Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life
Before you play two notes learn how to play one note—and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.
If you’d have told me a few years ago that I’d one day write a book about optimizing the brain, I would have been sure you had mistaken me for someone else.
After I switched my college major from premed to film and psychology, the idea of a career in health seemed unlikely. This was compounded by the fact that soon after I graduated, I became entrenched in what I considered a dream job: a journalist and presenter on TV and the Web. My focus was stories that I felt were underreported and could make a positive impact on the world. I was living in Los Angeles—a city I’d idolized as an MTV-watching teen growing up in New York—and had just ended a five-year stint hosting and producing content for a socially conscious TV network called Current. Life was great. And it was all about to change.
As much as I enjoyed the Hollywood life, I’d often find myself making trips back east to see my mom and two younger brothers. In 2010, on one of those trips home, my brothers and I noticed a subtle change in the way my mother, Kathy, walked. She was fifty-eight at the time and had always had a spirited way about her. But suddenly, it was as though she were wearing a space suit underwater—each stride and gesture looked like a purposeful, conscious decision. Though I know better now, back then I couldn’t even make the connection between the way she moved and her brain’s health.
She also began offhandedly complaining of mental “fogginess.” This too was lost on me. No one in my family had ever had memory problems. In fact, my maternal grandmother lived to ninety-six and her memory was sharp until the end. But in my mom’s case, it seemed as if her overall processing speed had slowed, like a Web browser with too many open tabs. We started to notice that when we would ask her to pass the salt at dinner, it would take her a few extra beats to register. While I chalked what I was seeing up to “normal aging,” deep down I had the chilling suspicion that something wasn’t right.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2011 during a family trip to Miami that those suspicions were confirmed. My mom and dad had been divorced since I was eighteen, and this was one of the few times since then that my brothers and I were together with my parents under the same roof—seeking respite from the summer heat in my dad’s apartment. One morning, my mother was standing at the breakfast bar. With the whole family present, she hesitated, and then announced that she had been having memory problems and had recently sought the help of a neurologist.
In an incredulous but playful tone, my father asked her, “Is that so? Well then, what year is it?”
She stared at us blankly for a moment, and then another.
My brothers and I chuckled and chimed in, breaking the uneasy silence. “Come on, how could you not know the year?”
She responded, “I don’t know,” and began to cry.
The memory is seared into my brain. My mom was at her most vulnerable, courageously trying to communicate her internal pain, defective but self-aware, frustrated and scared, and we were completely ignorant. It was the moment I learned one of life’s hardest lessons: that nothing else means a thing when a loved one gets sick.
The flurry of medical visits, expert consultations, and tentative diagnoses that followed culminated at the tail end of a trip to the Cleveland Clinic. My mom and I had just walked out of a renowned neurologist’s office and I was trying to interpret the labels on the pill bottles clutched in my hand. They looked like hieroglyphics.
Staring at the labels, I silently mouthed out the drug names to myself in the parking lot of the hospital. Ar-i-cept. Sin-e-met. What were they for? Pill bottles in one hand, unlimited data plan in the other, I turned to the digital-age equivalent of a safety blanket: Google. In 0.42 seconds, the search engine returned results that would ultimately change my life.
Information on Aricept for Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease? No one had said anything about Alzheimer’s disease. I became anxious. Why hadn’t the neurologist mentioned that? For a moment, the world around me ceased to exist but for the voice in my head.
Does my mom have Alzheimer’s disease? Isn’t that something only old people get?
How could she have it, and at this age?
Grandma is ninety-four and she’s fine.
Why is mom acting so calm? Does she understand what this means? Do I?
How long does she have before . . . whatever comes next?
What does come next?
The neurologist had mentioned “Parkinson’s Plus.” Plus what? “Plus” had sounded like a bonus. Economy Plus means more legroom—usually a good thing. Pert Plus was shampoo plus conditioner, also a good thing. No. My mom was prescribed medicines for Parkinson’s disease plus Alzheimer’s disease. Her “bonus feature” was the symptoms of a bonus disease.
As I read about the pills I was still holding, repeating phrases stuck out to me.
“No disease-modifying ability.”
“Like a Band-Aid.”
Even the doctor had seemed resigned. (I later learned a cold joke circulated among med school students about neurology: “Neurologists don’t treat disease, they admire it.”)
That night I was sitting alone in our Holiday Inn suite, a couple of blocks from the hospital. My mom was in the other room, and I was at my computer, manically reading anything I could find on both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, even though my mom’s symptoms did not fit neatly into either diagnosis. Confused, uninformed, and feeling powerless, it was then that I experienced something I’d never felt before. My vision narrowed and darkened, and fear enveloped my consciousness. Even with my limited insight at the time I could tell what was happening. Heart pounding, hungry for air, a feeling of impending doom—I was having a panic attack. Whether it lasted minutes or hours I can’t be sure, but even as the physical manifestations subsided the emotional dissonance remained.
