After a decade of research, a science journalist uncovers dietary culprits that appear to sabotage cognitive function.
It has happened to so many of us; we notice a fleeting something in a friend or relative and don’t think much of it … until we realize that it was an early sign of cognitive decline. For science journalist and author Max Lugavere, it was something they noticed in the way his mother walked, going from a once-spirited stride to one that appeared to require consideration.
As Lugavere’s mother slipped into a form of dementia that gradually stripped away her cognitive functions, the writer set out on a decade of research to uncover all that he could about what might have led to his mother’s condition. Given that there had been no family history of like conditions – and his grandmother was still going strong – Lugavere set out to find “What changed in our diets and lifestyles betweens my grandmother’s generation and my mother’s? Was my mom somehow poisoned by the world around her?”
The fruits of his labor? As he calls it, “a scavenger hunt for the truth” – a wealth of information gleaned from doctors and researchers that he turned into an “evidence based owner’s manual for the human brain” called Genius Foods, co-written with internal medicine physician and weight loss expert Paul Grewal, MD. The book is the culmination of “hundreds (if not thousands) of dscipline-spanning research papers” and interviews with dozens of “leading researchers and many of the most highly respected clinicians in the world.”
The whole book is rife with research and wisdom – much of it echoing the studies that I’ve been following over the past few years, things like: Simple carbs are troublesome; sugar is especially bad; additives are harmful; healthy fats are not the enemy; the gut microbiome is a magical place; and more … and all of it can directly effect the glorious gray matter that serves as command central for the human body.
Every chapter is intriguing, but Chapter 3, “Overfed, Yet Starving,” pretty much perfectly sums up the state of the Standard American Diet. Mountains of processed food that is big on flavor and low on nutrition – is it any wonder that, according to the CDC, the prevalence of obesity was 39.8 percent and affected about 93.3 million of U.S. adults in 2015-2016? Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.
In the chapter, Lugavere explains how the forager’s diet was transformed with the advent of agriculture, leading to a “vicious spiral that changed the very nature of our brains.” From a range of wild foods, we became reliant on the much more limited plants and animals we could cultivate. While a hunter-gatherer required flexible thinking to survive, after agriculture came about, specialization became favored, eventually leading to the industrial revolution.
He writes that the ancient brain doesn’t fit into the modern environment, as evidenced by the millions of Americans on antidepressants, stimulants, and drugs of abuse. “A person with ADHD, whose brain thrives on novelty and exploration, may have been the ultimate hunter-gatherer – but today this person struggles with a job that requires repetition and routine…”
Excuse this long introduction – but it’s fascinating and goes on to set the stage for what’s to follow; which is, among many other things, that food manufacturers have latched on to our ancient brain’s desire for survival in the form of nutrient energy. Even if it’s just a quick hit that doesn’t do much for the body. Take sugar, for example, and the way it stimulates the release of dopamine in the same ways that drugs of abuse do. Our ancient brains were rewarded for snagging some wild fruit, the modern brain continues with the reward, although sugar is so wildly abundant that is defies belief. We keep eating more and more and more, even if in the end, it doesn’t actually satisfy the body. He writes (emphasis mine):
What nobody tells us as we peruse the aisles lined with air-pumped bags of bliss is that these foods are literally designed to create insatiable overconsumption, designed in labs by well-paid food scientists to be hyper-palatable. Salt, sugar, fat, and often wheat flour are combined to maximize pleasure, driving your brain’s reward system to an artificial “bliss point” that simulates the addictive properties of controlled substance.
To be fair, people have been telling this to us, but the message hasn’t been very well heard or accepted. And with all the money behind Big Food, it’s not surprising that processed foods have maintained such a stronghold.
Anyway, this is where Lugavere presents his list of:
“FOODS UNIQUELY DESIGNED TO SCREW UP YOUR BRAIN”
These are readily available foods that are most often processed, and loaded with simple carbs, fat and salt. Some of them pose as healthful. Since nutrition is one of the easiest ways to practice preventative medicine – and since good health and wellness are an important tenet of sustainability – we think these 29 (and their kin) are definitely good ones to keep in mind.
- Milk chocolate/white chocolate
- Energy bars
- Granola bars
- White bread
- Frozen yogurt
- Ice cream
Now I would add that this list in not exhaustive – and there may be some versions of some of these items that are actually OK, but the idea is that processed foods loaded with sugar and other simple carbs are not your friend. The book goes on to point out all kinds of foods that appear to not be doing the brain any favors. As well, Lugavere devotes a mini-chapter to each of 10 foods that serve the brain well (hello, olive oil and avocado).
If you’re interested in brain health, the book is a great read – and as far as I can tell, most of the recommendations would be beneficial to the rest of the body as well.
And this is interesting: Though it’s by no means a scientific study, here’s a real-world story in which a son and mother put some of these practices into action – based on the general body of research supporting the ideas:
The results are encouraging, and really do suggest that we may have more agency in protecting our brains than we think. What’s the worst that can happen – we give up crappy food and eat delicious things that are good for our body? My ancient brain in this crazy modern world says, “yes, please.”