isn’t just a matter of dieting so much as it is a matter of changing your lifestyle to ensure that the majority of the choices you make are supportive of your brain’s health. As we talked about in earlier chapters, the best evidence to date shows that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of a healthy and engaging lifestyle. Physical activity, intellectual stimulation, social interactions, and good sleep are all part of the ensemble cast that works together to keep our brains active, vibrant, and alert over the course of a lifetime. To this end, I’ve included recommendations that address not only diet and nutrition but also those other areas of life known to directly contribute to the health and well-being of our brains.
THE MAIN COURSE: PLANT-BASED FOODS
As we saw in chapter 2, the brain’s evolution was quite a lengthy affair that took place over the course of millions of years, as our ancestors emerged from the forests and gradually devised better and better strategies to feed themselves. What might have begun with daggers and bows eventually evolved into farming and agriculture. As a result, in the beginning, and for the longest extended span of time since our species began, our developing brains obtained their nourishment from a very specific and unpretentious diet. If we were to describe their culinary preferences, we could say that our early ancestors were raw vegans. Plant-based foods are what our brains first nourished themselves with and still need as their foundation of optimal health.
If you remember the typical centenarian diet, those who have mastered the secrets to a long, healthy, dementia-free life are actually 98 percent vegetarian. By and large, their diets rely heavily on fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes eaten on a daily basis. In addition, these are foods that are naturally low in calories while being packed with nutrients fitting our brains like a glove. From so many different perspectives, their very nature mirrors that of the human brain and does so in a way that is not equaled by any other food group. Brain-essential vitamins, minerals, good carbs, good fats, lean protein—plant food has it all. These foods are also the best source of antioxidants like vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and selenium.
Leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard, as well as fibrous vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus, and cabbage, are great sources of brain-essential nutrients. Citrus fruits, berries, and sweet potatoes are also chockful of goodness. Do you like avocados? They are a brain must. What about nuts and seeds? Almonds and Brazil nuts, flax, and chia are nothing but good for you. To give you a sense of their potency, just a handful of Brazil nuts contains 800 percent of the recommended daily dose of selenium, a major anti-aging mineral that is otherwise very difficult to obtain.
Additionally, there is an abundance of phytonutrients to consider. As the term itself implies, there is no food group that provides phytonutrients in amounts as plentiful as plants do. Many of these compounds are already powerful antioxidants, but in combination with the vitamins and minerals mentioned on the previous page, they act as an ideal brain-protective potion.
The digestive benefits that come from the high-fiber content in plant foods are another major plus. Dietary fiber is critical for the health of our guts and brains, not only on a daily basis, but even on a meal-by-meal basis. Vegetables are among the richest sources of fiber that exist, with grains, legumes, and berries coming in a close second. Last but not least for many of us, plant foods are rich in natural “no sugar added” glucose, and that can satisfy your brain’s sweet tooth without harming your insulin levels at the same time.
Though people of all walks of life have different health and nutritional needs overall, one can’t go wrong putting plant foods front and center. Am I asking you to become a vegetarian? No, but any way we can work more plant-based foods into our meals is a vote for future health. The goal is to eat vegetables with lunch and dinner, whole fruit at least once a day, and whole grains and legumes at least four times a week. As a rule of thumb, plant-based foods should take up the largest share of your plate.
Nature offers endless options to this end. Vegetables and fruit, legumes, whole grains, starches, not to mention nuts and seeds, are but a few of the options available. Within each of these choices, there’s so much more than meets the eye. Vegetables alone include an astonishing number of varieties. Did you know there are as many as 150 kinds of cabbage? And hundreds of types of squash?
Yet the typical American diet remains fairly narrow when it comes to its daily vegetable consumption. According to the USDA, far and away the most popular vegetable in America is the white potato, followed by the tomato. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that these otherwise potentially healthy vegetables are usually consumed in the form of French fries and pizza. To top it off, we’ve chosen the most nutrient-empty vegetable of all, vapid iceberg lettuce, to crown our hamburgers.
Unfortunately, these foods won’t help your brain at all.
In the next pages, we’ll discuss how best to increase consumption of plant-based foods to specifically promote cognitive health and fitness. In addition, I’ll share several of my brain-healthy secrets to eating right for your brain.
