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Smart Eating for a Healthier Brain

Increasing your “nutritional intelligence” can help you prevent changes like memory loss and cognitive decline
Written by 
Richard Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S.

Good eating is central to a healthy brain, and at Canyon Ranch, we’ve developed strategies for your meals that will keep your mind in optimal health for the rest of your life. Richard Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., president of the Canyon Ranch Institute and a former Surgeon General of the United States, writes about these strategies in his book 30 Days to a Better Brain.

Our philosophy is based on what we like to call nutritional intelligence, the integration of practical food and nutrition knowledge with an understanding of yourself. Developing your nutritional intelligence can lead to sustainable and effective eating strategies that meet your unique needs. Not only will you learn to eat to improve your brain health, you’ll also learn how to identify when certain foods affect you mentally and physically, both positively and negatively. The guiding principles of nutritional intelligence include:. Here’s an excerpt that will get you started on your journey toward a healthier brain.                                                                       

Honor Your Individuality. Many factors influence your nutrient requirements—genetics, medical history, health status, eating preferences, lifestyle and more. Acknowledge the various roles food and eating play in your life, and determine if your existing relationship with food is healthy.

Practice Engaged Eating. Eating should be a joyful experience that engages your physical and emotional senses. Maximize your enjoyment of food by indulging your preferences for flavor and texture and by creating meaningful mealtime rituals. Eat slowly, chew thoroughly and savor the sensual experience that eating should be.

More: Bringing Mindfulness to Mealtime

Gently Satisfy Your Appetite. Eat with awareness and attention to your physical appetite, so that you eat when you are hungry and stop when you are comfortably satisfied but not overfull. We believe that the enjoyment of a meal is not necessarily dependent on quantity. Start by serving yourself smaller portions than you are used to, and decide if you are still hungry before you eat more. Work on distinguishing between physical hunger and other reasons for eating, such as dealing with stress, anxiety or boredom, or fulfilling other emotional needs.

These decisions are important, because eating too much is bad not only for the body but for the brain. Recent studies have shown that a diet too high in calories can increase your risk of memory loss and premature brain aging. There’s also a definite relationship between exceeding a healthy weight, as measured by your body mass index (BMI), and cognitive decline. In a 2011 study released by the Mayo Clinic, older people who consumed more than 2,000 calories a day had more than double the risk of memory loss compared with those who ate fewer than 1,500 calories a day.

Establish a Pattern of Eating Regularly. You’re more likely to be satisfied with reasonable portions if you don’t let yourself become ravenously hungry between meals. Plan to eat every three to four hours, basing your eating on a pattern of breakfast, lunch and dinner, with an afternoon snack—especially if there is a long time between lunch and dinner. It’s easy to forget to eat when you are very busy, but regular meals may help you maintain your energy level throughout the day and decrease the potential of overeating in the evening.

What’s more, the brain runs on glucose, the simplest form of sugar. One of the best things you can do to support brain health is to manage blood sugar by feeding your brain throughout the day with small, frequent meals. Each of these meals should be composed of complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds, along with a healthy lean protein and a moderate amount of fat. This combination is the optimal way to deliver a sustained breakdown of glucose to the brain. The brain receives the glucose from the carbs right away. Later, once the proteins are broken down, it will receive those nutrients as glucose, and then much later, it can tap into glucose that has been stored in the richest, most concentrated way, via fat. So when you eat five times a day instead of one or two giant, calorie-laden meals, you are helping to create and deliver a constant supply of glucose that keeps the brain strong.

Another benefit of switching to this type of eating pattern is that many people see an improvement in their mood because their brain is receiving a steady supply of fuel. The brain doesn’t like the ups and downs and highs and lows of erratic eating or starvation, causing some to feel emotional or irritable when they are dieting and not taking in enough calories or are spreading meals too far apart during the day.

The Importance of Creating a Memorable Meal

It’s not just what you eat; it’s also how you eat that can help improve your mind and mood. The memory of a meal is just as important as its nutritional value in terms of brain health. Your memories are what prompt you to search out more similar experiences in order to create more positive memories. So the momentary pleasure and nutrition that you get from food are just as important as the pleasurable experience that stays with you.

For example, if I told you I was giving you a glass of fabulously expensive wine, even though it might really be the $9.99 store special, I can guarantee you would remember the whole meal as being exceptional. In this case, it’s the expectation set up by previous memories of drinking good wine that forces your brain to create an extraordinary experience in real time, even though you are drinking ordinary wine.

What’s more, the way you eat and the order in which you eat makes a big difference in how you remember a meal. Research has shown us that the end of a meal is particularly important for creating positive memories. That’s why we traditionally end important meals, like dinner, with a dessert that is sweet and rich—both sweetness and richness are satisfying to the brain.

At Canyon Ranch we strive to craft perfect meals that are meant to enhance your ability to enjoy and remember a great meal. We pace out meals slowly, starting with an appetizer—usually a soup or salad—followed by a main course and finally a small serving of dessert. This is designed to enhance the memory of the meal, so that when you get home you can re-create this ritual of eating and produce more of your own positive memories associated with food.

More:

Brain Superfoods

How Your Brain Changes with Age

About the author 
Richard Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., is president of the Canyon Ranch Institute, vice chairman of Canyon Ranch and the Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the University of Arizona. He also served as the 17th Surgeon General of the United States from 2002 to 2006.