Inside: The food we eat can helps build a healthy brain and improve memory, mood and focus. Print your eat-your-way-to-a-healthy-brain-handout.
The time change brings with it darker evenings and a gloomy overcast interspersed with a rare but sorely needed sunny day. It feels like bedtime by 7 pm yet there is work still to be done around the house. The U.S. election contributes to a feeling of heaviness but then again, this time of year always feels a little heavy. Both parents left in November – my mom on my little brother’s birthday. And every year as this time rolls around, we practice the letting go.
It is good to sit with the pain and sorrow for a time. To rest here, unrushed, and give thanks for the gift of relationship in the middle of the pain of separation. I’d always choose love again; wouldn’t you? It is perfectly acceptable to release tears, even 14 years later, and permit the anger to surface. Because the alternative is to suppress and numb out and what good is that? So you sit and feel and then give thanks. T’is the season for giving thanks. Hopefully, you give thanks because life is intertwined with pain but also incredible, heart-stopping beauty.
So I count my blessings, too: all the hugs, the green farm delivered pumpkins that I was privileged to watch ripen, the blue jays that visit my yard and call me to slow down and notice. The woolly scarves and lattés, the warm nourishing soups ladled out in a laughter filled kitchen. The dark chocolate, the ladies group, the stack of books recommended by online friends; they invite me to step into other times and places – to step into someone else’s hard story for a time and they remind me that my life is full and good.
There are days I feel broken and others I feel strong and hopeful – but always I remind myself that I am someone who must walk with care. I cannot permit myself too much freedom to wander from the tested self-care path that keeps me steady. I tip too far, too easily, into that place of despair.
There is a clear reason for me to live with gentle, flexible, self-imposed ‘rules’ around my nutrition and lifestyle habits. I know who I am and what I need. I respect myself and my family enough to do the work required to stay healthy. Physically, emotionally, mentally and cognitively healthy.
The beauty of food as medicine is that the choice to heal and promote health can begin as soon as the next meal.Dr. Deanna Minich
we can nourish ourselves with kindness
This post about REST touched on the epidemic in our society of stress-related illness and disease. It spoke of learning to rest as one means of combatting stress. And as a follow-up I want to offer some basic nutrition tips that can support us in building a healthy brain – and in living with greater calm. Every day we have multiple opportunities to love ourselves well simply by choosing how we nourish ourselves. And if our kids are struggling with behavior or concentration at school, we consider their sleep and stress and if they are being afforded time to play in fresh air. But we also consider, seriously, the food they are eating.
What we eat has tremendous potential to move us closer to or further away from optimal health and joy. I practice weight-neutral coaching/education. How we nourish ourselves, how we love ourselves well in every season, is not about deprivation, conformity to any one food doctrine, pant size, or perfection. I choose to live with as much FREEDOM in my life as possible, and this includes how I tend to myself mind-emotion-body.
Download your eat-your-way-to-a-healthy-brain-handout here. The 2-page healthy brain handout, which includes a list of snack ideas and some recipes, will be useful for people of all ages but was created for a youth workshop – you could put it on the fridge and discuss with your kids! I have added a few extra notes below.
Eight Life Hacks to a healthy Brain
- Hydrate Well. Drink plenty of filtered water – about half your weight in ounces (ex. 116lbs/2 = 58 oz or about 7 cups). Try homemade herbal tea (iced or hot) or water infused with citrus or berries. Slowly minimize the liquid sugar and energy drinks in your diet (sugar and caffeine do not encourage stable moods, energy, or focus). Staying well hydrated will help keep you alert and support your memory, focus, and ability to learn.
- Crowd Out. Keep in mind the 80/20 rule (or 90/10). Focus on regularly adding healthy habits in to your life which will automatically crowd out less helpful habits. The goal is progress over perfection (perfectionism breeds stress which can affect your moods and dumb you down!) Encourage your family to get involved or to support you in your healthy goals.
- Eat a PFF Breakfast. Start your day with a breakfast that is high Protein & Fat with some (plant) Fiber. Move away from sugary/processed breakfast foods which cause a mid-morning energy crash, negatively affect mood, and impair memory and learning. If you hate eating early in the day, pack a healthy snack to eat mid-morning; this will curb sugar cravings and improve your energy and ability to concentrate.
- Listen To Your Body. Our bodies give us cues all the time. Pay attention to your cravings/food aversions and how you feel after eating certain foods. How is your energy level, mood, behavior? Do you experience physical symptoms like skin rashes or burning, diarrhea, bloating, or a general feeling of being unwell? These cues can indicate hidden food allergies or sensitivities – discuss them with your parents or health provider. Allergies and sensitivities can have a negative impact on behavior and mood.
- Eat Regularly. Your mood, memory, focus, and energy will all benefit from eating regularly and not skipping meals, unless intentionally practicing intermittent fasting. Consider keeping healthy snacks in your locker, office or vehicle (ex. trail mix and fruit). When you go too long between meals you may get jittery, grouchy, and crave sugar for a quick energy boost. Most adults should not require regular snacks (unless you are pregnant or breastfeeding) – nourish well at meal times so that you can feel satiated longer.
- Be a Qualitarian. About 60% of the calories people eat today come from products that didn’t even exist 20 years ago – these are not “real food”. Make simple upgrades to your nutrition. For example, swap whole grains (ex. rice and quinoa) and natural sweeteners (ex. raw honey or pure maple syrup) for refined/processed versions. Choose quality fats and proteins instead of fast-food/processed foods.
- Prioritize Produce. Most Canadians do not eat enough produce each day. Challenge yourself to double the amount you are currently eating (or get a minimum of 5 servings/day to start). Fruit and Veggies provide vitamins, minerals, antioxidants (which protect us from damage to our cells) and fiber to support our health, including mood and cognitive function. Aim for ‘whole food’ fresh or frozen produce (not juice or processed versions). Adults – one or two pieces of fruit per day is enough (but fruit is not actually necessary) – make room for a vibrant and varied array of veggies in your menu.
- Feed Your Brain Fat. The human brain is nearly 60% fat. Essential Fatty Acids (like Omega 3’s) are essential to brain health and performance and must be obtained through our food. Talk with your parents about possibly supplementing with fish oils (EPA and DHA) and aim to get more cold water fatty fish in your diet. Other good fats include: extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, organic butter, ghee, avocado oil, olives, nuts/seeds, eggs, avocado, coconut, and even dark chocolate (aim for 70%). Don’t be afraid of saturated fats but do consider the source (ex. if an animal fat, how was it raised?). In addition to poor memory, mood or focus, if you are struggling with hormone imbalance including thyroid disorders, infertility, what seems like postpartum issues, gut issues or skin issues; if you care about supporting a healthy brain as you age, boost the quantity of healthy fats in your diet!
In the midst of a busy life or a challenging season, it is easy to reach for the junk food and sugar or extra alcohol. It can help us feel good in the moment. But if we truly want to live a life of greater purpose, health and joy, if we want a healthy brain, then upgrading our nutrition makes sense.
I can attest to the life-giving benefits of a nourishing diet that honours my needs and flexes in different seasons of life. I’ve also witnessed the power of nutrition to exert a significant positive impact on a child’s allergic response and behavior – a sweet child who I believe would be medicated today had we not been willing to modify her diet many years ago.
The food you eat can help you build a healthy brain and greatly improve your memory, mood and focus. Nourish yourself well as an act of self-care. Don’t forget to print your eat-your-way-to-a-healthy-brain-handout. You may also be interested in the Mental Health, Inflammation, and Nutrition for Better Moods handout below.
I’m off now to grab a bit of dark chocolate and an herbal tea to take to bed with me,