Simple food rules for optimum brain health

A summary based on Dr. Daniel Amen's BRIGHT MINDS model for brain health

Wellthy adjective - characterized by focusing on good habits to make it easier to make healthy choices to have a balanced, healthy life that includes enjoying simple pleasures without guilt.

If we had to choose whether to improve our brains or bodies to be wellthy, of course, we would choose both. But if you could only choose one to focus on, which one would you pick?

We have lots of resources to help our bodies when they go wrong. We have transplants, artificial limbs, and helpful equipment such as wheelchairs. There is no wheelchair for the brain. Once your brain goes, there isn’t much that current medicine has to offer.

Earlier this year Dr. Daniel Amen, MD released a new book: The End of Mental Illness: How neuroscience is transforming psychiatry and helping prevent or reverse mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, addictions, PTSD, psychosis, personality disorders, and more. (affiliate link)

According to Dr. Amen, your brain accounts for only 2 percent of your body weight, yet it uses 20 to 30 percent of the calories you consume and 20 percent of the oxygen and blood flow in your body. There are several foundational principles of brain function:

  • Your brain is involved in everything you do.

  • When your brain works right, you work right.

  • Your brain is the most complicated organ in the universe.

  • Your brain has needs that must be met in order to work at optimal efficiency.

  • Your brain is soft, and it is housed in a very hard skull.

  • Like an orchestra, all parts of your brain need to be working well together to make you the best that you can be.

  • Understanding your brain helps you identify specific problems and which part of your brain may need help.

  • Psychiatric "illnesses" are not single or simple disorders; they all have multiple types that require their own treatments. 

  • The amount of "brain reserve" you have can help you handle life's stresses or make you more vulnerable to them.

  • You are not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better without using medication.

Dr. Amen uses the following mnemonic to list the 11 major risk factors that affect brain performance:

BRIGHT MINDS

B is for Blood Flow

R is for Retirement and Aging

I is for Inflammation

G is for Genetics

H is for Head Trauma

T is for Toxins

M is for Mind Storms

I is for Immunity and Infections

N is for Neurohormone issues

D is for Diabesity

S is for Sleep

This book has a lot of great information, but perhaps the most practical information is in Chapter 18, which outlines the 11 rules for what to eat and what to avoid for optimum brain health.

11 BRIGHT MINDS Rules for Nutrition for Optimum Health

Bright Minds Rule #1 - Only love foods that love you back.

This rule is more about what to stay away from, which Dr. Amen calls the REAL weapons of mass destruction:

  • highly processed

  • pesticide sprayed

  • high-glycemic (spikes blood sugar)

  • low-fiber

  • food-like substances

  • artificially colored and sweetened

  • laden with hormones

  • tainted with antibiotics

  • stored in plastic containers

Bright Minds Rule #2 - Go for the highest-quality calories you can find and not too many if you need to lose weight.

Bright Minds Rule #3 - Hydrate but do not drink your calories.

The brain is comprised of 80 percent water, and being even mildly dehydrated can negatively impact your moods—making you feel more anxious, tense, depressed, or angry—in addition to sapping your energy levels and lowering your ability to concentrate. Being dehydrated by just 2 percent impairs performance in tasks that require attention, immediate memory skills, and physical performance.

Drink water, unsweetened sparkling water, water flavored with slices of fruits, water with flavored stevia, coconut water, herbal tea, green tea, and black tea. I’m going to add Bulletproof coffee to the list because it fully meets the rules. You can read more about Bulletproof coffee in a previous issue.

SKIP/LIMIT: Calorie-laden drinks, cocktails, energy drinks, sodas, and diet drinks—all of which increase your risk of brain health/mental health issues.

Bright Minds Rule #4 - Eat high-quality protein at every meal to balance blood sugar and keep cravings away.

Recommended proteins:

  • Fish - The larger the fish, the more mercury it may contain. From safe fish choices, eat a variety of fish, preferably those highest in omega-3s like wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, anchovies, hake, and haddock. Learn more at www.seafoodwatch.org.

