Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Joy Diet, Part 2: Brain Fuel

A hearty appetite for brain healthy foods is a great place to begin elevating our general level of happiness!

Lean Protein

Salmon, especially Alaskan salmon caught in the wild (farmed fish is not as rich in Omega-3 fatty acids), tuna, mackerel, and herring (which are “oilier” fishes), and all fish—mahi-mahi, cod, orange roughy, and tilapia—is nutritious, full of protein, and easy to digest. Once you find a few recipes you like, you’ll get hooked on the way you feel after you eat fish.

Fish tacos are a great place to start if fish has never been your favorite food! Or just pat any kind of spices you love, with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, into fish filets and sauté on medium high in olive oil (finish in the microwave or oven if the outside gets crispy before the insides are done). Make fish nuggets by rolling small fish chunks in a thick teriyaki sauce, and then again in nuts or sesame seeds, and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Or roll filets in egg whites, then in seasoned bread crumbs (Japanese panko crumbs are incredibly light and crunchy), and sauté . . . delicious!
(To purchase the safest most toxin and mercury free fish, of particular concern for pregnant and nursing women and children, you can download a handy wallet-sized “safest fish” list

Chicken and turkey. A little skin (crisped!) is okay for you, especially if you are suffering from a low mood; it will help the uptake of nutrients that calm your brain. (See books, The Mood Cure and Real Food for the science behind this.) One of the worst things about no-fat and low-fat diets is that they are terrible for moods and disastrous for the brain. Every brain cell in your body needs fat to function. The best fats? Olive oil (keep it on your counter near where you cook; it is a very stable oil that doesn’t go rancid easily), a little real butter now and again, and coconut oil is proving to have some wonderful healing qualities. Avoid trans fat, which, thankfully, has become easier to do. With increased awareness of trans fat dangers, groceries, restaurants, and even fast-food eateries are making changes toward using healthier oils.


Lean beef and pork


Enriched DHA eggs are best.

Tofu and soy products (Whenever possible, choose organically raised.) Don’t overdo soy because of how it affects hormones, but one-half cup to one cup a day is good for you.
Dairy products Low-fat, but not no-fat dairy, particularly when you are trying to balance low moods. It’s easier to be satisfied on a half-cup of dairy with some fat in it than on one cup without any fat. If you are feeling happy, it’s okay to use no-fat dairy again, as long as you are getting olive oil and fish oil in your diet.


Especially garbanzo beans (hummus is a good way to get these) and lentils (also a good carbohydrate source)

Nuts and seeds

Especially walnuts (also listed under fats). Toasting them just a minute or two and sprinkling with a pinch of sea salt really brings out their flavors. Great in salads!

Complex Carbohydrates—Fruits, Veggies, and Grains—Oh My!
Try getting four cups of fruits and veggies (one quart!) a day, and if you manage to do that plus get your protein, a little fat, and some grains—you can’t gain weight and will probably lose weight if needed. All that fiber fills you up, and there’s just not room for donuts. (If you can slowly work your way up to consuming 35 grams of fiber per day, from a variety of sources, you’ll not only feel great, you’ll find it easy to lose or maintain your weight.) And soon, the desire for donuts will fade anyway. Two tricks: Make a smoothie out of your fruit requirement; eat salad or veggie-based soup to help with your daily veggie consumption.

Eat from the Rainbow!

Mixing colors is a good way to think about healthy fruits and vegetables. Strive to eat red things (strawberries, raspberries, cherries, red peppers, and tomatoes), yellow things (squash, yellow peppers, small portions of bananas and peaches), blue things (blueberries), purple things (plums), orange things (oranges, tangerines, and yams), green things (peas, spinach, and broccoli), etc.
Here are some of the best brain-healthy fruits and veggies and whole grains:
Berries Especially blueberries (Dr. Amen calls them “brain berries”), raspberries, strawberries, blackberries. (Use one cup of frozen mixed berries in a smoothie as a base for a fabulous-tasting, nutrition-dense shake. Use one to three tablespoons of protein powder—non-flavored whey is great; you can’t taste it—and you’ve got breakfast or lunch in a cup. Or just leave berries whole and defrost just slightly, add a little drizzle of pure maple syrup and a tablespoon of half n’ half. Delicious.)

Oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit (Get an orange “juicer”—a cheap plastic hand juicer will do—and squeeze up your fresh juice in the morning. You’ll get hooked!) Citrus peel is loaded with antioxidants, so investing in a good citrus “zester” will not only add punch to your cooking but nutrition to your meals.

Cherries (Good for arthritis too—100 percent cherry juice is a common aid to those who suffer with joint pain.)

Peaches, plums
Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage

Oats, whole wheat, wheat germ (Oatmeal needs to be the slower-cooking kind, as instant has a higher glycemic index since the manufacturer has broken down the fiber to speed cooking time and basically made it a refined carbohydrate. I don’t leave the long-cooking oatmeal on for very long because I like it less mushy! Same goes for bread. Look for at least three grams of fiber. Try the new “double fiber” breads! )

Red or yellow peppers (Much higher in Vitamin C than green peppers—green peppers are simply “unripe” red peppers.) Try roasting red peppers yourself; just put them over the open flame of your gas burner until they are black all over. Put in a plastic baggie to let the skin loosen in the steam. Then rub off the skin and there you go—roasted red peppers ready to add flavor to any meal or soup!

Pumpkin or squash/carrots

Spinach Works wonderfully as a salad or a cooked vegetable; adds fiber and nutrients.
Tomatoes Both fresh and canned are great. Actually, tomato paste and sauce are richer in some cancer-fighting nutrients than fresh tomatoes!
Yams/sweet potatoes
Kale or any deep-green leafy veggie Kale is one of the most nutrient-dense veggies in the produce section, but how many of us have even tried it? (Hint: Try removing the stems first. And if you cook kale in water, toss out the water and you’ll eliminate any bitterness. But it is delicious sautéed, without the stems, in a little olive oil with mushrooms, salt and pepper, and a dash of nutmeg. Deglaze the pan when it’s done with a little dash of wine, cook a few more minutes, and serve.)

Brown rice and other whole grain

Leftover brown rice with dried fruit, nuts, and a little cinnamon or honey and a little milk makes a tasty hot cereal. Bulgur or brown rice can make a wonderful pilaf—toss in toasted nuts, some dried cranberries, and any herbs you like, and you’ve got a tasty, nutritious side dish. Don’t forget to use grains in cold, summer salads. Tabouli (bulgur with cucumbers, parsley, tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil) is always refreshing, but you can create any number of grain-based salads by mixing equal parts grain and chopped fresh veggies or beans, a handful of herbs, and your favorite olive oil-based salad dressing.

Note: Almost any veggie tastes amazing steamed and then tossed with a little bit of butter, a squeeze of fresh citrus (orange, lemon, or lime), and a dash of salt and pepper. Also, try tossing a bowl of cut-up veggies in Italian dressing and olive oil, then spread on a cookie sheet and slow-roast for 30 minutes at 300-350 degrees or until tender and almost caramelized. (Try roasting sweet potato wedges or rounds like this. Yummmm!)
Avocados (Guacamole!)
Extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oil
**Salmon (Also listed under protein.)
**Nuts and nut butter Especially walnuts, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, and almonds. (Also listed under protein.)
Real butter in reasonable amounts Just a tad will go a long way to make food taste better. Clarifed butter, or ghee, can also be used in cooking and won’t burn easily.
Green or black tea

Calcium is good for your bones, and studies show that dairy is also an aid in weight loss. (The no- or low-fat versions will help keep calories down, but you need to make sure you are getting enough fat in your system through olive oil and nuts and other good sources to optimize mood and brain function. If not, go ahead and enjoy the full-fat versions of milk products. And if you need to gain a little weight, by all means enjoy whole milk products, especially if you don’t have any dairy allergies.)

Used in small amounts, unsweetened fruit juice can make a good base for smoothies. But there’s so much sugar in most juices that I would not recommend them without the fiber included to slow down the absorption of sugar. So go ahead and squeeze juice from an orange, but scrape in the pulp as well. Or enjoy whole fruit smoothies instead.

Probiotics = Healthier Gut, Healthier Brain
In his book The Brain Diet, author Alan C. Logan advocates using probiotics to help keep the gut healthy, improve immunity, and ultimately boost brain health. There are many good products to help “reseed” the gut with friendly bacteria, but one of the best researched and most easily accessible is the DanActive yogurt drinks. They are small, tasty, and may help keep inflammation in your body down, resulting in fewer illnesses, fewer digestive problems, and yes, ultimately even a healthier brain. (For the peer-reviewed research on this helpful new product, see

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