These Foods Are Threatening Your Brain Health, Says a Dietitian
Are you feeling overwhelmed? Do you suffer from dramatic mood swings? Is your energy at an all-time low? If this sounds like you, then your diet could be to blame. New research shows a "very strong connection between food and mood." According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five, or roughly 43 million, Americans have a diagnosable mental disorder, and registered dietician Michelle Babb, MS, RD, CD, says this can be helped by making small changes to our daily diet.
In her new book, Anti-Inflammatory Eating for a Happy, Healthy Brain, Babb advocates the use of food as medicine to promote a healthy (and happy) brain that boosts your mood too. This isn't an elimination diet either. We quizzed Babb to find out exactly what brain foods we should be incorporating into our diet, which ones are threatening our brain health, and why some dairy and soy is actually good for you. Make sure you scroll to the end for three exclusive recipes from the book that not only satisfy the taste buds but your microbiome and your mood too. Oh, and did we mention they're also super easy and quick to make? Genius.
MYDOMAINE: What does a healthy brain look like? How do we know when it isn't healthy?
MICHELLE BABB: A healthy brain is one that allows us to experience balanced moods and have good focus and attention with good memory and recall. If the brain is unhealthy, you might experience excessively low mood or depression, anxiety, poor memory, and/or difficulty staying focused and completing tasks.
MD: What are the major food culprits that threaten brain health? What should we stop eating?
MB: In a variety of studies, foods that are correlated with depression, anxiety and low mood include sugar, processed foods, and too much meat and dairy. I would include in that list any foods that you're having an immune/inflammatory response to. For some, that might be wheat, dairy, eggs, etc.
MD: What are some of the common pantry items that are also medicinal and encourage a happy, healthy brain?
MB: Start with a refrigerator full of brightly colored fruits and veggies, and then stock your pantry with beans, nuts, and seeds; healthy fats like olive oil, olives, and avocados; and eat plenty of wild caught oily fish.
MD: What are some of the foods that increase inflammation?
MB: Foods that increase inflammation include sugar because it weakens the immune system and triggers the inflammatory alarm bells; meat/pork/poultry because it contains arachidonic acid, which initiates the inflammatory cascade in the body (sort of the opposite of omega-3 fatty acids); and processed foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fat, and unrecognizable ingredients.
MD: There has been a lot of negative media surrounding dairy, but in your book you incorporate it. What are some of the dairy items that are okay and what's not?
MB: The only form of dairy I suggest using in any appreciable amounts is cultured dairy, which includes yogurt and kefir. For many people who are not enthusiastic about eating fermented foods, this is one of the best ways to get active probiotics into your diet to help heal and balance the gut and strengthen the gut-brain connection. I don't advise cow's milk yogurt or kefir for anyone who has a dairy allergy/intolerance.
MD: Nightshades have also typically gotten a bad rap, but it's another food you recommend in the book? What are they exactly and how much/often should we eat them?
MB: Nightshades include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, and they're not inflammatory for everyone. The nightshades have a common compound called alkaloids and some people don't have the enzymes to properly break down those compounds. For those people, nightshades can be inflammatory.
For the vast majority, these foods are not inflammatory and actually have many compounds that support the immune system and reduce inflammation. For example, peppers have an active ingredient called capsaicin, which can reduce inflammation and relieve pain.
Serve It in Style
MD: Eggs are also a key ingredient in your book. Why are these beneficial? What is the recommended dosage?
MB: Eggs are one of the best sources of choline, which is a building block for acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is an amine neurotransmitter responsible for memory and cognition. So including eggs in the diet may actually help slow cognitive impairment and boost memory. I don't have a specific dosage in mind, but I will say that eggs also contain a fair amount of arachidonic acid, which is pro-inflammatory, so rotating eggs into the diet three to four times a week as opposed to every day might be a good idea.
MD: What are some of the myths around soy that you'd like to debunk? What kind of soy is okay and why?
MB: Soy is a very misunderstood food. It's a main staple in Asian diets, and those populations have far less inflammation and chronic disease than those following a Western diet. It's true that soy has naturally occurring phytoestrogens, but they're extremely weak estrogens that appear to be protective against hormonal cancers like breast cancer and prostate cancer. Soy is also an excellent plant-based source of protein and delivers a decent amount of calcium, both of which are useful if you're trying to follow a more plant-based diet.
The other objection I hear is that soy is genetically modified. To avoid the GMO problem, just choose organic. Our organic standards strictly forbid GMOs, and soy is a self-pollinating crop so there are no worries about drift. Best advice is to eat organic soy foods that are minimally processed like edamame, miso, tofu, and tempeh. Skip any fake meat products featuring textured soy protein (TSP).
MD: Is the standard American diet making us sad? Can you briefly explain the food-mood connection?
