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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

Preconditions: Nutrition

Updated: Jun 6

This post is a compilation of past essays.

To live mindfully, we attend to fundamentals. Meditation, a good night’s sleep, a balanced exercise routine, and a nutrient dense diet are some of the habits that promote not only physical well-being, but mental clarity, improved concentration, and emotional balance.

When we look within, we discover the insights we need to live more mindfully. Meditators develop interoceptive awareness. We connect with the body and observe sensations as they arise. If we’re eating poorly, we feel that. When we’re eating foods that agree with our constitutions, we learn experientially which foods aid in concentration.

Our gut has its own nervous system, sometimes called the enteric brain. The gut has over 100 million neurons and 35 neurotransmitters. It contains as many nerve cells as your spinal cord. Signals from gut to brain and brain to gut travel along the vagus nerve. "The vagus nerve is a stout cable of neurons that serves as an information highway between the base of the brain and the gut. Even though it is the longest nervous system connection in the body, messages take only milliseconds to travel between the brain and the gut," writes science journalist Denyse O'Leary.

"The entire digestive tract is lined by the enteric nervous system (ENS), a vast network of millions of neurons and glial cells—the two primary cell types also found in the central nervous system," according to researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Glia are like guitar amplifiers and pedals and that modulate notes. Many glia live in the mucus layer that lines the intestines, placing them in direct contact with nerve and immune cells, which gather information about the health of our bodies. Glia listen in and amplify signals related to stress, anxiety or even happiness.

In addition to these neurons, glia, and neurotransmitters, our bodies are home to trillions of bacteria. They outnumber our own cells 10 to 1. They’re spread across the digestive system. Most live in the intestines and colon, commonly called the gut. This community of gut bacteria is called the microbiome. The gut microbiome not only regulates digestion, vitamin supplementation and metabolism, but affects brain function, neural development, immune function, pain perception, and mental health. Gut microbes communicate with the brain using three primary channels: the nervous system, the immune system, and the endocrine system.

There are other resident populations, like obelisks, which scientists have only recently discovered and know little to nothing about. Obelisks comprise a class of diverse RNAs that have colonized the microbiome. Scientists have identified over 30,000 different Obelisks  (Zheludev, 2024). The common mouth bacterium Streptococcus sanguinis, for example, is colonized by an Obelisk 1,137 nucleotides long. Our bodies are colonized by bacteria that are colonized, in turn, by Obelisks.

The foods we eat affect the milieu of our gut flora. This microbiome plays a vital role in both our physical and mental well-being. 95% of the information received in the gut goes to the brain; it’s not the other way around. What we eat, in other words, affects our concentration, energy levels, and moods for better or for worse. In his book, The Psychobiotic Revolution, Scott Anderson writes: "Incredibly, the microbes in your gut produce neurotransmitters identical to those that your brain uses to communicate from one cell to another. These are partly for microbes to talk to each other, but also to talk to their host. The neurotransmitters include dopamine and serotonin, two of the most important chemicals involved in psychiatry. This is thus an immediate channel of communication for your gut microbes to let your brain know what’s going on down under. It can quickly alter your mood. This gut-brain connection makes it clear why you should be solicitous of your microbial happiness. Treat your microbes right, and they will be on the front line of defense against pathogens. Abuse them, and they can make you miserable on short notice."

A child's brain growth is influenced by the gut microbiome. Specific gut microbial species, such as Alistipes obesi and Blautia wexlerae, are associated with higher cognitive functions. Conversely, species like Ruminococcus gnavus are more prevalent in children with lower cognitive scores (Bonham et al., 2023).

Recent research suggests that the gut microbiome’s influence extends far beyond the confines of the abdomen. A healthy gut microbiome drives the motivation to exercise, promoting better health. The motivation to work out is triggered by neurochemical changes in the brain... and that is influenced by what happens in the gut. Microbiome-dependent endocannabinoid metabolites in the gut stimulate TRPV1-expressing sensory neurons which elevate dopamine levels in the ventral striatum during exercise (Thaiss & Betley et al., 2022).