I chewed on that sensation for days afterward. After I returned to LA and the initial storm cleared, I felt like I was left standing on a shattered landscape, surveying the path ahead without a map or compass. My mom began taking the chemical Band-Aids, but I felt continual unease. Surely the fact that we had no family history of dementia meant there had to be something environmental triggering her illness. What changed in our diets and lifestyles between my grandmother’s generation and my mother’s? Was my mom somehow poisoned by the world around her?
As these questions circled my head, I found little room to think about anything else, including my career. I felt like Neo from The Matrix, reluctantly conscripted by the white rabbit to save my mother. But how? There was no Morpheus to guide me.
I decided the first step was to pack up my West Coast life and move back to New York to be closer to my mom, so I did just that, and spent the following year reading everything I possibly could on both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Even in those early months, as I’d sit on her couch after dinner, face buried in research, I can recall watching my mom pick dishes up off the dining room table. Dirty plates in hand, she’d begin taking a few steps in the direction of her bedroom instead of the kitchen. I’d watch quietly, counting each second that would pass before she’d catch herself, as the knot that had formed in my stomach tied itself tighter. Every time, my fortitude in the search for answers was renewed.
One year turned into two, and two years turned into three, as my fixation on understanding what was happening to my mom consumed me. One day, it dawned on me that I had something that few others have: media credentials. I began to use my calling card as a journalist to reach out to leading scientists and clinicians around the globe, each of whom I’ve found to hold another clue in my scavenger hunt for truth. To date, I’ve read hundreds (if not thousands) of discipline-spanning scientific papers, and I’ve interviewed dozens of leading researchers and many of the most highly respected clinicians in the world. I’ve also had the opportunity to visit research labs at some of our most respected institutions—Harvard, Brown, and Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, to name a few.
What external environment allows our bodies and brains to thrive rather than malfunction? That became the basis of my investigation. What I’ve found has changed the way I think of our most delicate organ and defies the fatalistic view given to me by the vast majority of neurologists and scientific experts in the field. You will be surprised—perhaps even shocked—to learn that if you are one of the millions of people worldwide with a genetic predisposition to developing Alzheimer’s disease (statistically, you have one-in-four odds of that being the case), you may respond even better to the principles proposed in this book. And, by following them, you will likely have more energy, better sleep, less brain fog, and a happier mood, today.
Through this journey, I’ve realized that medicine is a vast field with many silos. When it comes to knowing how best to care for something as complex as the human body, let alone the brain, you have to break apart those silos. Everything is related in unimaginable ways, and connecting the dots requires a certain level of creative thinking. You will learn about these many relationships in this book. For example, I’ll share a method of fat burning so powerful some researchers have called it biochemical liposuction—and how it may be your brain’s best weapon against decay. Or how certain foods and physical exercises actually make your brain cells work more efficiently.
While I’m dedicated to communicating the intricacies of nutrition to laypeople, I am also passionate about speaking directly to doctors, because surprisingly few are adequately trained in these topics. I’ve been invited to teach (as well as learn from!) medical students and neurology trainees at esteemed academic institutions such as Weill Cornell Medicine, and I have had the opportunity to lecture at the New York Academy of Sciences alongside many of the researchers cited in this book. I’ve helped create tools that are being used to teach physicians and other health-care providers around the world about the clinical practice of Alzheimer’s prevention, and I’ve coauthored a chapter on the same topic in a textbook geared to neuropsychologists. I’ve even assisted with research at the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.
What follows is a result of this gargantuan and unending effort to understand not only what happened to my mother, but how to prevent it from happening to myself and others. My hope is that by reading about how to make your brain work better in the here and now, you will prevent your own decline and push your cognitive health span to its natural limits.
How to Use This Book
This book is a guide to attaining optimal brain function with the pleasant side effect of minimizing dementia risk—all according to the latest science.
Maybe you’re looking to hit the reset button on your mental agility, to clear the cache, so to speak. Perhaps you’re hoping to increase productivity and gain a leg up on your competition. Maybe you’re one of the millions of people around the globe battling brain fog. Or depression. Or an inability to cope with stress. Perhaps you have a loved one suffering from dementia or cognitive decline and are fearful for them, or of succumbing to the same fate. No matter what led you to pick up Genius Foods, you’re in the right place.
This book is an attempt to uncover the facts and propose new unifying principles to counter our collective modern malaise. You’ll learn about the foods that have become casualties of the modern world—raw materials to build your best brain yet, replaced by the biological equivalent of cheap particleboard. Every chapter delves into the precise elements of optimal brain function—from your precious cell membranes, to your vascular system, to the health of your gut—all through the lens of what matters most: your brain. Each chapter is followed by a “Genius Food,” containing many of the beneficial elements discussed in the surrounding text. These foods will serve as your weapons against cognitive mediocrity and decay—eat them, and eat them often. Later in the book, I’ll detail the optimal Genius Lifestyle, culminating in the Genius Plan.
