12: Be Mindful of Quality Over Quantity, Brain Food
YOU’RE WORTH IT
The focus of our brain-healthy diet should be on whole, unadulterated foods. Ideally, we’d shop the farmers’ market every day for fresh, local foods and make all our meals from scratch. In reality, we often live far from our food sources, have to buy foods we can store on shelves, and barely have time to eat dinner, much less prepare it. On top of that, if we don’t find some ways around it, eating healthy can be expensive.
If you are concerned about spending too much money eating organic, you are not alone. Thankfully, there are several things you can do to increase your intake of wholesome, high-quality foods without breaking the bank. A good amount of information is available online, but here are some tips that I’ve been using consistently for years that have saved me a lot of money.
First, online organic food retailers are a tremendous help. There are several websites like Thrive Market, Vitacost, and even Amazon that offer Whole Foods–quality products at Costco prices. As long as you’re buying nonperishable products, you can find a bit of everything, from canned chickpeas to wild rice, gluten-free rolled oats and flours, healthy cooking oils, and all sorts of non-GMO nuts and seeds. It’s a great way to source tuna fish, anchovies, and sardines, and even baby food. In addition, check the websites of your favorite companies for coupons and special promotions. Each of these online stores often offers easy-to-access discounts to further sweeten the deal. The food sections at store chains such as Marshalls, Home Goods, and T.J.Maxx are also excellent sources for scoring high-quality organic products at discounted prices. Stock up on these new main staples to replace the old low-quality items in your pantry with all sorts of long-lasting but safe goodies, and save money at the same time. Surrounding yourself with these options will prevent you from habitually turning to outdated food habits.
With respect to fresh produce, my number one recommendation for quality is to stay clear of conventionally grown, genetically modified (GMO or GE) products. How do you distinguish a waxed piece of GMO fruit versus the real thing? A simple way of doing this is to check out the stickers attached to fruit and many vegetables. By reading the code on the sticker, you’ll be able to tell which of these three categories the fruit belongs to: GMO; conventionally produced with chemical fertilizers, fungicides, or herbicides; or organically grown. Here are the basics of what you should look for. If there are only four numbers on your apple (e.g., 4131), this means that the produce was grown with the use of the above-mentioned chemicals. If there are five numbers and the first is an 8, that’s the code for GMO produce (e.g., 84131). If there are five numbers and the first is a 9, (e.g., 94131) the produce was grown organically and is safe to eat. By the way, organic fruit is not always picture-perfect, but it will be full of flavor and deliver on nutrient value.
The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15
Unfortunately, depending on where it’s coming from, organic fresh produce can be expensive. A good money-saving strategy is to take a look at the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15 lists (Box 1) below. The Dirty Dozen represents the twelve most contaminated and pesticides-laden fruits and vegetables on the market. It’s important to invest in the organic versions of these foods to avoid ingesting toxic loads of chemicals along with your meals. On the other hand, the Clean 15 is the safest produce that one can eat in their non-organic forms, since they are not sprayed as heavily with pesticides. Other foods fall somewhere in between, so choose organic whenever you can.
|DIRTY DOZEN||CLEAN 15|
|Apples, celery, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, blueberries, bell peppers||Onions, avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, mango, sweet peas, eggplant, cauliflower, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe|
Box 1. Dirty Dozen vs. Clean 15
How about a few more tricks? Try not to buy prewashed and ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables, as they will cost you twice as much. Buy local produce when in season and freeze it to have at your disposal when it’s out of season. You can also track down a farmers’ market near you through LocalHarvest.org or the USDA. Get to know your local farmers, create personal relationships, and don’t be shy about negotiating prices. Another good move is to be the last person to leave the farmers’ market. Farmers are likely to cut their prices at the end of the day so they don’t have to lug their produce back to the farm. You can also buy a share in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. In exchange for contributing to a local farm’s operating expenses, you’ll get a weekly box of fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Truth About Soy
Soy is a plant-based food that deserves special mention because it has become one of the most controversial foods on the planet. You might find it promoted as a protein-dense superfood one minute and blacklisted as a cancer-inducing poison the next. As we strive to reduce our overconsumption of animal products, knowing whether or not to consume soy becomes particularly relevant, given its potential as an alternate source of lean protein. Many have used soy as a meat alternative for decades. In fact, soy first became popular due to the Okinawan centenarians largely preferring it over meat in their diet. Since the Okinawans are one of our best examples of healthy centenarians, we need to take a closer look.