Research has shown that the gut microbiota modulate gut and brain functions. “Gut microbes can communicate with the brain through several routes, for example by producing metabolites, such as short-chain fatty acids and peptidoglycans, neurotransmitters, such as gamma-aminobutyric acid and histamine, and compounds that modulate the immune system as well as others,” said Dr. Melinda A. Engevik, assistant professor of regenerative and cellular medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina.

The immune system is like a military complex with different branches who have different functions. B cells produce antibodies that attack invading bacteria, viruses and toxins. T cells protect the body in a different way: by destroying cells that have themselves been taken over by viruses or become cancerous. The T cell is the Fleet Admiral of the immune response. T cells read the environment and tell the immune system how to respond. In mouse studies, as soon as their diets are changed from good diet to bad, the T cells are impaired and the likelihood of infection increases. In this research, a good diet was one high in fibers, which are metabolized by the microbiota into short-chain fatty acids. Short-chain fatty acids are fundamental for T cell function.

Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital linked bacteria in our gut to positive emotions like happiness and hopefulness as well as improved emotional regulation (Kubzansky, et al., 2023). People who reported greater contentment had lower levels of Firmicutes bacterium CAG 94 and Ruminococcaceae bacterium D16. By contrast, those who reported more distressing emotional episodes had more of these bacteria.

The gut microbiome appears to play a role in temperature regulation. Temperature gives us important information about the body's inflammatory and metabolic state. It also plays a key role in the stress response.

Chronic stress can reshape the microbiome. Some bacteria of the genus Lactobacillus, which naturally occur in the gut. Under stress, Lactobacillus murinus proliferate and produce a chemical called indole-3-acetate (IAA). Increased levels of IAA prevents intestinal stem cells from becoming protector cells (Wei, W. et al. 2024).

Another biochemical pathway begins when the brain sends stress signals (glucocorticoids) that end with immune cells in the gut becoming overactive, causing intestinal inflammation (Schneider, K. M. et al., 2023)

Gut bacteria produce neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes which affect learning, memory, mood, and by extension behavior. 90 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin, for example, is produced in the gut. Serotonin, sometimes called the calm molecule, influences both mood and gastrointestinal activity. When serotonin levels are elevated, we feel a sense of contentment and calm. Serotonin inhibits the amygdala, which plays a role in threat detection. Now It's the serotonin secreted in the raphe nuclei of the brain which modulates mood. But how well it performs in the brain is impacted by what happens in the gut.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin. Foods like whole wheat, potato, lentils, oats, pumpkin seeds, eggs, spinach, and beans, adaptogens like ginseng, nutmeg, or St. Johns wort, and supplements like 5-HTP and SAM-e increase serotonin uptake. To promote sleep or rest, I’ll usually time these foods for later in the day.

Gamma-Aminobutyric acid or GABA is another inhibitory neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation. One doctor called it the chillax molecule. Fermented foods like sauerkraut or yogurt, almonds, walnuts, cherries, brown rice, potato, oats, lentils, navy, and lima beans and supplements like vitamin B6 are some foods rich in glutamic acid.

To promote clarity and alertness during the day, I’ll consume foods that are richer in protein and fats to enhance the signaling of excitatory neurotransmitters and neuro-modulators like dopamine which amplify activity of brain circuits associated with seeking, motivation, and reward, or like norepinephrine which amplify activity of brain circuits associated with focus, acetylcholine amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with alertness, and glutamate amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with learning and memory.

Tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine. Foods like almonds, apples, avocado, bananas, beets, chocolate, green leafy veg, green tea, lima beans, oatmeal, sesame & pumpkin seeds, turmeric, watermelon, and wheat germ, supplements like l-theanine, and Rhodiola rosea can alter dopamine levels. Mucuna pruriens is another supplement I use. This magic velvet bean is not only a source of protein, but of L-dopa, another precursor to dopamine. I add mucuna pruriens to my shakes.

Brussel sprouts, broccoli, peanut butter, and chocolate can alter acetylcholine levels. Glutamate occurs naturally in high protein foods such as cheese, milk, mushrooms, and many vegetables.

Dopamine affects motivation, and motivation is affected by oxidative stress. What is oxidative stress?

As cells consume various micro and macronutrients for fuel, they produce toxic poop in the form of highly reactive molecules collectively known as oxidative species. To restore the cell's chemical balance, cells flush these out. When cells cannot clear out toxins efficiently enough the result is “oxidative stress”.

