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Our Brains on Food

What we feed our bodies not only affects our physical appearance but our brains and cognition, as well. A growing body of research shows diets rich in whole foods and plant-based foods increases our wit and decreases our risk of disease.

In December of 2021, associate lecturer聽Leslee D鈥橝mato-Kubiet 鈥13PhD of the聽College of Nursing hiked Pine Mountain聽with her sister in Georgia鈥檚 F.D. Roosevelt聽State Park. Her sister, close in age to聽D鈥橝mato-Kubiet, walked up the rocky聽terrain with ease, while D鈥橝mato-Kubiet聽struggled to keep up.

鈥淚f you want to live long, Leslee, you鈥檙e聽going to have to do something about this,鈥澛爃er sister said to her. 鈥淵ou鈥檙e going to聽have to make a change.鈥

For D鈥橝mato-Kubiet, who at the time聽was medically morbidly obese, that hike聽was the beginning of a new relationship聽with diet and exercise. She鈥檇 always taken聽an interest in understanding聽how culture influences our聽food choices 鈥 something that聽comes naturally to the second-generation聽Italian American 鈥斅燼nd has researched nutrition聽literacy among families, and聽how genetics聽interact with our聽food choices.

But even researchers聽can struggle with weight,聽and after her sister鈥檚 tough聽love talk, she adopted what鈥檚聽known as an ancestral diet.聽The philosophy behind the聽diet is simple: 鈥淚f it wasn鈥檛 on聽George Washington鈥檚 plate,聽I don鈥檛 eat it,鈥 says D鈥橝mato-Kubiet.

An ancestral diet means聽eating similarly to how our聽ancestors ate 鈥 primarily by聽not eating processed foods,聽which dominate our current聽industrialized culture.聽Natural, locally grown,聽seasonal whole foods make up聽the ancestral diet, and since聽adopting it, D鈥橝mato-Kubiet is聽down 55 pounds. She aspires聽to lose another 50.

Her skin is brighter, clothes聽fit her better, and overall,聽she feels more physically fit.聽But something else came as聽a result of her new diet: She聽thinks more clearly and sleeps聽better 鈥 mental benefits that聽aren鈥檛 as commonly talked聽about when it comes to diet聽and nutrition.

A human brain is like the聽engine of a sports car 鈥 when聽fed the right nutrients and in聽the right doses, it can take us聽from zero to 60 with ease and聽efficiency.

Just as food is the fuel our聽bodies need to build muscle聽and grow strong bones, it also聽provides our brains with the聽nutrients it needs to function.聽A human brain is like the聽engine of a sports car 鈥 when聽fed the right nutrients and in聽the right doses, it can take us聽from zero to 60 with ease and聽efficiency. The good news: It聽doesn鈥檛 always take drastic聽dietary changes to reap the聽mental benefits of food. Even聽small changes 鈥 like swapping聽a bag of chips for an apple 鈥斅燾an make a difference.

Going Back to Our Roots

Those who work 9-to-5 jobs聽can relate: You forgot to聽pack food the night before,聽so you head to the nearest聽fast-food restaurant for a聽quick, convenient lunch. The聽cheeseburger, salty French聽fries and fizzy soda taste so聽good in the moment, but an聽hour later, you feel sluggish聽while sitting at your desk. It鈥檚聽hard to imagine mustering聽up enough mental energy to聽make it through the rest of the聽workday, so you reach for a聽cup of coffee to give yourself聽a boost.

鈥淚t鈥檚 like [processed food]聽has put your brain in a coma,鈥澛爏ays D鈥橝mato-Kubiet. 鈥淵our聽brain doesn鈥檛 know what to聽do with that processed stuff.聽That food [doesn鈥檛 have] good聽nutrients.鈥

The reason why processed聽foods often make us feel bad聽goes back thousands of years聽to the beginning of human聽history. Our bodies evolved聽when only whole foods 鈥斅爉eaning food that has not聽been processed, refined or聽altered with added ingredients聽鈥 were what was available to聽humans. It wasn鈥檛 until the聽Industrial Revolution that聽mass-produced food 鈥 and the聽added ingredients that came聽along with that 鈥 became a聽staple of diets. Trans fat, for聽instance, was created by a聽chemist and first introduced聽into diets in 1911 as vegetable聽shortening, and later in聽margarine, baked goods and聽fried food.