Here’s the first: dandelion greens. I promised you’d hear more about these greens, didn’t I? I came to love dandelion greens as a child. My nonna would often serve these greens as part of our Sunday meal. To this day, I distinctly remember how much lighter and clear-headed I would feel by the afternoon. Nonna used dandelion greens in a number of recipes, but in none more so than her staple spring side dish. She blanched the greens in boiling water, sometimes using the flowers, too, and then served them with freshly squeezed lemon juice and our favorite extra-virgin olive oil, bought directly from a neighboring Tuscan farmer. The realization that this dish brims with brain-essential nutrients was the start of my lifelong commitment to neuro-nutrition (as well as my renewed respect for the lowly dandelion).
If dandelion greens aren’t on your radar, they definitely should be. These leafy greens are a main staple of Mediterranean cuisine, and in addition to being a delicious food and having medicinal properties, they can even be grown at home and put to use. Believe it or not, they are packed with just about every nutrient your brain craves. Although they are not the telltale orange color, these greens are a very rich source of vitamin C and beta-carotene. They are also abundant in vitamins E, K, choline, folate, and B6, with a rich mineral and fiber content. What surprises a lot of people is that they have quite a bit of protein for a plant. One chopped cup boasts 1.5 grams of lean protein containing all the essential amino acids. If that weren’t enough, their distinctive, slightly bitter flavor is a sign of these greens’ ability to nourish your friendly gut bacteria. And as you will recall from the previous chapter, dandelion greens contain molecules that boost our cardiovascular system’s rejuvenating properties. Where can you find these exceptional greens? On FreshDirect or AmazonFresh, for starters. Probably in your garden, too.
Here’s another brain-healthy secret to boost your intake of healthful veggies, grains, and legumes: Buddha bowls. There’s no better way to eat dandelion greens, or any vegetable for that matter, than as part of a Buddha bowl. Sometimes referred to as glory or hippie bowls, Buddha bowls are hearty, filling dishes made of raw or roasted vegetables, legumes such as beans and lentils, and whole grains like spelt or brown rice. A Buddha bowl is so full of all things good that when served, it has the appearance of a rounded belly (much like the belly of a Buddha). Depending upon the recipe you choose to follow, the dish can contain a rainbow of ingredients. They can also include toppings like nuts and seeds—and come with incredibly flavorful dressings, like my Maple Tahini Dressing (chapter 16). And the best part is, Buddha bowls are simple to make and jam-packed with filling nutrients and vitamins that nourish and protect your brain. Since it can take a little while to prepare all the ingredients, I typically make a large batch of everything (rice, spelt, buckwheat, steamed dandelion greens, roasted veggies—even the dressing) and keep them refrigerated in airtight glass containers. Some of my favorite recipes are included in chapter 16, and many more are available at www.lisamosconi.com.
THE RIGHT FATS, IN THE RIGHT AMOUNTS
Increase your intake of brain-healthy fats while limiting your intake of the artery-clogging ones and we’re off to a good start. All fat, however, healthy or not, is rich for the body and should be consumed in moderation. A key strategy here is to limit the total intake of fats to those that are actually beneficial to the brain and forgo those that are not. Achieve this and it will help your entire body in the process.
These healthy fats include omega-3 PUFAs and especially DHA—that rare fat that abounds in marine and fish oils. As you will remember, there is a consensus that eating high-quality fish and shellfish is not only good for your brain, but also reduces the risk of memory loss and dementia. Besides being loaded with omega-3s, fish is an excellent source of complete protein and vitamin B12, critical players in the overall health of your nervous system. Wild-caught fish is the best source of DHA. Some of my favorites are Alaskan salmon, mackerel, blue fish, sardines, and anchovies.
Most longevity diets recommend eating fish at least once a week. We will follow suit and raise the bar to two or three times a week.* The trick here is to focus on high-quality fish, as well as pairing it with those foods that enhance its qualities, such as select herbs and, lest we forget, even a glass of wine. One example could be your choice of fish, roasted with lemon, herbs, and sea salt, or covered in crushed pistachios as a special treat. And then there’s my secret weapon—caviar.
Considered by many to be a luxury gourmet food, black caviar consists of salt-cured fish eggs from sturgeon. It takes no more than 2 to 3 teaspoons of caviar to reach your brain-healthy DHA and choline dose for the day. Of course, the downside is that caviar can be quite expensive. My favorite alternative is salmon roe, which contains almost the same amount of DHA while costing a third as much as black caviar. In addition to being incredibly rich in brain-healthy fats, salmon roe contains high levels of antioxidants, like vitamins C, E, and selenium, combined with a nice dose of B-complex vitamins. It is also high in protein. Just one ounce of salmon roe contains 6 grams of protein chockful of essential amino acids. Salmon roe is very versatile and can be “dressed up or down,” depending on the occasion. Add a couple of teaspoons on your favorite sushi roll, or sprinkle some on a rye bread tartine to make a snack, or on whole-grain toast over Greek yogurt to serve as a fancy hors d’oeuvre.
