Max Lugavere has always been interested in nutrition, but it wasn't until his mother started showing the early signs of dementia that he started researching the link between food and the brain. "After the trauma of her diagnosis and seeing the way cases like hers are treated in the top neurology departments in the U.S., I became laser-focused on learning how food affects cognition," he tells MyDomaine. "What shocked me was finding that often, changes begin in the brain decades before the first symptom. I decided to use my platform to educate others on how powerful their choices are when it comes to brain function."
Lugavere's New York Times best-selling book, Genius Foods, aims to do just that—though he admits he's benefited from the research process as much as readers. "It blew my mind that one in seven younger people complain of memory problems, that the odds of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s if you reach the age of 85 today are 50%, and that one in four women in their 40s and 50s are on antidepressants," he says. "Clearly our ancient brains are struggling to thrive in the modern world."
Lugavere believes that protecting and improving the cognitive function of the brain takes place in the kitchen. In his book, Lugavere outlines the "genius foods" that make you "smarter, happier, and more productive." Sound too good to be true? Below we spotlight four "genius" food groups and explain the science behind them. It's time to load your grocery cart, stat.
DARK LEAFY GREENS
Benefits: If you only incorporate one "genius food" into your diet from this book, Lugavere recommends it be dark leafy greens: "Research shows that one-third of a cup of dark leafy greens per day—the equivalent of a large salad—is related to up to 11 years of reduced brain aging. This is likely because dark leafy greens contain a myriad of micronutrients and fiber, which help keep inflammation at bay while supporting the body's hardwired detox programs."
Cooking Tips: Go raw—try a medley of "fatty salad" ingredients like kale, arugula, romaine lettuce, and spinach doused in olive oil.
Buyer's Guide: Not all greens are equal. Lugavere avoids "nutrient-poor" varieties like iceberg lettuce, which are mainly water and fiber.
Benefits: Eggs have been found to actively boost cognitive function. In fact, Lugavere says whole eggs (including the yolks) are "one of the most nutritious foods you can consume." Yolks contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to protect the brain and even improve neural processing.
Cooking Tips: Yolks contain valuable fats and cholesterol, so he avoids methods that cook the yolk (such as hard boiling).
Buyer's Guide: Lugavere follows this simple metric when buying eggs: pasture-raised > omega-3 enriched > free-range > conventional.
EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Benefits: Look to those who follow a Mediterranean diet: Studies suggest they have a lower incidence of Alzheimer's disease, perhaps because of their love of olive oil. This staple ingredient protects the brain and fights inflammation.
Cooking Tips: Lugavere's go-to lunch is a "huge salad drenched with extra-virgin olive oil and then topped with either chicken, grass-fed beef, or wild salmon." He recommends using olive oil as a dressing and storing it in a cool, dry place.
Buyer's Guide: Quality extra-virgin olive oils should taste grassy, not greasy. If there's one type of food you should avoid, it's grain and seed oils like canola and corn oil, says Lugavere. "More often than not, [they] contain trans fats and dangerous chemicals called aldehydes, which impair brain function even if you're young and healthy."
Benefits: Avocados are an "all-in-one 'genius food'—the perfect food to protect and enhance your brain," says Lugavere. They contain 12 grams of fiber, which feeds bacteria in your gut to reduce inflammation, enhance insulin sensitivities, and boost growth factors in the brain.
Cooking Tips: "I try to eat one half to a whole avocado every day. You can enjoy avocados simply sprinkled with a little sea salt and extra-virgin olive oil," he recommends.
Buyer's Guide: Squeeze the fruit in the palm of your hand, and if it yields to pressure, it's ripe to eat.
Now that you know the best foods to feed your brain, see how you can keep it healthy.