MB: It's well documented in the research that the most common elements of the SAD (meat, dairy, sugar, and processed foods) correlate with increased inflammation and a higher incidence of chronic diseases, depression, anxiety, and neurodegenerative disorders. One study revealed an association between suicide attempts and oxidative stress, which comes from a processed food diet that devoid of antioxidant-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. Conversely, a large study involving more than 10,000 participants revealed a 30% lower risk of depression in those who adhered to a Mediterranean diet (defined as fish, legumes, nuts, fruit, and veggies).
MD: What are the top five mind-altering foods you recommend we incorporate into our diets now?
MB: 1. Fish/seafood: High in omega-3s, fish and seafood are a good source of tyrosine, which is a pre-cursor of dopamine (the pleasure-sensing neurotransmitter).
2. Avocados: They provide nearly 20 essential nutrients and are a rich source of folate and B6, which are essential for serotonin and dopamine production.
3. Leafy greens: These are a good source of vitamin K, which reduces inflammation.
4. Fermented and cultured foods: They introduce beneficial bacteria and help balance the microbiome, which helps enhance the gut-brain connection.
5. Berries: They're loaded with antioxidants that help squelch free radicals and minimize oxidative stress.
Breakfast Salad Sunny-Side Up
"I know what you’re thinking; salad for breakfast? You’ve gotta be kidding me! To that I would say, don’t knock it till you try it. I love the simplicity of throwing a fistful of greens in a bowl and using the rich, delicious egg yolk as the dressing. When I’m feeling more ambitious, I might put some sautéed vegetables like leeks, mushrooms, and peppers on top of the greens, but most days it’s just me, the greens, and two eggs having a wake-up party."
Makes: 1 Serving
Difficulty Meter: 1 out of 5
2 cups loosely packed spinach and/or baby kale
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil ¼ teaspoon sea salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup water
2 large eggs
1. In a bowl, toss the greens with the oil, salt, and pepper.
2. In a small skillet with a lid over high heat, bring the water to a low boil, and then reduce the heat to medium.
3. Gently crack each egg into the skillet. Cover and cook the eggs for 3–4 minutes, or until the whites are opaque but the yolks are still runny.
4. Use a spatula to transfer the eggs to the greens. Cut the eggs open with your fork to get the full effect of the yolks blending with the oil for a perfect breakfast salad dressing.
Brain Food Fact
"Eggs are one of the best food sources of choline, which helps boost memory and improves cognitive function. As an added bonus, high-choline foods may help decrease anxiety, some studies show."
Delicata Squash With Quinoa-Pecan Stuffing
"I love vegetarian dishes that feel hearty enough to make you forget that you’re not eating meat. This is one of those dishes. The quinoa stuffing, dressed up with pecans and seasoned with sage, is reminiscent of a Thanksgiving meal. The delicata squash is the perfect reservoir for the quinoa filling. It lends a sweet, rich flavor and a meaty texture, plus the skin is tender enough to make the entire container edible."
Makes: 6 Servings
Difficulty Meter: 2 out of 5
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, diced
3/4 cup chopped cremini mushrooms
1 carrot, shredded
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried sage
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/3 cup finely chopped pecans
2 tsp. sea salt
3 medium delicata squashes, halved lengthwise
1. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the broth and quinoa and bring to a boil.
2. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes without stirring. Fluff with a fork and let cool for about 5 minutes.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
4. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil and onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the mushrooms and sauté for 2 minutes.
5. Add the carrot, bell pepper, garlic, sage, and oregano and sauté for another 3 minutes. Stir in the quinoa, pecans, and salt.
6. Scoop the seeds and stringy pulp out of the squash halves. Arrange the squashes cut side up in shallow baking dish and generously fill them with the quinoa stuffing.
7. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 25–30 minutes, or until the squashes are tender.
Sinfully Silky Chocolate Mousse
"I changed the name of this recipe from 'sane and silky' to 'sinfully silky' because who wants to think about being sane when eating dessert? But the truth is, there’s nothing sinful about this dessert. I realize you might be skeptical when you see tofu and avocado in the ingredient list, but trust me, you’ll be rewarded with a light, smooth, chocolaty treat that will help you tame the sugar beast. The almond extract is optional but definitely gives this treat more of an Almond Joy quality. You can even top it with some unsweetened shredded coconut to complete the picture."
Makes: 4 Servings
Difficulty Meter: 1 out of 5
10 ounces silken tofu
1 small or 1⁄2 large avocado
1⁄2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1⁄3 cup agave nectar or pure maple syrup
1 tsp. almond extract (optional)
1. In a blender or food processor, blend all the ingredients until silky smooth.
2. Taste and add more sweetener, 1 teaspoon at a time, if necessary.
3. Transfer the mousse into dessert glasses, cover, and chill in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight for the best texture.
For more information and to discover more recipes that improve your brain health, shop Michelle Babb's best-selling book below.