When you’re not eating fish, you still need to make sure you’re hitting your omega-3s. Several nuts and seeds can help. My favorites are almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia, and hemp, which I routinely add to smoothies, soups, and salads.
It is also useful to swap omega-6-rich oils for those that contain omega-3s instead. Flaxseed oil tops the list of omega-3-rich oils, with over 7 grams of omega-3 per tablespoon. Oils and products that are rich in omega-6 need to be consumed in moderation only and these include grapeseed, sunflower, corn, soybean, sesame, and peanut oils.
Additionally, heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, such as those found in macadamia nuts and high-fat fruit like olives or avocado, should also replace less healthy fats. Olive oil is perhaps the most publicized and widely used source of these good fats, especially the cold-pressed, extra-virgin variety made from the first pressing of the olives. It is now believed that regular consumption of extra-virgin olive oil is a prime reason for the positive aspects of the Mediterranean diet, thanks to its unique high-antioxidant blend.
There is a type of fat that is unequivocally harmful for you and that needs to be completely eliminated from your diet first and foremost. I’m talking about trans fats. Remember how these fats raise your cholesterol levels, producing painful inflammation throughout your entire body? On top of that, food that contains trans fats typically also contains poisonous metals, emulsifiers, chemical sweeteners, and artificial coloring, which all work to shut down your brain, heart, and microbiome.
Trans fats are typically lurking in processed foods. Commercial doughnuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, pies, cakes, Cool Whip–like creams, processed cheeses, and candy—these are just some of the foods that contain trans fats. But processed meats like bologna, salami, corned beef, and pastrami are also culprits. Vacuum-packed mozzarella? Canned cheese that squirts? Arrivederci! These, too, are shot through with trans fats. It is crucial to limit how frequently you eat these foods until you’re down to never. Go for organic sources instead. They aren’t much more expensive, and they have the added bonus of containing healthier fat and far less sugar to boot. A fresh, homemade apple pie is clearly more delicious than an industrialized, preserved one that can live endlessly on a supermarket shelf. Don’t bake? Find someone who does. You and your health, as well as the health of your family, are worth it.
It is also important to limit fried foods and baked goods made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils—which is the absolute norm at every single fast-food chain in spite of their sometimes marketing such products as “natural” or “healthy choices.” These include anything from French fries to fried chicken, but also items such as fried mozzarella and vegetable sticks, anything battered, and nearly all candies and cookies. Do you love chips? Make your own. Sweet potatoes cooked to a crisp in coconut oil are a real treat, and far more nutritious than any bleached, deep-fried fakery you can find at the local fast-food joint or convenience store.
As you reduce your consumption of processed foods, you’ll be reducing saturated fat in your diet in the process. Saturated fats, especially those from natural sources, don’t need to be entirely eliminated but should be significantly reduced. Since the body burns saturated fat for energy, just enough of this fat needs to be provided for all bodily functions to occur smoothly. At the same time, we need to stop overconsuming these fats for three very good reasons: to protect our brains against aging, to avoid weight gain, and to lower the risk of heart disease. The truth is, while the general public might be conflicted over which fat is good and bad for you, scientists go to the trouble of doing the math. In the long run, excessive saturated fats are bad for you.
As previously mentioned, there are different types of saturated fats and some are better for you than others. For instance, some vegetable oils, like coconut oil, are excellent sources of a particular type of saturated fat, the so-called medium-chain triglycerides. There is increasing evidence that these oils don’t have a negative effect on cholesterol, and can actually help to lower the risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease, therefore reducing the risk of dementia, too. They are also naturally cholesterol-free, which is a plus if cholesterol is an issue for you. Additionally, medium-chain triglycerides are a good source of ketone bodies, the brain’s backup energy source in times of scarcity and fasting. However, since we will be providing plenty of healthy glucose to our hungry brains, these high-fat foods are not really necessary for energetic consumption. Besides, they shouldn’t be consumed instead of omega-3-rich oils, which are far more crucial for a healthy brain. So use them judiciously, as described in the next chapter.