Antioxidants are molecules that fight oxidative stress. One of the brain's most important antioxidants is a protein called glutathione. Higher levels of glutathione in a brain structure called the nucleus accumbens correlates with motivation (Sandi, Zalachoras, et al., 2022). The nucleus accumbens plays a major role regulating motivation, reward, reinforcement, and aversion. N-acetylcysteine is a precursor to glutathione and increases glutathione levels in the nucleus accumbens. N-acetylcysteine can be synthesized in the body from its precursor cysteine. Cysteine is contained in high-protein foods: eggs, fish, whole-grains, and vegetables such as broccoli, onions, and legumes.

Not only what we eat, but when and how often we eat matters. Meditators were fasting intermittently before it became trendy. This time-honored discipline gives the gut a reprieve and aids in digestion, metabolism, and sleep- which aids in concentration.

Traditionally, in the East, only breakfast and lunch are served on retreat. On retreat, we practice eating slowly and mindfully, savoring each bite. Not only does this practice ground us in the present moment, chewing slowly aids in digestion and promotes satiety.

As an aside, if you don’t care to fast intermittently or can’t, consider consuming your last meal 4 hours prior to bed to give the digestive system time to process and shut down.

There are other benefits to fasting intermittently. Fasting enhances the levels of a gene called OXR1 that slows aging (Wilson et al., 2024). Fasting enhances the activators, regulators, and transcription factors that mediate mitochondrial biogenesis and improve mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are the key cellular organelles involved in energy production. It seems counter-intuitive, but fasting improves athletic performance. Fasting boosts mitochondrial biogenesis which positively affects exercise performance and recovery. I usually exercise before breakfast, unless I’m participating in an event, touring, on adventure, or exercising later in the day.

Nutrient dense foods provide the body with the macro and micronutrients the body needs. The integrity of the nerve cells in the brain depends on fats, amino acids, and other nutrients which we get from the foods we eat. When the body's dietary needs are met, the brain signals satiety. We experience fullness. To support healthy brain metabolism, our brains require at least 30 micronutrients. We eat until we reach our amino acid threshold. One reason Westerners tend to overeat is precisely because the foods are so nutrient poor. We get the macronutrients we need (the fats, sugars, carbohydrates), but not the micronutrients (minerals, vitamins, and amino-acids). As a result, we eat more to supply the brain and body with the nutrients we need. And we often choose the wrong foods.

Fasting appears to change the human brain-gut-microbiome axis. The bacteria Coprococcus comes and Eubacterium hallii were negatively associated with activity in the left inferior frontal orbital gyrus. The inferior frontal orbital gyrus regulates appetite and executive functions, including willpower when it comes to food intake (Zhou, et al., 2024). The microbiome produces neurotransmitters and neurotoxins which affect the brain. In return, the brain controls what we eat. And what we eat changes or maintains the composition of the gut microbiome.

Fasting can help us identify which foods might be problematic. We each have our own unique biochemistry, so I’m not advocating any diet. I follow a pescatarian one, you choose what agrees with you. I eat nuts; some readers may have nut allergies that would provoke inflammation. I eat plain Greek yogurt; some readers may be lactose intolerant. I eat grains, people with Celiac disease should avoid them. I eat fermented foods, some have a histamine intolerance. And I ingest supplements that may be harmful to others.

I don't promote this or that diet. The ketogenic diet, for example, can be a dietary intervention in treating epilepsy, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia (Sethi et al., 2024). Auditory hallucinations quieted in patients with treatment-resistant schizophrenia on a ketogenic diet. However, the ketogenic diet is contraindicated in individuals with pancreatitis, liver failure, disorders of fat metabolism, primary carnitine deficiency, carnitine palmitoyltransferase deficiency, carnitine translocase deficiency, porphyrias, or pyruvate kinase deficiency (Masood et al., 2023).

To determine which foods might be problematic for you, consider consulting with a nutritionist, request a complete blood panel and food sensitivity test from a functional medicine doctor to get baseline data, then start an elimination diet to determine which foods are beneficial and which are not. By foods, we mean food groups: grains, dairy, sugars, oils, legumes, nuts and seeds, eggs, nightshades.

