Journalist Max Lugavere, author behind New York Times best-selling book Genius Foods has always been interested in nutrition. But it wasn't until his mother started showing early signs of dementia (a term used to refer to an array of medical conditions of the brain, with Alzheimer's, or memory decline, being the most common) 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," Lugavere 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."
Genius Foods, which was co-authored with Dr. Paul Grewal, an Internal Medicine physician, aims to do just that—though Lugavere 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 percent, 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."
Brain Food: The Genius Foods Diet
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 list," or the foods to eat more of to promote a "smarter, happier, and more productive" self.
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 vetting process when buying eggs: Look for pasture-raised first, omega-3 enriched second, free-range third, and lastly, conventional.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
- Benefits: Studies suggest that those who follow a Mediterranean diet 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 large salad dressed generously with extra-virgin olive oil and 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: Lugavere recommends eating a half or whole avocado daily. Enjoy with a little sea salt and extra-virgin olive oil.
- Buyer's Guide: Squeeze the fruit in the palm of your hand, and if it yields to pressure, it's ripe to eat.