  • Lamb

  • Turkey

  • Chicken

  • Beef

  • Pork

  • Beans/legumes

  • Raw nuts

  • High-protein veggies such as broccoli and spinach

SKIP/LIMIT: Low-quality proteins raised with pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics, and excessive protein, which strains the body systems.

Bright Minds Rule #5 - Eat and cook with high-quality fats

Of the solid weight of the brain, 60 percent is fat. Low-fat diets are not good for your brain.

Healthiest fats:

  • Avocados

  • Cocoa butter

  • Coconut

  • Grass-fed beef, bison, and lamb

  • Nuts (walnuts are associated with less depression)

  • Olives

  • Organic free-range poultry

  • Seafood - anchovies, arctic char, catfish, herring, king crab, mackerel, wild salmon, sardines, sea bass, snapper, sole, trout, tuna, clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops

  • Seeds

Healthiest oils:

  • Avocado oil

  • Coconut oil

  • Flax oil

  • Macadamia nut oil

  • Olive oil

  • Sesame oil

  • Walnut oil

SKIP/LIMIT: Unhealthiest fats and oils such as canola oil, corn oil, vegetable oil, industrial farm-raised animal fat and dairy, processed meats, safflower oil, soy oil, trans fats.

Bright Minds Rule #6 - Go for smart carbohydrates (colorful, low glycemic, and high fiber)

Fiber is a special type of carbohydrate that enhances digestion, reduces the risk of colon cancer, and helps to balance blood pressure and blood sugar. Women should consume 25 to 30 grams of fiber every day; men, 30 to 38 grams. High-fiber foods—such as broccoli, berries, onions, flax seeds, nuts, green beans, cauliflower, celery, and sweet potatoes (the skin of one sweet potato has more fiber than a bowl of oatmeal!)—have the added benefit of making you feel full faster and longer.

Colorful vegetables and fruits are full of brain health/mental health benefits, providing nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. A recent study found that happiness is correlated with how many fruits and vegetables you eat. The more colorful fruits and vegetables you eat (up to eight servings a day), the happier you become—almost immediately.

SKIP/LIMIT: High-glycemic, low-fiber foods, such as breads, pasta, potatoes, rice, and sugar that increase your risk of brain health/mental health issues.

Bright Minds Rule #7 - Use herbs and spices like medicine.

Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, listed more than 500 medicinal uses for herbs and spices, including ways to prevent illness and increase longevity.

In multiple studies, a saffron extract was found to be as effective as antidepressant medication in treating people with major depression.

Turmeric, used in curry, contains a chemical that has been shown to decrease the plaques in the brain thought to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientific evidence shows rosemary, thyme, and sage help boost memory.

Cinnamon has been shown to help improve attention and blood sugar regulation. It is high in antioxidants and is a natural aphrodisiac.

Garlic and oregano boost blood flow to the brain.

The hot, spicy taste of ginger, cayenne, and black pepper comes from gingerols, capsaicin, and piperine, compounds that boost metabolism and have an aphrodisiac effect.

SKIP/LIMIT: Artificial colors and flavors geared to hijack your brain.

Bright Minds Rule #8 - Make your food as clean as possible (eliminate artificial sweeteners, colors, preservatives, and foods in plastic containers) and read the labels.

Go organic, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, grass-fed, and free-range whenever possible.

Fifteen foods with the LOWEST levels of pesticide residues:

  • Avocados

  • Sweet corn

  • Pineapples

  • Cabbages

  • Onions

  • Sweet peas (frozen)

  • Papayas

  • Asparagus

  • Mangoes

  • Eggplants

  • Honeydew melons

  • Kiwis

  • Cantaloupes

  • Cauliflower

  • Broccoli

Twelve foods with the HIGHEST levels of pesticide residues (buy organic or don’t eat them):

  • Strawberries

  • Spinach

  • Nectarines

  • Apples

  • Grapes

  • Peaches

  • Cherries

  • Pears

  • Tomatoes

  • Celery

  • Potatoes

  • Sweet bell peppers

SKIP/LIMIT: Foods raised with pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, or containing artificial sweeteners, dyes, and preservatives.