Are soy products such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk acceptable . . . or not?
As we’ve discovered with regard to so many foods, soy’s verdict depends upon the type of soy you’re eating and how much of it. There are basically two kinds of soy—the kind eaten in Japan and the kind eaten throughout much of the Western world. Soy products in the United States today are made up of 90 percent genetically modified soybeans and are rife with pesticides and preservatives. As such, they can cause allergies, intolerances, and even systemic inflammation. Also, soy contains molecules called isoflavones that are known to influence our estrogen levels. Eating too much soy can indeed impact estrogen levels, possibly creating hormone imbalances in your body. Some people are more sensitive to this than others and have to avoid soy products entirely.
As a result, while the soy industry would have you believe that eating soy products is a smart move for your health, the GMO-laden, highly processed soy found in commercial tofu, soy milk products, and tempeh is far from a health food and closer to a health hazard. However, it isn’t an occasional miso soup that will make you sick so much as the additional soy that you unknowingly eat from a multitude of unexpected sources. Soy is added to as many as twelve thousand food products in the United States, from common breakfast cereals and energy bars to snack foods and pastas. If you’re not paying attention to labels, you might be surprised to find that soy is found in the majority of products on your supermarket shelves, mainly in the form of soybean oil. In addition, isolated soy proteins are widely used as emulsifiers to lend moisture to a product’s texture, and are also often added to drinks such as lattes and frappés to emulate a creamy consistency.
So what type of soy is good for you? The soy used in Japan, which is almost always consumed in its organic form. Additionally, soy in Japan is often fermented, as in the case of miso (as in your miso soup), tempeh, and natto (a traditional Japanese food made of fermented soy beans). This is the soy that merits consideration as a health food and is the only soy actually worth eating. Organic, fresh soybeans and edamame contain all essential amino acids along with healthy amounts of the PUFAs your brain is so fond of. They are also packed with iron, fiber, and minerals such as magnesium, potassium, copper, and manganese. Freshly made tofu is an excellent source of brain-essential nutrients, too. During a visit to Kyoto, I was lucky enough to be presented with a subtly earthy, silky custard in a traditional restaurant—and was totally won over by genuine tofu made of traditional soy. The milk is equally healthy and delicious. Though fairly expensive, you can find both at health food stores like Whole Foods. Keep in mind that the Japanese don’t overeat their tofu. A typical serving of tofu is the size of a golf ball. Unfortunately, in the United States, most soy products like tempeh contain adulterated soy and are highly processed and should definitely be avoided.
Fish, Meat, Eggs, and Dairy
Animal products are more of a challenge, both in terms of quality and convenience. Fish in particular, a brain must, can be tricky because you want to eat good fish without having to take out a loan. With respect to quality, my personal suggestion is to choose wild-caught over farm-raised fish whenever possible. You want your fish to be wild or fresh caught so as to avoid any pollutants, pesticides, and antibiotics your dinner might have already ingested. When first hearing this, many shake their heads and think, “I can’t afford that.”
I faced this same challenge when I moved to New York on a meager student salary and couldn’t find a decent piece of fish in my local supermarkets. This eventually led to my devising a few effective strategies. To begin with, although it is true that high-quality salmon is more expensive than the conventionally raised unhealthy ones, it takes as little as 2 to 3 ounces to meet your brain’s needs for the day. That’s about the size of two pieces of sashimi. If you feel like you need a bigger portion, fresh mackerel, cod, and halibut are inexpensive choices that top the list of fish rich in brain-building DHA. Buying frozen fish is another option. Frozen wild-caught fish still beats fresh farm-raised fish any day, both in terms of nutritional quality and safety. Believe it or not, you can buy a pound of wild Alaskan salmon online for as little as $12 (clean and cut) and then thaw it as needed. Wild anchovies and sardines can easily be bought online for less than $2 a can. My beloved salmon roe isn’t cheap, I’ll give you that, but you can buy it by the pound and for a lot less money at any Russian deli or online. To be clear, a quarter pound will last you a week or longer. Remember that, as far as your brain is concerned, 2 tablespoons of salmon roe are worth 30 pieces of chicken!