Saturated fats from animal products are a different story. Remember how centenarians all around the world tend to eat less meat and dairy—and often only at community celebrations? When eaten in excess, these foods are potentially dangerous, as they are rich in triglycerides and cholesterol, as well as the omega-6s that actually compete with the omega-3s for entry into the brain. As a result, they can boost inflammation and raise cholesterol levels, in turn increasing the risk of vascular damage.
I am not suggesting you give up your meat and cheese entirely. What I am talking about is portion size. Many people chow down on double and even triple portions of steaks and burgers—often loaded with processed cheese on top. If you need to eat a pound of meat to feel satisfied, this comes under the category of overindulging and it’s a problem. Use your hands to guide you: one serving of meat of any kind should mirror the size of the palm of your hand or a deck of cards, equaling approximately 2 to 3 ounces. One serving of cheese is about the length (width and depth) of your index finger, equaling about 1 ounce.
Frequency is also important. Red meat and pork should not be consumed more than once a week. Focus on lean, rather than fatty, cuts, and if you’re eating chicken, get rid of the skin. Cheese should also be restricted to no more than once or twice a week. Milk, on the other hand, can be a good source of many essential nutrients. When you drink milk, or use it in your cooking, focus on organic grass-fed milk. Also, there’s no need to drink a quart of milk. Think of milk as liquid food. A small cup is plenty, especially if it’s in combination with other foods.
Yogurt is the exception to our careful dairy rules. Yogurt is an excellent source of brain-essential nutrients and probiotics; consequently, you can have a cup every day. Eating yogurt on a regular basis is crucial to maintaining optimal GI functions, which in turn support brain health.
Finally, a word about eggs. Eggs are a favorite breakfast choice in America and many people eat them daily. Research has shown that even though eggs are not as bad for you as previously thought, we shouldn’t be overdoing it. I typically recommend eating two to three eggs throughout the week, either scrambled or poached, or as part of omelettes and home-baked goods like my Blueberry Banana Muffins and Banana Almond Pancakes (www.lisamosconi.com).
Hold on until chapter 12 for a discussion of the different types of egg, meat, and dairy products.
FOR DESSERT, THINK GLUCOSE
We need to increase our consumption of “good carbs” while decreasing the bad ones. When we look around at the typical Western diet, in addition to the consistent consumption of poor-quality meat, the one thing that seems more evident is the rampant consumption of refined white sugar via fast-food meals, processed products at our tables, and unhealthy snacks available around every corner. Not to mention the rows of artificial food that passes for breakfast cereal in our grocery store aisles, alongside cheap pastries, cookies, and energy bars—all sugar- and chemical-laden. Not even vegans are safe. Although “vegan foods” should be the epitome of healthy, more often than not they are packed with an ungodly amount of hidden sugar, making the consumers not much better off than their meat-eating counterparts.
Nowadays, more and more doctors attend to sugar consumption as much as they do to unhealthy fats with regard to heart disease in particular. However, these sugary foods will do more harm than good to your brain as well. These are the “bad carbs.”
As the public becomes increasingly aware of just how bad refined sugar is for the body, the tendency has been to replace white sugar with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium, or Ace K (Sunett and Sweet One), and saccharin (Sweet’N Low). These sweeteners have come under scrutiny due to damaging side effects that range from headaches and migraines to impaired liver and kidney function, not to mention mood disorders.
Fortunately, there’s no need to ingest toxins such as refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners. There are plenty of healthier and more natural sweeteners at our disposal.
Remember, your brain runs on glucose. Therefore, as far as your brain is concerned, “good carbs” equal the glucose-rich foods described in chapter 6. These include not only raw honey and maple syrup but also coconut sugar, brown rice syrup, yacón syrup, blackstrap molasses, stevia, fruit purees (aka fruit butters), and even fruit like grapes and vegetables like beetroot. You might be surprised to discover that these natural sweeteners come with an added bonus—they increase your intake of anti-aging antioxidants in amounts similar to that of consuming berries and nuts. Give these a try to discover which natural sweetener you like best. More specific recommendations tailored to your specific diet are included in the next chapters.