I’ve written this three-part book to be read cover to cover, but feel free to treat it as a reference and skip from chapter to chapter. And don’t be afraid to take notes in the margins or highlight key points (this is often how I read!).
Throughout, you’ll also find insights and “Doctor’s Notes” highlighting my friend and colleague Dr. Paul Grewal’s clinical and personal experience with many of the topics we’ll cover. Dr. Paul has had his own challenges, having gone through medical school with what is now familiar to many in the Western world: obesity. Desperate to find a solution to his weight challenges, he ventured out to learn everything he could about nutrition and exercise—topics that are unfortunately all but ignored by med school curricula. The truths he discovered resulted in his shedding a dramatic one hundred pounds in less than a year, for good—and he’ll be sharing these lessons on exercise and nutrition in the pages that follow.
Science is always unfinished business; it’s a method of finding things out, not an infallible measure of truth. Throughout this book, we’ll use our understanding of the best available evidence, while taking into account that not everything can be measured by a science experiment. Sometimes observation and clinical practice are the best evidence we have, and the ultimate determinant of health is how you respond to a given change. We take an evolutionary approach: we hold the position that the less time a food product or medicine or supplement has been around, the higher the burden of proof for it to be included in what we consider a healthful diet and lifestyle. We call this “Guilty until Proven Innocent” (see the section on polyunsaturated seed oils in chapter 2 as an example).
Personally, I started this journey from a blank slate, following the evidence wherever it took me. I’ve used my lack of preconceived notions to my advantage, to keep an objective distance from the subject and ensure that I’ve never missed the forest for the trees. Thus, you will see a linking of disciplines that may not be connected in other books of this genre, e.g., metabolism and heart health, heart health and brain health, brain health and how you actually feel. We believe that bridging these divides holds the keys to the cognitive kingdom.
Finally, we know that there are genetic differences between individuals, as well as differences in our health and fitness levels, that will determine things like carbohydrate tolerance and response to exercise. We’ve found the broadly applicable common denominators that will benefit everyone and have included sidebars with guidance on how to customize our recommendations to your own biology.
My hope is that when you finish reading Genius Foods, you’ll understand your brain in a new way, as something able to be “tuned up” like a bicycle. You’ll see food anew—as software, able to bring your brain back online and run your endlessly capable mind. You’ll learn where to find the nutrients that can actually help you to remember things better and give you a greater sense of energy. You’ll see that actually slowing the aging process (including cognitive aging) is just as much about the foods you omit from your diet as those you choose to consume, as well as when and how you consume them. I’ll also share with you the food that may shave more than a decade off of the biological age of your brain.
I have to be honest—I’m so excited for you to begin this journey with me. Not only will you begin feeling your best within two weeks, you’ll be fulfilling my hidden agenda—and perhaps my one true goal for you: to make use of the latest and best available evidence so that you might avoid what my mom and I have experienced. We deserve better brains—and the secret lies in our food.
The Genius Foods.
How to Use This Book
Part 1: You Are What You Eat
Chapter 1: The Invisible Problem
Genius Food #1: Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Chapter 2: Fantastic Fats and Ominous Oils
Genius Food #2: Avocados
Chapter 3: Overfed, yet Starving
Genius Food #3: Blueberries
Chapter 4: Winter Is Coming (For Your Brain)
Genius Food #4: Dark Chocolate
Part 2: The Interconnectedness of It All (Your Brain Responds)
Chapter 5: Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain
Genius Food #5: Eggs
Chapter 6: Fueling Your Brain
Genius Food #6: Grass-Fed Beef
Chapter 7: Go with Your Gut
Genius Food #7: Dark Leafy Greens
Chapter 8: Your Brain’s Chemical Switchboard
Genius Food #8: Broccoli
Part 3: Putting Yourself in the Driver’s Seat
Chapter 9: Sacred Sleep (and the Hormonal Helpers)
Genius Food #9: Wild Salmon
Chapter 10: The Virtues of Stress (or, How to Become a More Robust Organism)
Genius Food #10: Almonds
Chapter 11: The Genius Plan
Chapter 12: Recipes and Supplements
“Cheesy” Scrambled Eggs
Jamaican Me Smarter
Pan-Seared Wild Alaskan Salmon with Turmeric, Ginger, and Tahini-Miso
Insanely Crispy Gluten-Free Buffalo Chicken Wings
Turmeric-Almond Chicken Fingers
Better Brain Bowl
“Cheesy” Kale Salad
Brain-Boosting Raw Chocolate
About the Authors
About the Publisher
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