By Anton Vanhoucke

My preferred food for thought and brain function

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My brain is a crucial body part for my work. I want to keep it in pristine performing condition. Part of that effort is providing it with the proper fuel: food and drink. There are an awful lot of food myths, however. I list the ones I used to believe in and explain why I changed my mind. Then there is also evidence of some proper ‘fueling’ habits. After much research, trial, and error, I found habits that work well for me. I hope they work well for you too! Read on to find out.

My long-time sugar roller-coaster

I remember being on a coffee-and-candy-bar roller coaster in my early career. To focus, I drank a cappuccino or hot chocolate every hour and ate about two candy bars daily. Lots of cookies, too. I cycled for 60 minutes daily, so I didn’t care about the calories.

But my brain got foggy, I was quickly irritated, and the sugar felt like a craving: out of control. One day, I got so frustrated with this sugar addiction that I abolished all sugar and milk. I switched to fruits and oat milk. The cravings lessened but didn’t go away. 

Recently, after reading The Glucose Revolution, I understood the problem is glucose spikes. I also learned that the cause of these glucose spikes is more than just sugar ingestion. A stressful meeting can cause your body to inject glucose from storage. And the quick breaking down of simple starch (hydrolysis) from salty crisps can also cause spikes. 

A growing body of research suggests tricks to flatten your blood glucose curve. Read on for the specifics and the habits that worked for me.

Sugar and the brain

The brain is 2% of your body weight but consumes about 20% of your blood glucose. It is one power-hungry processor. Still, evolution made it way more efficient than any silicon-based processor in your laptop or phone. Your central nervous system and hypothalamus ensure the brain has the right amount of glucose. When the glucose level is low, the central nervous system makes you crave food or starts glucose release from fat storage. When glucose is high, it triggers insulin hormone release to capture excess glucose and store it. Millions of years of mammalian evolution have fine-tuned this system.

This careful balancing act is easily disturbed, however, when too much glucose enters the bloodstream at once. It starts oscillating. Sugary foods are one of the main reasons for glucose spikes. Too much glucose is like cycling downhill in the Alps. It’s a rush at first until you need to hit the brakes. In your body, the glucose brake is insulin. When you come to a standstill in the valley, you’re cold and tired, and your brakes are sticky through overheating.

Your brain longs for the top and wants to take the cable car: another candy bar. In the long term, this destroys your cycling muscles and your brakes. Scientifically: The data suggests that oscillating glucose can have more deleterious effects than constant high glucose on endothelial function and oxidative stress, two key players in favoring cardiovascular complications in diabetes.

It’s about more than sugar.

Eating healthy is about more than sugar, but sugar has a very immediate effect on brain performance. That’s why I focus this article mostly on sugar. In the long term, there are indications that too much salt stresses the kidneys, that hormones from cheap meat mess with your regular hormones, and that pollutants from pesticides and heavy metals stack up in the brain and cause degeneration. I still have to do more research on this and write another article. But first, on to the myths that are busted by science!

Myth: Fruits are healthy

Yes, fruits contain vitamins. But they also contain an awful lot of sugar. Half a bell pepper contains more vitamins than a whole orange! And many fruits, like apples, contain a lot of the worst type of sugar: fructose. Fructose is an unusable sugar, and your liver will work overtime to turn it into fat.

Eating fruits isn’t exactly unhealthy. If you enjoy fruit, why not? Enjoy the taste, but eat them whole. Juicing fruits will increase your total sugar intake. You can drink three oranges juiced, but you’ll be stuffed if you eat them whole. Furthermore, the sugars hit harder if you remove the natural fibers. 

Myth: Agave/honey/rice syrup/cane sugar is a healthy sugar

All refined sugars are more or less equal. They have the same harmful effect as juiced fruit: sugar enters the blood too fast, and your body stresses out to handle the spike. I avoid every kind of sugar as much as possible. And when I eat sugar, I make it a special joyful moment.

Sugars have different glycemic indices (GI). GI measures how fast your blood sugars rise if you consume that particular type of sugar. A low GI is not always healthier, however. Fructose could be hiding inside. It is a kind of sugar that does not raise your blood sugar – it lowers the GI – but your liver turns it into fat. Fructose tastes sweeter, though, so you may also use less. 

Myth: Counting calories is important

Did you know the calorie content of food is measured by actually burning the food and measuring the produced heat? That is not how your body cells get energy. Your cells need specific molecules at specific times in specific places. There is no relation between calorie content and the health of food. 