Some complex carbs, particularly whole wheat, sorghum pasta, wild rice, and sweet potatoes, are also rich in glucose as well as fiber, vitamins, and minerals. This particular nutrient combination provides sustained brain energy for longer periods of time, making these foods ideal lunch options. Many people enjoy their cereal for breakfast. If this is you, I recommend wholesome, unsweetened, minimally processed, 100 percent whole-grain cereals, free of artificial coloring and synthetic vitamins or minerals. These cereals won’t come in brightly colored boxes with catchy brand names. Rather, you’ll find them in nondescript transparent bags with no more than a small label. Great examples are steel-cut oats, puffed brown rice, and buckwheat porridge. Just sweeten them yourself by adding a little honey or maple syrup, or topping your bowl with fresh fruit.
That being said, I confess to having a sweet tooth and appreciate how staying clear of dessert can be a real challenge. For me, that wasn’t much of a problem when I lived in Italy, but after I moved to New York, I started having sugar cravings. As soon as I ended my lunch, I would find myself reaching for a cookie or a piece of chocolate, mostly in response to a sudden drop in energy. Those rare days when I couldn’t lay my hands on either, I would find myself in the worst mood imaginable—and my performance suffered as well. I know that I’m not alone and that many people can relate to craving something sweet after a meal. Making things worse, we beat ourselves up after indulging.
The thing is, sugar cravings often result from a poor diet. Unfortunately, most American meals are full of refined sugars that upset your blood sugar levels, causing you to only want more. On close examination, the treats I used to have in Italy were most often homemade with fresh, organic ingredients and low in refined sugar. They had a very different effect on my body than the supermarket chocolate chip cookies I got used to in my new American home. It was quite a process kicking the habit. I had to learn to read labels, figure out ingredients, and focus on natural sources of sugar rather than commercial ones. But it did pay off. As I got smarter about my diet, I stopped having sugar cravings (or the sugar blues) and I lost whatever weight I had gained without trying so hard. If you too need to “de-sugar,” the diet plan outlined in Step 2: Eating for Cognitive Power will help you achieve this goal while fueling your brain at the same time.
Making sure that your plate is filled with foods that are healthy and satisfying will in and of itself reduce the need for sugary desserts, soda, and extra coffee. And when you do need a little pick-me-up or are in the mood for dessert, there is no need to deprive yourself. Just be mindful of what you put in your body and how often. Many of my favorite brain-healthy desserts, snacks, and occasional treats, like Chocolate Almond Power Bites, Chocolate Blueberry Ice Cream, and Raffaello Coconut Butter Balls, to mention a few, are available on my blog (www.lisamosconi.com). These recipes are all full of glucose and low in calories and glycemic load. Hope you’ll like them as much as I do!
Finally, when in doubt, eat chocolate.
Of all the treats available to mankind, chocolate has been one of the most craved foods in the world since ancient times. Already the Aztecs and Mayans regarded chocolate as “the food of the gods,” consuming it with great reverence. Back then, “chocolate” consisted of an exotic, bitter beverage made of fermented, roasted cacao beans that were ground into a paste, mixed with water and exotic spices, and sweetened with honey. When consumed in its purest form, chocolate remains a powerful superfood with impressive health benefits. For this to be the case, however, you have to be willing to give up the milk and sugar that makes up most commercial chocolates. Real cacao is bitter, thanks to the action of hundreds of polyphenols, busy delivering health benefits. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the chocolate many of us have eaten throughout our lives is in the form of milk chocolate, white chocolate, and confectionary chocolate or candy, all containing only trace amounts of healthful cacao. What they do contain are extraordinary amounts of sugar, fat, and additives. For example, the typical Hershey’s bar (milk chocolate) contains as much as 16 grams of sugar per 1 ounce of chocolate.
Dark chocolate, on the other hand, is low in sugar and rich in antioxidant flavonoids and minerals like magnesium and potassium. It also brims with theobromine, with positive effects on blood circulation and possibly on LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. The key is to focus on high-quality dark chocolate with at least 65 percent cocoa and little or no added sugar. Keep in mind that different brands use different proportions of cacao, sugar, and cacao butter, so they are not all equal sugar-wise. For example, 1 ounce of 70 percent Lindt Excellence chocolate contains almost 10 grams of sugar, whereas 1 ounce of 74 percent Dagoba Organic chocolate contains only 7.5 grams. My all-time favorite, Lindt Lindor dark chocolate truffles, are each half an ounce of mouthwatering lusciousness and but 5 grams of sugar. On those days when I really just want to indulge, I’ll go for the Lindt truffle. See how many options there are?
Drink water. This is my personal brain-healthy mantra.
