How’s this for a resolution? Resolve to improve your mood, concentration, and energy, lower your stress hormone levels, re-balance your hormones, and reduce your risk for dementia and other chronic diseases — all within six weeks. All you have to do is commit to a brain-healthy lifestyle, starting with your diet.
What is a brain-healthy diet? The very same diet that is healthy for the rest of your body, thankfully. With all the confusing, contradictory, and constantly changing headlines about which foods are good or bad for us, it’s easy to be frustrated and even to give up trying to eat “healthy,” because nobody seems to agree on what a healthy diet is. The reason is that the majority of nutrition headlines are based on poorly designed rodent research and “epidemiological studies,” instead of on dietary experiments in humans. The “conclusions” of epidemiological studies are literally guesses based on food and health questionnaires and statistical manipulation. These guesses are often heavily influenced by the dietary beliefs and preferences of the scientists who design the studies. When these guesses are later tested in clinical trials, more than 80 percent are eventually proved wrong. This is why nutrition headlines are so bewildering. One day eggs are bad for you (epidemiology), and the next day they’re fine (clinical trials).
The information I’ve compiled in this simple list is 100 percent epidemiology-free. Instead, the guidelines are grounded in the sciences of anthropology, biochemistry, botany, and human physiology, as well as human clinical trials. All underlined phrases within the list are live links to scientific references or fully referenced articles with more information. There are no magical superfoods or supplements in this all-natural, science-based approach, just a few simple, common-sense rules about what to eat and, perhaps most importantly, what not to eat. Ready? Onward!
1. Eat only real, whole, “preagricultural” foods. This includes seafood, red meat, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. I recommend avoiding all grains (wheat, corn, rice, oats, etc.) and legumes (beans, peas, lentils, hummus, soy, etc.), because they are low in nutrients and high in anti-nutrients and lectins that pose a risk to human health.
2. Drink water or unsweetened, naturally flavored water/seltzer when you’re thirsty. Drinking sweetened beverages is dangerous, putting you on a fast track to a damaged metabolism, and then keeping you there. It is just as important to avoid fruit juices, even all-natural juices with no sugar added, as the body cannot distinguish between various forms of liquid sugar. Click here for a table of sugar content in various beverages, including fruit juices.
3. Avoid refined carbohydrates like the plague. Concentrated, processed sugars and starches cause unnaturally high spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels that destabilize brain chemistry and damage brain cell metabolism. Examples include sugar, flour, fruit juice, and processed cereals.
4. Avoid refined “vegetable” (seed) oils, like soybean, safflower, and corn oil, and choose natural, unprocessed animal and fruit fats instead. Industrially produced seed oils tend to be high in omega-6 fatty acids, which promote inflammation and fight against the omega-3 fatty acids our brains and immune systems require to function properly. Examples of healthier fat choices include lard, schmaltz, beef tallow, olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil. (See "Cooling Brain Inflammation Naturally with Food" for a table of the omega-6 content of various plant and animal fats.)
5. Include animal protein in your diet on a regular basis — seafood, poultry, red meat, eggs, etc. Plant proteins are not only harder to digest and absorb, but the foods they come from are high in “anti-nutrients” that rob the brain (and body) of key minerals and other essential nutrients. I realize that there are many reasons to eat a plant-based diet unrelated to brain health, so if you choose to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, please learn all you can about proper supplementation of key nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin K2, EPA, DHA, iron, and zinc. (See "The Vegan Brain" for more information.)
6. Minimize alcohol, and be careful with caffeine, especially if you have anxiety or insomnia. (For more, see "Foods and Substances That Can Cause Anxiety and Insomnia.")