Also, remember fructose is a carbohydrate similar to glucose, yet your body can’t use it immediately. If you burn glucose and fructose, however, the result is very similar.

Furthermore, fibers show up as calories, but your body can’t digest them. A firewood log has many calories, but eating it won’t make you fat. The toxins in the wood will probably kill you instead.

Myth: Vegan/keto/paleo/low carb is the perfect diet

Within all diets, you can make very unhealthy choices. I eat mostly vegan, for instance. I would be strictly vegan if I only ate white sugar, white flour, and breakfast cereals with oat milk. But this type of vegan diet is also quite unhealthy because it contains so much sugar. Conclusion: I don’t eat vegan for my health, but for environmental & animal welfare reasons.

Myth: Oat milk is healthy

When I went vegan, I first switched to soy and later to oat milk for cappuccino and breakfast. I switched to oat because I didn’t like the taste of soy milk, and I’m a bit wary of soy in large quantities. Many people develop an intolerance. Soy seems to mess with your hormone levels too.

However, oat milk turned out to be not much better than soy. Because your saliva converts the oat starch to sugar quickly, you still get that sugar rush. I reverted to unsweetened almond milk and mostly just water.

Good idea: Eat fibers to slow sugar uptake

Much evidence points toward eating fiber as the best way to reduce glucose spikes. A bed of veggies is a great landing area for oils, sugar, and starch. The vegetable fibers fill the stomach nicely, and they scrub the intestines. I changed my breakfast to a hearty one. While preparing some eggs, I chew on some carrots or lettuce leaves. After the eggs, I eat some thick rolled oats. I can easily make it until lunch, even with a moderately active morning. 

Good idea: Use vinegar to slow sugar uptake

Apparently, dissolving a tablespoon of vinegar in a glass of water and drinking that before eating sugar or starch, also reduces glucose spikes. I’m not so sure it reduces my spikes and cravings, though. For me, vegetables work much better. 

If you are sensitive to Gastroesophageal reflux (GER) – also known as acid reflux – the tablespoon of vinegar is a risky method. Vegetables, on the other hand, are non-acidic, full of vitamins, and safe to consume even in larger quantities.

Good idea: Fasting improves metabolic flexibility

The body can inject glucose into the bloodstream from storage. Different biological mechanisms do this. Fasting triggers these mechanisms, and your body practices not instantly needing food. It’s a bit like spring cleaning too. Think of it as training to cycle uphill in the Alps and avoiding the cable cars.

Good idea: Limit processed food, gluten, and meat

Processed foods contain additives, preservatives, salt, and sugars. They also usually have fewer and shorter fibers. Processed foods, gluten, and meat have been linked to increased inflammation: your immune system works overtime when this kind of food passes through your stomach and gut. Inconsistent stool, buttons, rashes, stomach aches, and bubbling guts are all signs of inflammation. More energy for your immune system means less energy for the brain.

Good idea: Avoid alcohol, especially beer

My body reacts significantly to beer: I fall asleep after a few glasses. The sugar spike may be less for you than for me, but it still is a bad roller coaster. The sugar and starch in beer make you want to eat crisps, fries, and pizza. It compounds the excess glucose in your blood even more. Your insulin production reaches record levels, storing all excess glucose as fat.

Wine, especially red or dry white, does not create a similar spike. It is safer to drink, but excess use can still cause inflammation because alcohol is an irritant. Also, alcohol is known to kill brain cells. The liver filters alcohol out of the bloodstream by converting it into fat and some toxic byproducts.

I lose my ability to focus when I drink. After some alcohol at dinner, I can only watch TV or chat. That’s not the most invigorating brain activity, is it?

Good idea: Craving? Try water, brushing your teeth, or eating hearty first.

Despite my improved eating habits, I still get cravings occasionally. I might be tired, stressed, or smelling some delicious food. It helps me to drink a glass of water first. Brushing my teeth or eating peppermint can help too. A 10-minute walk outside also helps. If everything fails, I keep a bag of unsalted nuts around.

Conclusion: there are plenty of choices to enjoy

If you choose wisely and respect the correct order, you can enjoy many foods and drinks without negative consequences. You can easily steer clear of mountains and cable cars. Your body knows when it has had enough, but some food combinations block that signal. I’m careful with foods that have ingredients with difficult names because they hammer your immune system and cause inflammation. If you want to know more, you’ll probably enjoy the book Glucose Revolution. It’s well-written and reasonably researched. You can also watch Jody’s Stanislaws warning against overly consuming sugar.

Good luck with your fueling habits. Share this article if you learned something!

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