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Smart Eating for a Healthier Brain

Dec 25 2020
7 min read
Mother and daughter enjoying a meal together.

Good nutrition is central to a healthy brain.

At Canyon Ranch, we’ve developed meal strategies that will help keep your mind in optimal health for the rest of your life.

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 discover how to identify when certain foods affect you mentally and physically, both positively and negatively.

Richard Carmona, MD, MPH, FACS, 17th U.S. Surgeon General, Chief of Health Innovation, Vice Chairman of Canyon Ranch, and President of Canyon Ranch Institute®, writes about this approach in his book, 30 Days to a Better Brain. Here are some of the guiding principles of nutritional intelligence that Dr. Carmona covers:

Honor Your Individuality

Many factors influence your nutrient requirements — genetics, medical history, health status, eating preferences, lifestyle, and more. When you acknowledge the various roles food and eating play in your life, you can determine if your existing relationship with food is a healthy one.

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.

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 mind. 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 better maintain your energy level throughout the day and decrease the potential to overeat 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 of erratic eating or starvation, causing some to feel emotional or irritable when they are dieting and not taking in enough calories, or 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 seek out similar routines and scenarios in order to create more positive meal experiences.

For example, if you were told you had been given a glass of fabulously expensive wine, even though it was the $9.99 store special, it would set your whole meal up to be exceptional. In this case, the expectation established by previous memories of drinking good wine would encourage your brain to create an extraordinary experience in real time, even though you were 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 conclude 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 a dining experience that will enhance your enjoyment and memory of each meal. We pace meals slowly, starting with an appetizer — usually a soup or salad — followed by a main course, and finally a small serving of dessert. When your meals with us are memorable, you’ll be better prepared to recreate eating rituals at home, where you can make more positive memories associated with food.

A headshot of Chief of Health Innovations, Richard Carmona.

About the Expert

A headshot of Chief of Health Innovations, Richard Carmona.

Richard Carmona

MD, MPH, FACS, Chief of Health Innovation

From days of homelessness as a child, Dr. Richard Carmona worked his way up to serving as 17th U.S. Surgeon General (2002 – 2006). He’s a renowned integrative medicine physician, trauma surgeon, and global public health leader with military service and law enforcement experience. His long-standing leadership role and personal relationship with Canyon Ranch reflect a shared vision to promote healthy living.

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