Bright Minds Rule #9 - If you struggle with any brain health/mental health or physical issue, eliminate any potential allergens or internal attackers such as sugar, MSG, gluten, corn, soy, and dairy for a month to see if you improve.

Why you should limit or avoid some foods

  1. Sugar - When you consume sugar—even if it’s natural honey or maple—it causes your blood sugar to spike then drop, impacting your mood and sense of well-being. High-sugar diets increase inflammation, cause fatigue and cravings, lead to erratic brain cell firing that has been implicated in aggression, and alter memory and learning.

Top 15 Names for Sugar

  1. Sugar

  2. Molasses

  3. Caramel color

  4. Barley malt

  5. Corn syrup or corn syrup solids

  6. Cane juice

  7. High fructose corn syrup

  8. Honey

  9. Sorbitol

  10. Fructose

  11. Cane juice crystals

  12. Maltose

  13. Fruit juice concentrate

  14. Maltodextrin

  15. Dextrose

  1. Artificial Sweeteners - Artificial sweeteners—including aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low), and sucralose (Splenda)—can lead to chronically elevated insulin levels, which raises your risk for depression, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems. And they are associated with metabolic syndrome and may actually be contributing to obesity.

  2. Gluten - Gluten—found in breads, cereals, and pasta, as well as everything from salad dressings and chicken broth to spice mixes and veggie burgers—has been linked to a rising number of health issues including celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis—all of which are autoimmune conditions. Approximately 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity, according to the Center for Celiac Research. Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are related to a number of brain health/mental health symptoms including:

    • Anxiety disorders

    • Depression

    • Mood disorders

    • ADD/ADHD

    • Autism spectrum disorders

    • Schizophrenia

  3. Soy - Soy, a protein derived from soybeans, contains components that may impact some risk factors including lectins, carbohydrate-binding proteins that can be toxic, allergenic, and inflammatory. Soy also contains large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids that can lead to inflammation as well as phytoestrogens that may contribute to the development of cancer, early puberty in girls, and impotence in men.

  4. Corn - Corn’s fatty acid profile is among the most unhealthy of all grains and can have many negative effects. Corn is high in omega-6s and very low in omega-3s, which could lead to inflammation. Corn can be damaging to the intestinal lining and triggers intestinal permeability issues. Corn is often sprayed with glyphosate pesticide Roundup, one of the most toxic substances to human cells that is associated with ADD/ADHD, depression, Parkinson’s disease, MS, hypothyroidism, cancer, and liver disease.

  5. Milk - Milk can raise the risk of several risk factors. It is converted to galactose and glucose, which raises blood sugar levels and can lead to inflammation and diabetes. The milk protein casein is an excitotoxin that can lead to brain inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases.

    SKIP/LIMIT: Sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives and dyes, gluten, corn, soy, and dairy.

    When combined with stomach acid, gluten in wheat, casein in dairy, albumin in rice, and zein in corn turn into exorphins, which can have opiate-like effects on the brain, making it very hard to stop eating them.

    Bright Minds Rule #10 - Use intermittent fasting to supercharge your brain.

    Time-restricted feeding has been shown to significantly improve memory, mood, fat loss, weight, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers. Nightly 12-to-16-hour fasts turn on a process called autophagy, which helps your brain clear out the waste that is accumulated throughout the day. Not eating within two to three hours of bedtime also reduces your risk of heart attack and stroke. New research also suggests that if you have more calories at lunch and then eat a light dinner, you are more likely to lose weight than the other way around.

    Bright Minds Rule #11 - Get a routine that serves your health rather than hurts it. We are all creatures of habit. Once you allow your brain to do something, it will want to do it again, whether or not it is good for you. The secret to changing your foods is to find ones you love that love you back.

    If the topic is interesting to you, I highly suggest Dr. Amen’s book. The End of Mental Illness: How neuroscience is transforming psychiatry and helping prevent or reverse mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, addictions, PTSD, psychosis, personality disorders, and more. (affiliate link)

    “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.” —Maimonides, medieval philosopher and physician

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