Now let’s tackle the meat question. Whatever you do, do not skimp here. Some consumers know to look for specific qualifications when it comes to shopping for meat, such as organic, free-range, grass-fed, pastured, hormone-free, and cage-free. While you might think these labels are interchangeable or unimportant, they’re actually not. For example, did you know that free-range chickens don’t necessarily have any access to a pasture? It is important to note that egg-laying facilities are allowed to label their products as “free-range” regardless of the actual amount of time the hens spend outdoors, nor is the range of outdoor space checked or regulated in any way. This label also doesn’t guarantee that the hens had access to a natural pastured diet. Genuinely free-range hens and grass-fed cows are animals that roam freely outdoors on a healthy pasture where they can forage for their natural diet of seeds, wild plants, grass, herbs, and insects. These are now increasingly referred to as “pasture-raised” animals to avoid any prior confusion.
Additionally, it is important to buy these meats in their organic form because of the combined risks of pesticides, antibiotics, GMO feeds, and growth hormone exposure. You don’t want your pasture-raised chicken to be eating processed foods!
When looking for the best, you want to buy pastured, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken that have been fed an organic diet. As an added bonus, given their freedom of movement, these animals’ meat is naturally lower in saturated fat and higher in omega-3s as compared to that of their hormone-laden and often sickly conventionally raised counterparts. Obviously, the eggs and milk from these pastured animals are also safer. You’ve probably seen or eaten a farm-fresh egg, with a deep, bright orange color, and wondered why it looked so different from the typical supermarket egg? That’s because the chicken that laid the egg was healthy! Same goes for milk.
Which brings us to cheese. When it comes to cheese, always check the label. Processed cheeses are a deal breaker. If you need a good reason to never eat sliced cheese singles again, consider that many of these “cheeses” aren’t even technically made of cheese at all. Take a peek at the label and you’ll find that they are actually “processed cheese food.” Translation? Half of what you’re eating is not cheese or food in the first place, but a harmful chemical concoction. Besides being made of poor-quality, contaminated milk, these dairy products are full of emulsifiers, refined vegetable oils, trans fats, and all sorts of additives like starches and gums that make up the other half of your “cheese.” Even worse, when the label reads “processed cheese products,” it means that they contain even less cheese, using various industrial powders and mixed solids instead.
It wasn’t until I first moved to New York that I experienced processed cheese. As an Italian, I was surprised to find it on my pizza, no less! Friends took me to a local pizza place and ordered a large cheese pizza. When it arrived, it was covered with a white, chalky substance that I was told was “mozzarella.” As someone familiar with what mozzarella is and isn’t, I was stunned at the imposter that was passing for it on this side of the Atlantic. Although not all pizzerias serve processed cheese, this was one of my first experiences finding it on my plate, which led to a revelation.
I’d much rather eat organic full-fat cheese than any other available option—including low-fat. Surprised?
Once again, quality trumps quantity in my book. There are cheeses that are naturally low in fat and there are full-fat cheeses that get industrially stripped of a good part of their fat content. These low- or reduced-fat cheeses usually suffer from many of the same problems as processed cheeses. Since low-fat milk has very little flavor or nutrients, manufacturers add sugars, starches, and additives in an attempt to recuperate the lost texture and flavor of the cheese so that it tastes closer to that of its natural full-fat version. That goes the same for yogurt. Most commercial yogurt is chockful of artificial colors, flavors, additives, and high fructose corn syrup, which instead of delivering any health benefit at all, actually nourishes disease-causing bacteria, yeast, and fungi in your gut. Since your gut can only host a limited number of bacteria, eating these foods pushes the good guys out while letting the bad guys in. The inevitable result is that you get sick either initially or over time.
Did I just suggest that you eat full-fat cheese and yogurt? I sure did. Feel free to enjoy a cup of organic, plain, full-fat yogurt every day if you like. The best practice would be to make your own yogurt, or at least buy it fresh directly from the farm. Alternatively, some of my favorite commercial brands are Maple Hill Creamery (100 percent grass-fed variety), Stonyfield, Ronnybrook, Liberté, and Redwood Hill Farm. You can find them in many supermarkets and just as easily online.
A much better alternative to both high-fat and commercial low-fat dairy is to focus on those milks and cheeses that are naturally low in fat. For example, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk contain less fat than cow’s milk while at the same time containing more protein and nutrients, allowing you to feel fuller longer. Dry cheeses like Pecorino or Feta are good examples. Next time you’re about to eat a large piece of rubbery, processed mozzarella, try having a smaller piece of fresh, creamy goat cheese or a sharp Romano instead. These are but a few of the endlessly better choices.
