We all know that the right food choices are key to stellar digestion, a rockin’ bod, and a complexion that glows. But did you know that what you eat directly affects your mental health? Turns out that if your brain doesn’t get the nourishment it needs to function, there can be severe consequences on your mood, memory, and more – and no amount of pep talks to study sessions can repair the damage. Our friends at Food Matters, one of our favorite online epicenters for all things health-related, talked to expert Delia McCabe to get the lowdown on how getting the right nutrition – or not – affects your grey matter. Read Delia’s mind-blowing interview below, then enter our giveaway that will help keep you happy and healthy in the new year…
Just when you think you’ve learned everything there is to know about nutrition, you unearth information that gives you an “Ah-Hah!” moment. Today, we’re sharing with you an amazing Q&A with Delia McCabe, a once Psychologist turned Nutritional Neuroscience Researcher, who delves into the link between nutrition and your brain.
Delia McCabe lost her enthusiasm for the “talking cure” after completing her Master’s degree in Psychology. She had discovered that what you eat affects your brain function and that until the brain is properly nourished, no amount of talking will get it working properly. For nearly two decades, she’s immersed herself in the fascinating world of nutrition and the brain and offers a focused and insightful approach – based on solid science – into how specific foods can improve your mood, concentration, memory and learning ability, as well as reduce stress.
Food Matters: What made you realize the connection between nutrition and mental health?
Delia McCabe: While I was completing my master’s degree in psychology, I was working with a group of very smart school children. They were very capable of getting great grades, but were all doing very poorly at school. They were also suffering from other psychological challenges, like anxiety and even depression. My research was based on which psychological variables could be used to motivate them and help them achieve according to their potential. I had an extra space on one of the questionnaires that I’d designed for them and I threw in the question: “What is your favorite food?” The answers astonished me, and when compared to the control group, (a group of children who were smart and doing well at school), it was even more amazing. All the children who were underachieving loved junk food, while the other group did not. This changed the course of my research, and gave me a passion that wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t asked that simple question.
FM: Are people surprised and curious when they find out what your area of research is?
DM: I’m amazed at how many times people tell me that when they eat certain foods they feel anxious, jittery or even depressed. It’s as if by realizing that this is a valid area of scientific research, they can speak out about how they actually feel. And they are very curious about which foods would help them to feel calm, more focused, and prevent them experiencing cognitive decline. Many people are also surprised that the information that I have given them isn’t provided by their doctors. Some actually get angry about not having known about it earlier. I’ve seen many reactions that used to surprise me, but now I expect them.
FM: What is one of the most important insights you have learned in life at this point in your health discovery?
DM: It was a real epiphany for me to realize that the brain, being our greediest organ, when well nourished, will allow the rest of the body to flourish too. As the primary “survival” organ, it will take nutrients first, in a sense, and then leave the rest of our body battling to stay well if there are not enough nutrients to go around. It made perfect sense to me then that by feeding the brain optimally, the rest of the body would be able to benefit too. And, if you take into account that a malnourished brain will make poor decisions all round, it is quite sobering to realize that a hungry brain will lead to a poor quality of life on many different levels.
FM: What is the biggest misconception you would like to clear up concerning mental health?
DM: This is a good question, and I’ll have to choose from a few. But the winning one is that most people are completely oblivious to the fact that what they eat every day, has a short- and long-term impact on their brain functioning, mood, memory, learning and capacity to be alert and focused. Each day, the brain requires raw materials for both functioning and structure maintenance. People take it for granted that they are getting the right nutrients for those amazingly complex and super-important tasks. But over time, the brain not only becomes less and less efficient at performing the tasks that we take for granted, it also becomes less and less capable of keeping itself structurally sound. What we eat affects our brain in a real, profound way.
A further point is that so many people are still confused about fats and oils, and this is another huge misconception that I’m passionate about clearing up. The right fats are critical for optimal health, and without them, nothing you do can make up for their absence. When people start consuming the right fats and oils, AND remove the bad ones from their diet, their health can improve so quickly and profoundly, that it sometimes seems like magic to them!
FM: What are some of the most important nutrients that people need to consume for a healthy brain?
DM: The brain, being made up of 60% fat at its dry weight, needs the right kinds of fat to operate optimally. A large percentage of this fat is made up of specialized omega-3 and -6 fats. Unfortunately, these fats are also very delicate. This means that many of these fats that people consume today are damaged. Organic nuts and seeds, and undamaged oils, as well as lots of green leafy greens, supply both omega-3 and omega-6. Most people get enough omega-6, although in a damaged form. So if you focus on omega-3 found in ground flax seeds and chia seeds, as well as undamaged essential fatty acid oil blends, you will be supplying great, undamaged fats to your brain. In addition, unrefined carbohydrates provide steady blood glucose for a greedy brain, and clean protein provides for enzyme and hormone production and the foundation for the brain messengers – the neurotransmitters.
To learn more about brain health, how stress affects the brain, and more, head on over to Food Matter by clicking through here!