7. Get tested for insulin resistance (aka “pre-diabetes”). Insulin resistance has been identified as a key cause of most cases of garden-variety Alzheimer’s disease. It also contributes to symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, and psychotic disorders. If you are insulin-resistant, take immediate steps to lower your insulin levels with diet and exercise. While there are many ways to accomplish this, low-carbohydrate diets can be particularly effective weapons against insulin resistance and tend to be easier to sustain than low-fat or low-calorie diets. As an added bonus, addressing insulin resistance can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk for chronic medical conditions including diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. (See "How to Diagnose, Prevent and Treat Insulin Resistance.")
8. Get tested for iron deficiency. The brain needs iron for neurotransmitter production (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine), generation of brain energy, hippocampal function (memory), and cell signaling. If you are iron deficient, increase your intake of red meat, organ meats, and/or shellfish, and decrease your intake of plant foods that interfere with iron absorption. Phytates (found in beans, nuts, seeds, and grains), oxalates (found in spinach, cocoa, beets, sesame seeds, rhubarb, sweet potato, coriander, and currants) and tannins (found in legumes, nuts, cocoa, wine, tea, berries, pomegranates, and many other fruits) all reduce the brain's access to iron. Plant foods also happen to contain a form of iron that is more difficult for the human body to utilize. Iron supplements may be necessary in some cases, and may be particularly important for those who choose to eat a plant-based or high-plant diet.
9. Get tested for vitamin B12 deficiency. Without this essential vitamin, the body cannot synthesize DNA, RNA, red blood cells, or myelin (the substance that wraps around and insulates our brain circuitry). Not surprisingly, B12 deficiency can cause a host of serious psychiatric problems, including depression, psychosis, memory problems, mania, and changes in behavior or personality. Make sure your health-care provider knows how to properly evaluate your B12 status; accuracy can be improved by including additional tests, perhaps most importantly a methylmalonic acid level. If you have a simple nutritional B12 deficiency, increase your intake of red meat, shellfish, and/or organ meats. Supplements may be necessary in some cases, and are mandatory for those choosing a plant-based diet.
10. Find a form of exercise you enjoy and make it part of your life — nearly every day, if you can, but at least three times a week. Strength or resistance training that builds and tones muscle seems to be superior to aerobic exercise (walking, running) in preventing and managing insulin resistance.
Try the dietary approach described above for six weeks, and keep track of any changes you notice in how you feel — not just mentally and emotionally, but also physically. See if you don't gradually feel better within six weeks. Even if you can't do it perfectly, practice making these changes as often as you possibly can. You'll get better at it as you gain more experience.
This diet is not rocket science; anyone can do it. And it's not radical; it is essentially a simple, preagricultural diet based on whole animal and plant foods. It is not only highly nutritious and all-natural, it is also easier on the digestive system, has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, and is naturally free of several common food allergy and sensitivity culprits like wheat, dairy, soy, and corn. It is deliciously satisfying, wholesome, and contains no processed sugars or fats. Every ingredient is a real food that any child can identify and pronounce. This is the diet our brains “grew up on” during the nearly 2 million years of human evolution prior to agriculture, and is therefore the diet our brains are probably best adapted to utilizing.
But don’t take my word for it: It’s perfectly safe, so try it for yourself, and see how you feel. It's worth seeing what you may discover about yourself. This is a low-risk, high-potential benefit approach. No guarantees, of course; not everyone will feel better. But if you don't feel better, there are additional individualized tweaks that can make a big difference for people with certain food sensitivities. I will follow the comments section below until mid-February in case you run into problems.
Note: If you currently have any significant health problems or take medications for any psychiatric or medical condition, please be sure to consult with your health-care provider before you begin, as making healthy dietary changes will sometimes affect your health condition or the dosage of medication you need. This tends to be more of an issue with low-carbohydrate diets than balanced whole foods diets, but nevertheless, it's good to be on the safe side. If you feel worse when changing to this diet, simply stop it and go back to your usual diet, then consult with your health-care team.
P.S. For those of you surprised to read that I recommend animal foods for brain health, please see my fully referenced article "Your Brain On Plants: Micronutrients and Mental Health" to see why I have come to this conclusion.