RESTORE THE BALANCE OF PRO- AND ANTI-INFLAMMATORY FOODS
In addition to increasing our consumption of anti-inflammatory foods, we need to pay attention to which foods are producing inflammation in the first place. The typical Western diet is loaded with pro-inflammatory foods and these foods are actually speeding up brain aging. The most age-accelerating foods a person can eat tend to be those that are highly acidic—but maybe not in the way you might imagine. It’s actually those foods loaded with refined sugars, refined grains, highly processed products such as margarine and soft spreads, and even alcohol that deliver the strongest acidic punch.
Though processed foods are convenient, more often than not convenience means large amounts of hidden trans fats, sodium, and nutritionally empty sugars, which are among the most dangerous ingredients you can ingest. Even seemingly harmless foods like “fortified” cereals and breads are actually masking overprocessed and mass-marketed products. While it is true that these foods contain some added vitamins and minerals, they are present only in their most synthetic forms, which means that their nutrients are destined to be poorly absorbed, if at all. Further, these products harbor excess hidden chemical fillers within their ingredients—including those preservatives and emulsifiers that are shown to damage heart, brain, and gut health alike.
Animal products like meat and high-fat dairy are also pro-inflammatory in nature, especially when fried in unhealthy oils. Nonetheless, if you limit your consumption to the appropriate portions and eat them sparingly and from safe sources, those foods are better for you than any processed food could ever be.
HELP YOUR DNA HELP YOU
Many nutrients have a strong effect on our genes. While some make us stronger, some weaken us instead. Fresh, organic produce, whole grains, wild-caught fish, and smaller amounts of pastured meats and eggs, along with natural sweeteners like fruit, honey, and maple syrup, are all ingredients to which our ancient DNA naturally responds positively. These same foods, especially the plant-based ones, have been linked to nothing less than brain rejuvenation, besides reduced inflammation, improved metabolic balance, improved insulin sensitivity, and a stronger immune system. On the other hand, pro-inflammatory, processed, and refined foods do quite the opposite, providing us with multiple side effects even at our DNA level.
These same foods also impact your microbiome. A diet that regularly includes prebiotic and probiotic foods will turn your microbiome into a champ, while one full of processed foods and fatty meat will achieve the opposite result. Too many people don’t eat nearly enough fiber, nor do they think about consuming pre- and probiotics in their foods. The time has come to get a better feel for all the available options. Next time you go grocery shopping, and especially if you’re suffering from digestive issues such as cramping, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea, bring the list in Box 2 with you for some healthy choices. Onions, asparagus, artichokes, and garlic are powerhouses when it comes to supplying the body with prebiotics. Additionally, be sure to stock up on fiber-rich carbs such as bran, oats, cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli and cauliflower), berries, and all kinds of leafy greens.
Probiotic foods are less common than the prebiotic ones, but there are several options available to us that also happen to be really inexpensive. These foods contain “live bacteria,” or probiotics, that upon reaching the intestine will replenish your microbiome and restore your intestinal health. As a rule, look for bitter and sour foods when it comes to feeding your gut’s “good guys.”
|PREBIOTIC AND FIBROUS FOODS||OPTIONS OR INGREDIENTS|
|Vegetables||Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, root vegetables, artichokes, chicory, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, beetroot, fennel bulb, green beans, peas|
|Legumes||Chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, black beans, soybeans|
|Fruits||Bananas, berries, apples, nectarines, white peaches, persimmon, grapefruit, pomegranate, dried fruit (e.g., dates, figs)|
|Bread / cereals / snacks||Barley, rye, whole wheat, couscous, wheat bran, oats|
|Nuts and seeds||Cashews, almonds, pistachios, chia seeds, flaxseeds, psyllium seed husk|
|Fermented organic milk||Yogurt, kefir, and buttermilk|
|Pickled vegetables||There are many options, including sauerkraut, cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, beets, onions, and carrots. Remember that the probiotic benefits are only present in unpasteurized foods pickled in brine, not vinegar.|
|Kimchi||A traditional Korean dish made of fermented cabbage, radishes, scallions, cucumbers, and several spices|
|Natto||A traditional Japanese dish made of fermented soy|
|Kombucha||A fermented drink made of sweetened black or green tea, along with friendly bacteria and yeast|
Box 2. Prebiotic and probiotic foods
If none of these foods appeals to you, or if you consume them only on occasion, you need to take a probiotic supplement. Supplements come in capsule and liquid formulas and vegan versions are also available. But there’s some misinformation out there that you need to be aware of. Many retailers would have you believe that the quality of a probiotic is based on just how many billions of bacteria are present, but in reality, it isn’t the quantity as much as the diversity of bacteria that really makes the difference. Because different bacterial strains have slightly different functions and tend to colonize in different parts of the gastrointestinal system, probiotics that contain multiple strains are usually more effective. Check the labels, and make sure your supplement contains at least three of these major bacteria types: Lactobacillum acidophilus, Lactobacillum helveticus, Lactobacillum rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Streptococcus thermophilus.