Food sensitivity/intolerance/allergy testing, theoretically, could be a good way to identify problematic foods. When we consume foods that the immune system reacts to as harmful, it will produce an abundance of antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE), immunoglobulin A (IgA), and/or immunoglobulin G (IgG). These antibodies attach to cells which release chemicals that cause symptoms like itching, inflammation, swelling, hives, difficulty breathing (wheezing), vomiting and diarrhea. Food sensitivity tests claim to pinpoint which foods may be causing painful symptoms by identifying which foods raise your body’s Ig levels.

Many professional medical organizations advise against using at-home food sensitivity tests, however, including the AAAAI, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

The problem with food sensitivity tests, says Lacey Dunn, a functional medicine dietitian, is they indicate how your body responds to a food based on whether it elevates your IgG levels. But IgG levels don’t tell you if you’re intolerant to a food, she explains. Having an elevated IgG response could just mean you have a lot of that food in your diet and that you actually tolerate it well.

Often, people suffering from abdominal pain, gas and bloating purchase these tests in desperation, notes Dr. Mireku. They then get a complete list of foods that were measured and the IgG response, but really they’re seeing foods they already tolerate.

Until these tests are subjected to rigorous, blinded trails and are validated, the elimination diet remains the best way to determine sensitivities, allergies, or intolerances.

I fast intermittently and once a month I fast from 1-3 days. By slowly reintroducing foods after a 3 day fast, it can help me determine which are causing me discomfort. Ideally, however, specific foods would be removed for up to a month or more. If I have a food sensitivity to gluten, for example, I may have symptoms (bloating, abdominal discomfort, brain fog, etc) for up to 3-5 days after ingesting, say, pasta or breads. Symptoms may disappear after a 3 day fast. The immune response, however, may last 1-3 months. Because of this lag, it's important to eliminate suspect foods for up to 1-3 months. I will experience persistent inflammation, abdominal discomfort, or other symptoms until I figure this out. Will Cole, a functional medicine and integrative doctor, outlines an 8-week plan (2 months) in his book Inflammation Spectrum to help identify problematic foods.

My father introduced me to fasting. He was a minister and himself the son of a minister who would fast for weeks at a time. My father was my mentor. I learned from his successes and his mistakes. And neglecting his diet was his costliest mistake. My father died from complications due to type-2 diabetes.

He was diagnosed with the disease at 30. I was a boy (7 or 8), but understood the seriousness of the diagnosis. One day, he was snacking on candy. I grabbed the bag from his hand. "The doctor says you can't eat this!" He snatched them back and yelled at me, "Don't tell me what I can or can't eat!"

I learned 3 important lessons that day.

First, most people don’t like being told what to do especially when it comes to nutrition.

Second, we are all subject to the laws of nature. My father often preached on healing and laid hands on people. But, without changes to lifestyle, prayer won’t reverse insulin resistance or lower your blood glucose levels. It might be better to pray for determination, self-discipline and the power to say no. Good health may follow from that. We won’t need to pray for miracle cures.

And third, once established, habits are hard to undo-even when we know that we are on the wrong path.

Habits- whether good or bad- develop slowly and incrementally. "Failure is subtle," Jim Rohn rightly observed. If we fell severely ill after eating one donut or were diagnosed with cirrhosis after drinking a pint of whiskey or suffered a broken heart after complaining or experienced poverty after subscribing to cable, we would quickly change. But we don't get severely ill after eating one donut; we are not diagnosed with cirrhosis after drinking a pint of whiskey; we aren't heart-broken after complaining to our spouse; we aren't filing for bankruptcy after subscribing to cable. But, just as small, intentional, daily disciplines build good health, wealth, and relationships, so are bad habits gradually shaped, and once formed are devilishly hard to break.

My father was diagnosed as pre-diabetic in his 30s. He started taking insulin in his 40s. His kidneys failed in his 50s. He went on dialysis. He made minor changes to his diet, but by then it was too late. Diabetes is a merciless disease that pecks away at its victims rather than killing them outright. His toes were amputated in his early 60s, then his feet, then both legs. He suffered several strokes. He was partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound for his final years of life. He lost his ability to speak. Then he lost his sight. He had another stroke. We brought him home to hospice where he died peacefully on New Year’s Eve 2007.