鈥淣ature doesn鈥檛 make bad聽fat. When we process it [through聽industrialized means], that鈥檚聽when it turns bad.鈥

鈥淣ature doesn鈥檛 make bad聽fat,鈥 says D鈥橝mato-Kubiet.聽鈥淲hen we process it [through聽industrialized means], that鈥檚聽when it turns bad.鈥

The human process of聽turning food into mental and聽physical energy begins before聽food even hits our tongues; it聽starts with our sense of sight.

鈥淵ou eat with your eyes聽first,鈥 says D鈥橝mato-Kubiet,聽adding that when you see聽something appetizing, the聽cerebrum and cerebellum in聽the brain start to light up.

Once food makes its way聽down the esophagus and into聽the stomach, the brain receives聽a signal: Be ready to process聽what鈥檚 coming. Food gets聽broken down into nutrients聽while in the small intestine,聽and then those nutrients get聽absorbed into the bloodstream聽and filtered again in the liver.聽From there, the brain begins聽receiving those nutrients and聽sorting through what it鈥檚 been聽provided.

鈥淚t鈥檚 looking for good amino聽acids, but if it receives all bad聽ones, then that [gets stored聽and] leads your brain to an聽inflammatory state,鈥 says聽D鈥橝mato-Kubiet.

Over time, as more bad聽nutrients pile up, and the聽organs are in a constant聽state of inflammation,聽prominent diseases聽emerge. This聽includes dementia聽and Alzheimer鈥檚 from聽blockages in parts of the聽brain, and vascular disease聽from blood clots blocking聽arteries 鈥 just to name a few.

So What Should I Eat?

During Memorial Day聽weekend, third-year College聽of Medicine student Leonie聽Dupuis and two high school聽student volunteers from聽Montverde Academy of聽Lake County packed a dozen聽brown paper bags with mixed聽greens, cauliflower, chickpeas,聽sweet potatoes, quinoa and聽a kale-pesto sauce. The bags聽were for Lake Nona residents聽who were participating聽in a virtual cooking聽demonstration, where they聽learned how to make a healthy聽meal with those ingredients.聽The event was organized聽by Dupuis and the Lifestyle聽Medicine Interest Group, an聽organization for 激情快播 College聽of Medicine students to learn聽about, and educate others, on聽everyday healthy behaviors.

Sharon Wasserstrom,聽an associate professor at聽the College of Medicine聽and advisor of the Lifestyle聽Medicine Interest Group,聽chopped up the ingredients聽in her own kitchen while the聽participants followed along聽via Zoom. She explained how sweet potatoes have some protein 鈥斅爉uch to the surprise of many聽of the participants.

A photo of two people cooking

The ingredients made a聽roasted vegetable quinoa聽bowl and are in line with what聽scientists have discovered聽to be anti-inflammatory聽foods 鈥 those rich in omega-3聽nutrients, antioxidants and聽phytonutrients 鈥 which have聽powerful anti-cancer and聽anti-heart disease benefits.

鈥淟ooking at ways to get聽more omega-3 fatty acids聽is very important and very聽beneficial for the brain,鈥 says聽Wasserstrom.

Wasserstrom also practices聽at 激情快播 Health in Lake Nona,聽where she advises patients聽on how to prevent, manage聽or reverse diseases with their聽diets 鈥 including eating a diet聽rich in whole, plant-based聽foods. In general, fruits and聽vegetables of all kinds, as well聽as nuts, seeds and legumes,聽are beneficial and linked to聽optimal health and wellness.聽That鈥檚 because our bodies聽know how to process the聽nutrients from these whole聽foods 鈥 their natural sugars,聽amino acids and fat 鈥 and聽turn them into good sources聽of energy.

Unprocessed meats are聽considered whole foods too,聽but they are recommended in聽smaller doses because of their聽lack of fiber and high saturated聽fat and cholesterol levels.