Fortunately, once you change your diet, it only takes a short time for the microbiome to change as well. However, these positive changes can disappear just as quickly if a good diet is abandoned for a poor one, so make sure these foods and supplements become a regular part of your diet.
TRANSFORM YOUR FOODS INTO NUTRITIONAL POWERHOUSES
Following a diet that calls for whole or minimally processed foods is essential if we want to be able to access the nutritional content of those foods. It’s just that simple. As you might recall, our world’s centenarians never eat processed or packaged foods. All their food is fresh, which is a bit of an understatement, since it’s often just picked from the garden or grove. This level of freshness ensures that their foods are as nutritionally dense as possible.
Food processing, on the other hand, is a major problem for our society. The milling of wheat, polishing of rice, filtering of cornmeal, and refining of cane sugar are all examples of methods that strip our food of most of its vitamin, mineral, and fiber content, since they are all contained in the outer layers and husks that are being discarded. B vitamins are especially affected by this process, with losses that can be as high as 50 percent. Freezing and canning are other processing methods that result in the loss of nutrients.
Modern farming is another big issue when it comes to the authenticity of our foods. The nutritional content of the soil in which vegetables and fruits are grown determines the food’s final nutrient content. New kinds of crops have been scientifically developed to keep up with the demand for greater and greater yields, as well as to increase the food’s resistance to pests and climate change. While these new varieties have produced bigger, faster-growing plants, their ability to take up a comparable quantity of nutrients has been lost in the process.
A landmark study on this topic looked at USDA nutritional data for over forty different vegetables and fruits from 1950 to 1999 and discovered significant declines in the amounts of vitamins (especially Bs and C), and minerals such as iron. These findings raised a huge debate that provoked subsequent contrasting reports. While some studies showed that the modern carrot does not contain even half the nutrients that would have been present in the carrots that our grandparents ate, others indicated that the vitamin content of these vegetables is broadly the same. So what’s the truth of the matter? In my opinion, even if the latter studies detect similar vitamin levels, what they neglect to mention is that it is the quality of the reported vitamin content that really needs to be examined. Containing similar levels of one vitamin does not mean that the quality of the vitamin is the same—nor does it verify that the food’s accompanying arsenal of phytonutrients is still intact and sound. Add to that the unrestricted use of pesticides and fertilizers on these crops and the result is the latest generation of a fast-and-furiously grown, pest-resistant pseudo produce. Full of preservatives and unnaturally perfect in appearance, this produce might beguile us, but unfortunately, it does not deliver.
Regardless of controversies, when their blood is tested, too many Americans turn up with nutritional deficiencies. After reviewing many of these tests, I know this to be a fact. There are no two ways about it. Those of us who are dedicated to taking care of ourselves and our families, and want to get the most nutritious produce possible for our tables, would do well to buy regularly from local organic farmers or health food stores.
The way you eat your foods also makes a difference. For the most part, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds are at their most potent when eaten raw. In general, it is in this state that their enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals are still intact, making your produce as powerful as possible. Buy the freshest produce you can find, all the better if it’s local and in season, and then eat it promptly! People worry a lot about the nutrient loss via the cooking process, but a vegetable can lose just as much nutrition languishing in the crisper as it does on the stovetop.
That said, there are vegetables that actually prefer the stovetop. Sometimes cooking increases the nutritional content of a food (especially of some vegetables) by breaking down the plant’s cell walls and releasing the nutrients that would otherwise remain locked inside. Beta-carotene (the antioxidant responsible for the carrot’s bright orange color) and lycopene (responsible for the tomato’s ruby hue) are among these prisoners. Steaming, using a minimal amount of water, or lightly roasting your carrots and tomatoes will boost their levels of antioxidants, thereby providing your hungry neurons with extra protection against aging. Just be sure that you don’t overcook the vegetables until they’re mushy. Al dente is the name of the game for optimal nutrition.
