Why Cognitive Nutrition Is the New Frontier in Healthy Eating

It’s never been more important to build food habits that sharpen focus and improve mental health.

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At some point in our lives, most of us have tried to eat better. But while we routinely change what we eat for our physical health, like losing weight, reducing our risk of diabetes or hypertension, we rarely pay attention to how our food choices affect the health of our body’s most complex organ: the brain. 

A growing body of science in the field of cognitive nutrition shows that this food-brain connection is actually one of the most powerful drivers of our overall well-being. What we eat matters not only for our physical health but for our cognitive and mental health, affecting our risk of anxiety and depression. The science is clear: we can eat our way to better brain health, with both short- and long-term benefits. As Uma Naidoo, author of This Is Your Brain On Food, writes, “The most potent medicine for mental health might be in your pantry.”

This food-brain connection is the core of Thrive’s new Nourish Your Body and Mind cognitive nutrition program, filled with the latest science and with Microsteps we can take to sharpen our focus, reduce anxiety and reconnect with the joy of food. Once we know the fundamentals of cognitive nutrition, it becomes much easier to build habits that lead to better brain health — and stick to them. If you’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution, you know that when it comes to making better food choices and creating lasting habits, willpower isn’t enough. A recent study from the U.K. found that about two-thirds of people abandon their New Year’s resolutions — many of them diet-related — within a month.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, as many of us continue to struggle with “pandemic brain,” we have an opportunity to improve our focus, productivity and decision-making just by making small changes to our diet. As the pandemic continues, these changes make our bodies and minds more resilient — and even help boost our immunity to the virus itself. And over time, our food choices can affect everything from our risk of dementia to our ability to live longer. 

We all know that eating better is never just about food. It’s about our environment and the mindsets we bring to each day. That’s why our Nourish Your Body and Mind curriculum, led by our cognitive nutrition director Tess Bredesen and already resonating with Thrive's enterprise customers, is based on the truth that our relationship with food is about so much more than just food. It’s about our history with food, our family and cultural traditions and our daily rituals. What we eat is deeply connected to every aspect of our life: our sleep, our emotions, how much we move, how we respond to stress and anxiety and our ability to focus, be productive and connect with others. And if we’re living breathless, frenetic, always-on lives, our eating habits inevitably deteriorate.

For example, if we’re sleep-deprived, we enter a vicious cycle: we’re more likely to crave sugary foods and other refined carbs, which in turn deplete our energy and make it harder to get the sleep we need. And when it comes to our relationship with technology, nearly 9 in 10 of us are “zombie eaters” eating while watching T.V. or scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, which can lead to mindless snacking and overeating. But when we practice what experts call “attentive eating” — which is simply avoiding distractions and being aware of our food as we’re eating it — we experience increased feelings of fullness and reduced levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Essential to Nourish Your Body and Mind is the fact that it’s a judgment-free zone. For many of us, our feelings about food are intertwined with guilt and judgment — coming not just from the outside but also from ourselves. We may hear the voice I call the “obnoxious roommate living in our head” telling us that we’re bad or weak for making the choices we make, that we should be ashamed of ourselves. 

That’s why our approach is all about taking Microsteps, which really are too small to fail. For example, you might know that chronic inflammation is bad for our bodies. But you might not know it’s linked to mental health issues as well, including anxiety and depression. It’s also recognized as the underlying basis of a number of age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. (Researchers sometimes call it “inflamm-aging.”) When we reduce inflammation, we set ourselves up for better mental health over time. And what we eat is a key factor. One Microstep is adding just one high-fiber food to your meal. Foods like spinach, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, avocados, flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds can help calm both our body’s and our brain’s inflammatory response. 

And if you enjoy seasoning your food with a variety of flavors, good news: many herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory properties. Ginger, cinnamon, cloves, sage, rosemary, oregano — they’re all great for your brain! And studies show that turmeric not only suppresses inflammation, but also can improve cognition, attention and memory.

Similarly, small changes to your diet can have major benefits for relieving stress in your gut and your brain, since the gut-brain connection affects our digestion, mood and overall health. It comes down to the fact that your gut and your brain communicate much more closely than we might think. Probiotic-rich foods, for example, contain good bacteria that help keep the intestinal lining intact and aid healthy digestion. And since good bacteria is also responsible for making many neurotransmitters, probiotics also improve our cognitive functioning. They’re found in fermented foods, including yogurt, miso soup, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, kefir and sauerkraut. So a great Microstep is adding just one of these foods to one meal a day.

Here are some of the themes at the heart of our course, along with Microsteps you can take to Nourish Your Body and Mind: 

Sleep and nutrition are connected in fundamental ways.

For example, sleep deprivation fuels the production of neurotransmitters associated with excessive hunger and craving sweets and other sugary foods. 

Microstep: After eating dinner, brush your teeth. You’ll send yourself a signal that you've finished eating for the day, so you don't snack between dinner and bedtime, which can affect your ability to get your best night’s sleep.

Our energy levels are deeply linked to the foods we eat, but also to how much we move our bodies. 

When we move and exercise, it actually affects our food choices, and from there our energy levels and overall well-being. Studies show that movement and exercise can reduce our cravings for unhealthy foods. And it doesn’t have to mean going to the gym. 

Microstep: Take a one-minute stretch break whenever you can throughout the day. Frequent movement fuels your body and mind. Stand up, change positions, walk around the room — anything to get your blood flowing. Even better, walk outside, since sun exposure is a great way to get an energy-boosting dose of Vitamin D.

Our eating habits significantly affect our mental health.

Small changes in our diet can reduce the risk of anxiety and depression, and even help us feel happier and improve our day-to-day mood. 

Microstep: Find a go-to snack you love that is not hyper-processed or full of sugar — like pistachios with berries or carrot sticks with almond butter — and make sure you regularly have it stocked.

The not-so-hidden link between food and burnout.

We’ve all had days when powering through exhaustion is fueled by sugary drinks, or sugary, salty, highly processed snacks, which can contribute to serious health issues, including heart disease and diabetes. But we can make small mealtime changes that provide us with sustained energy and focus, without the jittery ups and 2 p.m. slumps. 

Microstep: Slice up some veggies and make some healthy dips each Sunday and leave them in the front of your fridge. This will make healthy snacks easily accessible throughout the week.

Our relationship with technology is closely linked to our relationship with food.

When we eat in front of a screen or when we're distracted, we’re far more likely to overeat — and less likely to connect with others.

Microstep: Put your phone away during mealtimes. Whether it’s dinner at home with your kids or out with friends, putting your phone down allows you to be fully present in the moment and meaningfully connect with others. 

Eating isn’t just about necessity, convenience or health.

If we only thought about it in those terms, we’d be miserable. Because we’d miss a fundamental part of what food offers us: joy. Even small moments of connection over food can be powerful. And in disconnected times, finding ways to do this is more important than ever. 

Microstep: Invite a co-worker you don’t often connect with out to lunch or coffee, or even a “virtual coffee break.” Research shows that bonding with colleagues can make us happier and more connected, and even boost our productivity.

So if you think that eating well means sacrificing joy, think again! Reconnecting with the joy of food is a fundamental part of nourishing our body and mind. When we shift our mindset, we can see nutrition as much more than a never-ending test of our willpower. Instead, we can see it as a daily opportunity to enhance our focus, energy, creativity, mood and joy — all the things we want more of in our work and our lives.

Subscribe here for Arianna’s On My Mind Newsletter, where you’ll find inspiration and actionable advice on how to build healthy habits, resilience and connections in our unprecedented times.

Published on
January 28, 2022
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