For Dupuis, educating聽others on diet is personal. In聽2017, her father had quadruple聽bypass surgery 鈥 a procedure聽Dupuis describes as 鈥減retty聽morbid.鈥

鈥淗e was your typical聽American male 鈥 ate what he聽wanted [and] considered ice聽cream a food group,鈥 Dupuis聽says. 鈥淏ut when he went聽through the operation, as a聽family we said, 鈥極K, we need聽to look at how to make聽changes to preserve the聽surgery he just had.鈥 鈥

The Dupuis聽family adopted a聽plant-based diet,聽and her father lived聽another four years聽until he died of a聽stroke at age 60.

鈥淢y dad is the聽biggest reason聽I鈥檓 so passionate聽about this,鈥 says聽Dupuis, who still聽eats a plant-based diet.聽鈥淵ou can prevent vascular聽disease, and it鈥檚 100% personal聽to me. If we had started聽making those changes sooner,聽maybe he鈥檇 still be here.鈥

Wasserstrom can attest聽to that; she has seen patients聽completely turn their health聽around. One woman, for聽instance, lost about 80聽pounds and was able to聽ditch most of her diabetes聽medications after adopting a聽whole-food, plant-based diet聽and walking more.

鈥淪he kept coming in just to聽say how good she felt,鈥 says聽Wasserstrom. 鈥淗er mind felt聽clearer. She was stronger. She聽wasn鈥檛 tired. She was just so聽invigorated.鈥

That鈥檚 the kind of change聽Dupuis wants to spearhead聽as a doctor. Already at聽the College of Medicine,聽she鈥檚 founded the Lifestyle聽Medicine Interest Group聽and has co-authored papers聽with Wasserstrom and聽other faculty about ways聽the College of Medicine has聽increasingly incorporated聽lifestyle medicine into the聽curriculum. Students have聽extracurricular activities聽thanks to the interest group,聽faculty members integrate聽lifestyle medicine teachings聽into their classes, and聽students can gain clinical聽experience alongside聽Wasserstrom 鈥 an American聽Board for 鈥 at聽激情快播 Health.

鈥淧eople ask me, 鈥榃hy do聽you want to go into primary聽care, a preventative-type聽health field?鈥 It鈥檚 literally聽because I think everyone聽deserves a chance,鈥 says聽Dupuis.

An illustration of a bowl with veggies and sweet potatoes.

The Future of Food

Before moving to Florida聽more than three years ago,聽Wasserstrom practiced聽medicine in the Bronx. With聽Columbia University nearby,聽she enrolled in a Medical聽Nutrition for the Healthcare聽Professional course. She聽knew that eating healthy and聽exercising regularly were聽good, but she still didn鈥檛聽know exactly what kind of聽food or what kind of exercise聽to advise her patients. To her聽surprise, neither did many of聽her classmates.

鈥淧eople came from all聽over the country,鈥 says聽Wasserstrom. 鈥淭here was an聽OB-GYN, pediatricians, nurse聽practitioners 鈥 all kinds of聽healthcare professionals who聽felt they had more to learn聽about nutrition.鈥

That鈥檚 because the聽traditional 丑别补濒迟丑肠补谤别听肠耻谤谤颈肠耻濒耻尘 does not spend聽enough time teaching聽nutrition, and research聽on lifestyle medicine and聽nutrition is still unfolding聽today.

Recent studies show that聽diets high in saturated fats聽are linked to a decline in聽memory, processing speed聽and attention. Likewise,聽studies show that diets high in聽saturated fats and trans fats聽are linked to a greater risk of聽cognitive decline and diseases聽like dementia and Alzheimer鈥檚,聽says Wasserstrom. Baked聽goods, animal products and聽dairy products are where most聽of these fats are found in a聽standard American diet.

On the flip side, studies聽have found that diets high in聽monounsaturated fats, like聽what鈥檚 in avocado, nuts and聽seeds, are shown to improve聽brain function. Additional聽studies show that omega-3聽fatty acids play a role in聽cognitive development and聽forming brain connections,聽and that patients with聽Alzheimer鈥檚 disease have a聽greater functional decline聽if they don鈥檛 have enough of聽them, says Wasserstrom.

On the flip side, studies聽have found that diets high in聽monounsaturated fats, like聽what鈥檚 in avocado, nuts and聽seeds, are shown to improve聽brain function.