Drinking clean water is essential in promoting hydration, restoring balance, and powering all sorts of cellular activity throughout your entire body. And yet most people don’t drink nearly enough. A very common reason is that many Americans report not liking the taste of water, or perhaps it’s because it barely has a taste at all. When I first heard this, I had trouble understanding what they meant. Since water has no particular flavor, how can it offend you? Eventually I came to understand that for people who’ve grown up drinking soda, milk, and fruit juice as their primary sources of fluids, drinking plain water just isn’t much of a thrill.
Of course, there are alternatives. Herbal tea is a great start. Drinking herbal tea is a good way to stay hydrated and is a wonderful additional source of vitamins and minerals. Plus, there’s the social aspect of sharing tea with friends that can make teatime count as an enjoyable, brain-loving activity. There are endless herbs and blends to choose from. Some of my favorites are soothing peppermint, calming rose and chamomile, cleansing rose hip, and of course anti-aging ginseng, ginger, and lemongrass. In the summer, these same hot teas are delicious served iced.
Fruit-infused water is another smart way to add flavor and nutrients as you hydrate (while helping you ditch the soda can on the way). Also known as detox or spa water, these beverages can be any combination of fruit, vegetables, herbs, and spices immersed in water to flavor it. Infused water is delicious without added sugar and has no calories, making it a powerful tool in your efforts to achieve better health. Several other options are available at www.lisamosconi.com.
To give you a sense of what these waters are all about, let me tell you how I make my Spicy Raspberry and Orange Water. You’ll need a cup of raspberries with a thinly sliced orange, two cucumbers (also thinly sliced, skin still on), a handful of fresh mint leaves, and two cinnamon sticks. All you have to do is mix the ingredients in a large pitcher, add 1 gallon of spring water, and allow it to steep in the fridge overnight. You can add additional fruits and herbs if you prefer a stronger taste. When you’re ready for your drink, add a cup of ice to the pitcher (I also add half a glass of aloe juice) and serve immediately.
Green juices and smoothies are another excellent strategy to increase your fluid intake throughout the day. Many people swear by cold-pressed green juice first thing in the morning, while others look on with suspicion at their bright green hue. Personally, I have learned to appreciate the therapeutic properties of these beverages, especially some smoothies. By smoothies, I am not referring to those milkshake-like beverages loaded with sweetened fruit juice, sugar, processed milk, and even ice cream. I’m talking about whole-food smoothies that are made of organic fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and plenty of water. While these drinks alone won’t fix a poor diet, and are not meant to replace water, they are an easy, fast way to incorporate more fruit and vegetables as well as more brain-essential nutrients into your daily drill. Several recipes are included in the next chapters.
Another trick to staying hydrated is to reduce the amount of coffee you drink. Do you ever get thirsty after you drink coffee? Do you drink several cups a day? Drinking too much coffee might lead to unwanted side effects such as dehydration, palpitations, and disturbed sleep. Nonetheless, moderate coffee drinking in midlife might be protective against dementia later in life. What to do? One of the keys to smart coffee consumption is how you make your coffee. For example, espresso typically has over five times the amount of antioxidants, along with more caffeine than boiled or filtered coffee. In addition, different varieties of the coffee bean itself, along with its processing, produce different caffeine contents. So depending upon which preparation method and coffee you use, stick to either one demitasse cup of espresso a day or two cups of freshly brewed organic Americano (the classic, taller cup of American coffee).
While I most definitely love my espresso, it’s great to have options. Cacao tea is by far my favorite coffee substitute. Cacao is an effective mood enhancer, an excellent antioxidant source, an energy booster, and a comfort food all wrapped up in one. Cacao tea will give you a nice hit of energy without the jitters and the crash that can sometimes affect coffee lovers—and it tastes delicious. I take my cacao tea black and unsweetened, but you can add a little bit of stevia or raw honey if you prefer. You can also make it creamy by replacing the water with almond or hazelnut milk.
Yerba maté tea, gunpowder green tea, and matcha tea are other coffee-kicking alternatives that are rich in antioxidants. Matcha is a fine-ground green tea powder that dissolves in water, making it a great iced tea, too. But if it’s the actual taste of coffee you crave rather than the energy itself, try dandelion tea. Believe it or not, for centuries my beloved dandelion greens have been dried and roasted to make tea all across Europe and Asia. It’s easy: let the dried greens steep for ten minutes in boiling water, then add a little milk and honey to taste.