While whole grains and legumes would be impossible to eat without some cooking, here’s a great trick that will transform these foods into nutritional powerhouses: sprout them. The simple process of sprouting releases an army of healthy enzymes in seeds, legumes, and grains. This makes them easier to digest, allowing us to absorb their proteins, vitamins, and minerals more efficiently, while at the same time drastically reducing their cooking time. It’s a win-win.
If you’re new to sprouting, this is how you do it. Let’s start with grains. They must be whole with the hull still on. Wheat berries, amaranth, barley, buckwheat, kamut, millet, rice, rye berries, sorghum, and spelt—all sprout beautifully. Spelt grains are a household favorite of ours. These grains contain the bran, germ, and endosperm of the spelt kernel, which translates into maximum nutritional payload. In order to sprout them, the first step is to soak them in water. This increases their moisture content while neutralizing their phytic acid, a substance that can cause bloating. You then drain the grains and keep them moist inside a Mason jar for a period of one to five days. Cover the jar with a piece of mesh or cheesecloth so that you can drain them easily, also allowing air to circulate to prevent molding. Soon you will see them sprout before your very eyes. Sprouted grains can be eaten raw or lightly cooked, and are even found in some healthy breads. The same process can be used to sprout legumes like lentils and mung beans and all sorts of seeds from sunflower to quinoa.
Let’s move on to animal products. With the exception of extremely high-quality products such as sushi-quality fish, animal products must be cooked to kill bacteria and other pathogens. To bring out their full nutrient potential, fish and eggs are best consumed steamed or poached, with a dash of seasoning and fresh herbs. Meat is another food that cooking renders more easily digestible and bioavailable. For meat, roasting, grilling, or sautéing in a wok are ideal, while broiling and frying will increase their inflammatory and AGE-producing effects instead.
Regardless of which preparation method you choose, be stringent about selecting only healthy oils to use in your daily regimen. Most vegetable oils are available in both refined and unrefined (e.g., virgin) varieties. Much like grains and sugar, refined oils are made using highly intensive mechanical and chemical processes to extract the oil from seeds and nuts. This process removes nutrients, especially minerals, and creates a final product that is prone to oxidation. Oxidation makes refined oils more likely to produce free radicals in your body, which in turn work to age you. If this weren’t bad enough, many refined vegetable oils are also hydrogenated. As we have discussed, the hydrogenation process transforms these oils into trans fats, making them thicker at room temperature so they can be sold as margarines and shortenings. These oils might indeed be cheaper but will have a very negative impact on your health.
On the other hand, unrefined oils maintain the same qualities they possessed when still inside the plant. They have a full, rich flavor and are high in nutrients. Extra-virgin olive oil, for example, contains antioxidant polyphenols along with the healthy fats that would have otherwise been removed via the refining process. Whether you prefer olive or coconut oil, always choose the unrefined versions. Also keep in mind that oils rich in precious unsaturated fat such as olive oil and flaxseed oil are best consumed a crudo (raw, unheated), thereby retaining maximum nutrient content. However, if you use these oils for cooking, make sure you don’t overheat or burn them (you don’t want your oil to be sizzling and turning brown). For example, olive oil burns at 400°F (or 200°C).
For cooking, choose oils and fats with a high smoke point. The smoke point indicates the temperature limit up to which that cooking oil can be used, so the higher, the better. The best unrefined oil for cooking is avocado oil, which has the highest smoke point of all (520°F, or 270°C). Canola oil (rapeseed) and coconut oil come next. If you prefer animal fat for cooking, ghee (Indian clarified butter) is the best one (485°F, or 251°C).
EAT FOODS, NOT NUTRIENTS
Recent research, including my own work, supports the notion that nutritional supplementation is not equivalent to gleaning our nutrients from the whole foods we eat. In other words, supplements should be used to “supplement.” This brings us back to the touchy subject of obtaining precious brain-nutrients from our foods versus our supplements. Too many people do not obtain sufficient vitamins and minerals from food alone. However, rather than improving their diets to reach their full nutritional requirements, they prefer to resort to supplements as a shortcut.
As we have seen in the previous chapters, there is increasing scientific evidence that supplements alone won’t work. How our bodies respond to diet is a complex and highly coordinated system, and apparently what they can wrangle from a pill does not equal the benefits derived from real food. Think of nutrients as belonging to a team. A single player’s skill, no matter their expertise, means nothing unless there is an equally adept communication and coordination with the other teammates. The same principle applies to food. Nutrients from food are superior to supplements because they act in synergy with one another and within our bodies in a way that supplements apparently can’t. This downfall makes supplements the second choice when it comes to achieving our nutritional aims.