Research also has聽shown there鈥檚 another聽omega nutrient to keep聽an eye on 鈥 omega-6,聽which has been found to聽trigger pro-inflammatory聽chemicals in the body. Not聽all omega-6 fats are bad 鈥 it鈥檚聽recommended to have them in聽our diets, along with omega-3聽nutrients 鈥 but a standard聽American diet has between聽14 to 25 times more omega-6than omega-3 fatty acids,聽says Wasserstrom, which聽increases the risk of many聽chronic diseases prevalent in聽Western society. Omega-6 is聽commonly found in walnuts,聽peanut butter, meat, tofu,聽mayonnaise, and corn, soy,聽safflower and sunflower oils.

Still, there鈥檚 much to learn.聽Research is evolving on how聽diet can trigger epileptic聽seizures, and early findings聽suggest a keto diet may help聽those patients, says D鈥橝mato-聽Kubiet. She is in the midst of聽her own research study that聽will compare how people鈥檚聽eating habits in adolescence聽compare to adulthood.聽Dupuis also spent this聽summer researching the link聽between plant-based diets and聽hypertension.

Additional research is聽emerging thanks to a rise in聽group-based interventions,聽says Wasserstrom. For聽instance, support groups聽for people with the same聽conditions, such as diabetes,聽are growing in popularity.聽These groups allow patients聽to come together to learn 聽what dietary and lifestyle聽changes they can take to聽better manage their condition.聽They also allow doctors and聽researchers to follow a bigger聽sample size of patients through聽their treatments and better聽understand what lifestyle聽changes make the biggest聽impact for the most people.

For the average consumer,聽it may seem like these disease-specific聽findings aren鈥檛聽applicable, but Dupuis urges聽people to think otherwise.

鈥淵oung people don鈥檛 yet聽take pills every day, we don鈥檛聽go to the doctor every other聽month. We aren鈥檛 seeing the聽consequences of what we鈥檙e聽doing today,鈥 she says.

While there is still much to聽learn, D鈥橝mato-Kubiet advises聽this for now: 鈥淚f you can鈥檛聽understand the ingredients,聽don鈥檛 buy it. If it has to go聽through more than one window,聽[such as with fast-food], it鈥檚聽probably bad for you. And while聽grocery shopping, only shop聽on the outer perimeter of聽the store.鈥

鈥淚f you can鈥檛 understand the ingredients,聽don鈥檛 buy it. If it has to go through more聽than one window, [such as with fast-food],聽it鈥檚 probably bad for you. And while聽grocery shopping, only shop on the outer聽perimeter of the store.鈥

An illustration of a fish and an egg

Roasted Vegetable聽Grain Bowl

A Lifestyle Medicine Interest Group recipe

1 cup quinoa, rinsed
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 whole head of cauliflower,聽cut into bite-sized florets
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 can chickpeas

Garnishes (optional):
Sprinkle of toasted pepitas,
pickled red onions, cilantro leaves

Kale pepita pesto:
1/2 cup pepitas
2 garlic cloves
1 packed cup chopped kale
1 packed cup cilantro
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 tsp. salt
ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp. maple syrup (or honey)


  1. Preheat oven to 425掳F.
  2. Add rinsed quinoa and 1 3/4 cup of water to a聽medium pot. Bring it to a boil, cover, reduce heat,聽and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat聽and let it sit, covered, for 10 more minutes. Fluff聽with a fork (very important 鈥 a spoon will smush聽your quinoa).
  3. Place sweet potatoes and cauliflower on large聽baking sheet. Drizzle the vegetables with olive oil聽and pinches of salt and pepper, toss to coat, then聽spread evenly onto the sheet. Roast for 20 to 25聽minutes or until golden brown around the edges.
  4. Combine kale pepita pesto ingredients with 1/2聽cup of water in a blender, and blend until smooth.
  5. Assemble bowls with a bed of greens, about聽1/2 cup of quinoa, roasted vegetables, and聽about 1/4 cup chickpeas. Top with pickled red聽onions, pepitas and/or leftover cilantro. Drizzle聽the pesto sauce on top and enjoy!