A GLASS OF RED, PLEASE
It’s pretty straightforward: if you drink alcohol, drink it in moderation, always on a full stomach, and choose red wine over other varieties as much as possible. Red wine has long been known to protect our brains from harm while uplifting the heart. As Italy’s dear Galileo Galilei said, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” While both white and red grapes contain resveratrol, the antioxidant compound that gives wine its good reputation, red grapes have a much higher content of it.
Alcohol is a very personal choice. If you are male, shoot for up to two 5-ounce glasses a day. If you are female, one 5-ounce glass of wine a day is enough. Here again, go for quality over quantity (organic wines are best), and find what works for you.
If you don’t like wine, there are other choices. For example, organic pomegranate juice is almost as rich in antioxidants as your average red wine. Grape juice and prune juice are also valid alternatives.
A major problem with nutrition studies is that, typically, one nutrient is studied at a time. Of course, this is easier to handle in research settings, since it reduces the number of variables that must be accounted for. However, the risk is falling into the trap of oversimplifying these nutrients into one of two categories: good or bad.
Originally, the one-diet-fits-all approach seemed to work when the goal was all about remedying a specific vitamin deficiency. However, this only encouraged scientists to feel satisfied with how single nutrients (rather than nutrients working in tandem) affected our health. This somewhat outdated attitude still permeates both medical and nutritional practices, leading many health professionals to lead witch hunts against the latest “bad guy” nutrient that, once unmasked, must be fully eliminated from our diets. As all the confusion around cholesterol has taught us, this practice can make for a lot of tail chasing.
On top of that, this tendency completely disregards the fact that nutrients work in concert, not in isolation, and it’s this teamwork that works to ensure optimal health. For example, let’s look at lemons. In your mind, picture biting into a tart, tangy lemon. Is your mouth watering, mentally as well as physically? Just thinking about biting into a lemon will kick your senses up a notch.
Now imagine popping a vitamin C capsule into your mouth. Most likely, you’ll experience nothing. We’ve extracted the vitamins out of the lemons, but the lemon has a lot more to it. Citric acid, minerals like iron and potassium, B-complex vitamins, and an array of phytonutrients such as hesperetin, naringin, and naringenin all interact with one another to ensure each lemon is as nutritionally effective as it can be. A pill can provide as much vitamin C as the lemon, but it’s incapable of providing the full experience that activates your mind and body: literally, 1+1=3—a concept traditionally overlooked by Western medicine.
Based on this realization, a wave of new studies has sprung up to take a smarter look into what we call nutrient synergy. My own work shows that the combination of several nutrients, such as omega-3 PUFAs, B vitamins, and antioxidants like vitamins C and E, is particularly effective at protecting memory and mental sharpness. These studies also showed that just like certain combinations of foods and their nutrients favor our health, other combinations do the opposite. This is true of the unhealthy alliance between trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, refined white sugar, and sodium. This combo is especially bad news for your brain. Research shows that people who routinely consume these nutrients together, by eating a fairly regular diet of sweets, fried foods, processed foods, and high-fat meat and dairy, exhibit more pronounced brain shrinkage, poorer cognitive performance, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s as compared with those who don’t. Similar results were already presenting themselves in participants as young as twenty-five years of age, only underlining that these foods have dangerous effects on your brain’s ability to do its job, regardless of your age.
Ultimately, there is no single food that can provide all the nutrients necessary to fully support your brain. A variety of different foods is much better suited to provide you with all the necessary ingredients your brain needs on a daily basis. It’s as simple as that.
There are many examples of how research findings on nutrient synergies lend themselves to flavorful, delicious dishes while at the same time boosting the nutritional value of your meals. For starters, my Grilled Salmon in Ginger Garlic Marinade (chapter 16) is an excellent source of brain-essential nutrients known to reduce brain shrinkage and improve metabolic activity in people of all ages. Additionally, it turns out that absorption of antioxidant vitamins is enhanced by high-fat vegetable products like extra-virgin olive oil, making my Nonna’s Dandelion Greens with Lemon Juice and Extra-Virgin Olive Oil an ideal accompaniment to the salmon (also in chapter 16). Vitamin C enhances the body’s absorption of iron when these foods are eaten at the same time, which is why I make a point of drizzling the greens with freshly squeezed lemon juice.
All the recipes and meal plans included in this book are based on maximizing nutrient synergies while providing you with all the necessary brain-healthy nutrients you need on a daily basis. Plus, they taste great, too.