Food for Thoughts: How to Eat for a Happy Brain

Food for Thoughts: How to Eat for a Happy Brain

We’ve all heard the saying “You are what you eat.” But what exactly does this mean?
That you need to adhere to the food-pyramid scheme for all your meals?
Probably not.

The traditional food pyramid is outdated, and no one can get scientists—let alone nutritionists—to agree on a prescribed diet.
The sad truth is that you probably can survive on virtually any wacky diet you find on the internet.
I’ll bet you could survive on chicken feed1 if you really wanted to. But that’s just survival.
Want your brain to work optimally—until late into your nineties?
Then listen up.

Your Brain is an Electrical Circuit: Deal with It

Your brain is like an electrical circuit with billions of wires. And just like real wires, brain wires need to be insulated to conduct electricity and communicate with each other. The stuff that insulates your neurons is called myelin, and it’s made mostly of fat. But not just any kind of fat: myelin works best when it’s made of omega 3 fatty acids. If you eat lots of that your brain will use it to make great myelin. this helps your neurons communicate faster—and even helps your brain to fight neurological diseases234. If, on the other hand, you eat saturated fatty acids—like the ones in deep-fried Mars bars, say—your brain will use those fatty acids to try to insulate your happy thoughts. Try picturing a mess of bare electrical wires, covered in dry, crumbling Play-doh. Obviously, you’d rather not have your brain disintegrate like this, so why not chug a shot of omega-3-rich fish-oil in the morning—as Icelandic people do?

Staving Off Rusty Brain Wiring

As you get older, your high-speed network of interconnected hubs—your pure, biological computing power—starts to rust. All those McGarbage burgers you’ve probably been snacking on come back to haunt you. A scarily-high percentage of the world’s population eventually gets dementia, as well as other neurodegenerative disorders.5 No one is happy about this, with the possible exception of evil geniuses at pharmaceutical companies; these sociopaths leap with joy as they green-light new pills and promise to fix your physical and mental misfortunes with injections of science-liquid….

So, how do you keep dementia away? The answer is simple, friends: take care of your brain, and your brain will take care of you. Feed it the right stuff. Although that’s easier said than done.

Textbook Reasons Why Healthy Eating Can Be So Hard

You may be thinking, How bad can fish-oil be? (as if healthy eating were merely a matter of adding a few supplements). Well, pourable fish-oil—even when sipped from a shot-glass to trick yourself into thinking it’s not so bad—can taste like liquid truck tires. Seriously, though, here are three concrete reasons why your brain thinks it prefers sugar and chicken nuggets to salad and fish-oil:

Reason #1: Evolution.
For most of human history, food wasn’t always readily available, so our brains adapted to encourage us to eat (and reproduce, for that matter) whenever possible. As a result, the same neural circuits that are formed during, say, meth addiction, also apply to sugar and junk food. As with smoking crystal meth, eating sugar releases happy juice (dopamine) in your brain. More happy juice means you’re probably doing a great job of staying alive, so your brain makes you crave more food. This system is in place to stimulate animals to repeat the behavior that helps them stay alive and reproduce. The problem is that sugar, like crystal meth, hijacks this system. Your brain learns from experience, and forms stronger connections between the region that’s responsible for buying cookies, and the part that’s experiencing sugar-related thoughts. This beautiful display of neuronal plasticity is part of why we’re not extinct yet, as a species. But it’s also why there’s an opioid epidemic in the US.

Reason #2: Capitalism.
Sugar and junk food are everywhere for a reason: many people are making a lot of money from it. Infamously, the sugar industry published fake studies showing us why sugar wasn’t bad for you. Except it is. Too late: everything now contains sugar, and we love the stuff. Meanwhile, a small bottle of Icelandic fish oil costs $30, while a kilo of sugar costs 80 cents. Even if you’ve got deep pockets and can afford pricier foods and food supplements, good luck with that: the sugar-advertising-industrial-complex makes sure our brains remember catchy jingles about cookies…and when’s the last time you heard a catchy tune about fish-oil?
I rest my case.

Reason #3: More weird brain physiology you can’t control.
For some people the choice to eat a healthy amount of food is not a choice at all: 4% of people with obesity issues are missing the receptor in their brains that makes most people feel full after a meal. If your doctor diagnoses you with this particular genetic abnormality, there are ways to mitigate it by manipulating hormones or whatever, so it doesn’t have to be weird after all.

Being addicted to sugar is also a thing.
Physiology can force your brain into abusing your body by eating truckloads of sugar—to the point where you have to inject insulin just to stay alive. Everyone is different, and the way your hormones interact with each other is so complicated that it it’s practically impossible to keep track of what’s going on. For example, your body fat, liver, brain, and stomach all send each other mixed signals, day and night. And you can’t always control which one wins.

How to Trick Your Brain into Eating Healthier

So, what can you do—short of scheduling a brain transplant—the next time you find yourself reaching for a chicken-nugget-doughnut-milkshake-French-fry-burger?
The best answer we’ve got comes from behavioral research, the latest of which shows that “We are not doomed to make unhealthy food decisions under low self-control conditions.”7 In this study, participants were asked to choose between a healthy and unhealthy food option, i.e., a banana versus a Dutch caramel cookie (stroopwafel). The researchers managed to coax people into making healthier eating decisions by presenting them with made-up statistics about the food choices others had made, as in, “Eighty percent of people chose the banana, by the way.” It was an indirect form of peer pressure and, somehow, it worked.

So, if you want to eat healthier, follow these directions:

draw yourself a pie-chart indicating that a whopping 75% of people chose the mineral water—not the can of Mtn Dew.
Then, use a refrigerator magnet to stick the chart on the refrigerator door, where you can see it.
That way, when reaching for your favorite drink, your lying little chart will trick your brain into believing you want water.

And if you don’t believe your own lies, then believe me when I say this: 80% of people chose the fish oil over the chicken nugget.

1 Chicken feed typically contains mostly grains, protein, and a few vitamins.

2 Pu H, Guo Y, Zhang W, et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation improves neurologic recovery and attenuates white matter injury after experimental traumatic brain injury. J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2013;33(9):1474-1484. doi:10.1038/jcbfm.2013.108

3 Luo C, Ren H, Yao X, et al. Enriched Brain Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Confer Neuroprotection against Microinfarction. EBioMedicine. 2018;32:50-61. doi:10.1016/j.ebiom.2018.05.028

4 Siegert E, Paul F, Rothe M, Weylandt KH. The effect of omega-3 fatty acids on central nervous system remyelination in fat-1 mice. BMC Neurosci. 2017;18(1):19. Published 2017 Jan 24. doi:10.1186/s12868-016-0312-5

5 According to the WHO, “The estimated proportion of the general population aged 60 and over with dementia at a given time is between 5-8%.”

6 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

7 Grandi, Benedetta & Cardinali, Maria & Bellini, Silvia. (2020). Health and self-control: promoting unconscious healthy food choices inside the store. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management. ahead-of-print. 10.1108/IJRDM-11-2018-0252.

Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.