I’m not a big proponent of taking many supplements, as I believe the majority of our nutrients can and should come from the natural foods we eat. However, if you haven’t been eating enough nutrient-dense foods, supplements can help correct and avoid possible deficiencies. It is important that you discuss whether you need to take supplements with your doctor. The following supplements can be useful if your diet is low in some (or all) of the brain-essential nutrients we discussed throughout the book:
- Omega-3 DHA: Supplementing with 300 to 500 mg/day of omega-3 DHA is a good idea, especially for people age sixty or older. If you don’t eat fish, it is crucial to supplement your diet with at least 500 to 1000 mg of DHA per day.*
- Choline: Most people in the United States don’t consume enough choline-rich foods, especially fish. On those days you don’t eat fish, eggs, or other choline-natural sources, consider supplementing with 300 to 600 mg/day of alpha-GPC (the most bioavailable form of choline) or 420 mg/day of phosphatidylcholine (a good source of both choline and omega-3s) as a memory booster.
- B vitamins: It is important to supplement your diet with a B complex that contains a full spectrum of B vitamins. B vitamins are well-known nerve tonics that help reduce stress and fatigue, and play a crucial role in the production of neurotransmitters. Additionally, if you are fifty or older, and/or suffer from gastritis, reduced stomach acid, Crohn’s or celiac disease, or take medications like metformin (for diabetes) and acid blockers, talk to your doctor about having your vitamin B status checked. Especially as we get older, our metabolism naturally slows down and absorption of some vitamins like vitamin B12 might decrease as a result. Make sure it includes at least 50 mcg of vitamin B12 (cobalamin or methylcobalamin, as directed by your doctor).
- Minerals: Everybody needs to pay attention to their minerals, especially copper, iron, and zinc. Too few slow the brain down. Too many might rust your brain cells. Most people in the United States consume plenty of these minerals from everyday foods as well as other sources. If you are taking a multivitamin, check the label for its content of copper, iron, and zinc. If possible, choose a multivitamin without these minerals. Otherwise, check the label and make sure your supplements contain no more than 50 percent of the daily recommended dose (% DV) for these nutrients. Since dosages depend on your age and gender, refer to current Institute of Medicine’s guidelines for specific values (http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/Activities/Nutrition/SummaryDRIs/DRI-Tables.aspx) and discuss this with your doctor.
- Probiotics: Be sure to eat probiotic foods (e.g., yogurt, sauerkraut) every day. If you prefer to take supplements, or on days you don’t have access to those foods, remember to select a high-quality probiotic supplement that includes a minimum of three bacteria types, as described earlier. Personally, when I don’t have access to probiotic foods, I take my probiotic supplements in a refrigerated liquid form, as they are gentler on the GI tract.
- Antioxidants: If your typical diet hasn’t been focused on fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, your brain might be running low on antioxidants. In order to replenish your antioxidant reserve, consider supplementing with 100 to 200 mg/day of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10 or ubiquinone).* This is particularly important if you are sixty or older. CoQ10 is a powerful antioxidant involved in key metabolic reactions and energy production within brain cells.
- Herbs: If you lead a fairly sedentary lifestyle, ginkgo biloba, one of the world’s most renowned brain tonics, could help boost mental clarity and sharpness by improving oxygen delivery to the brain. The recommended dose is 240 mg/day of ginkgo extract. Panax ginseng could also be helpful for memory support, especially if you tend to have high blood sugar levels and/or high cholesterol. This herb has celebrated anti-aging properties, and has been shown to lower both sugar and cholesterol levels. The recommended dose is 4 grams/day of red Panax ginseng powder. You can also find it in liquid form, mixed with honey and royal jelly.
WATCH YOUR COOKWARE
As previously discussed, some minerals like copper and aluminum can enter the body via unexpected sources such as water pipes but also your pots and pans. Personally, I don’t use aluminum cookware at all. I also don’t recommend use of any cooking plastics (for example, microwavable plastic containers) or synthetic nonstick surfaces like Teflon, which contains PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), a toxic compound. Instead, my kitchen is well equipped with stainless steel, glass, cast iron, and traditional ceramic. Needless to say, disposable plates and paper cups should be altogether eliminated or at least used as a last resort.