The health care he received was excellent. His doctors were exemplary and caring. Our family remains deeply grateful to all of his clinicians.

My mother and I were his primary caregivers. We spent many hours in the hospital. It became clear to me that our health care system was invested in disease, not prevention. The money is in pills, in procedures, in treatments- not in promoting behavioral change with kale, nuts, or avocados. Few doctors will ask you about your diet or exercise routine when you go for your annual physical. If you are feeling unwell, most will ask about acute symptoms, run tests, diagnose, and prescribe a drug- without addressing root causes.

Healthy lifestyle choices, like nutrition, sleep, and exercise improve genetic factors by 62%; unhealthy lifestyle choices, by contrast, increase risks of illness and premature death by 78% (Bian, et al., 2024).

Suppose you eat fast food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After several months of this, you begin to develop any one of the symptoms associated with the Western diet: low grade inflammation, oxidative damage, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, or hypertension. The doctor will treat the symptoms and the prescription will work... for a while. Without changes to your diet or lifestyle, symptoms will worsen. Your doctor may increase your dosage and prescribe pills to treat the side effects from the first treatment regimen. He or she might hand you a pamphlet or literature on eating right. But, you won't be prescribed a meal plan or given an exercise regimen to follow. Insurance companies do not reimburse doctors for suggesting plant based or whole food diets, high intensity interval training or meditation. And neither mindfulness nor nutrition, as far as I know, are embedded in medical school curricula. I perused the medical schools course catalog for several top medical schools. Some offer electives and some require a few hours on nutrition, but it’s minimal.

Despite advances in evidence-based research on the benefits of certain diets, there is a dissemination gap of about 17 years for research to be integrated into clinical practice according to one 2006 study. Can you wait 17 years for the paradigms to shift and for the institutions to change? Do you have that luxury? Do you want to take that risk?

No one would order a plate of high blood pressure or purchase a bag of diabetes, but how most eat makes them sick. Good nutrition can be preventive medicine. And the prescriptions could be delicious. But its on us to research and self-advocate.

I am an educator by profession. It’s my responsibility to share the research and the facts. A doctor can save a life and extend the days of her patient. And a teacher who encourages his students to adopt a healthy lifestyle can be a partner in preventive care.

Simple lifestyle choices like exercise or a diet of whole, mostly plant based foods would have extended my father’s life by decades and made doctor's visits unnecessary.

But my father ate the typical Western diet.

Getting sick is almost inevitable if you follow the modern Western diet. Hundreds of quality, peer-reviewed studies have found links between the Western diet and obesity, dementia, prostate and breast cancer, sepsis, chronic gut infections, inflammation, depression, anxiety, and insulin resistance. The Western diet increases cytokines, molecules that promote inflammation. The Western diet also promotes oxidative stress. Christopher Palmer, M.D., asserts: "Mental disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain."

The Western diet consists mainly of red meat (steak, pork, and barbequed ribs for example) , processed meat (like hotdogs, burgers, bologna, salami, etc.), prepackaged foods ( which are most of the items found in boxes, plastic containers, or bags), butter, fried foods ( fried chicken, burgers, and French fries), sweets (like donuts, pancakes, waffles, most cereals, coffee creamers, and energy drinks). Energy drinks, incidentally, are linked to ADHD, depression, and risky behavior in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics stated that caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents (Heckman, Weil, and Mejia, 2010).

The Western diet is low in fruits for example, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, apricots, goji, or acai), vegetables (e.g. kale, spinach, beets, broccoli, collard greens, etc.), whole grains (e.g. bulgur, couscous, barley, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.), nuts (e.g. walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pecans, etc.), fish, seeds (e.g. pumpkin, sesame, chia, flax, etc.), and legumes (e.g. red, white, or black beans, peas, lentils, garbanzos, etc.).

Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School listed 5 foods to avoid to fight inflammation, promote brain health, and sharpen thinking. All 5 figure prominently in the Western diet, even those marketed as low-fat, low-calorie, or diet.

1. Added sugars. High sugar diets are linked with memory impairments. The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 25 grams of sugar and for men no more than 36 grams.

2. Fried foods. Fried foods cause inflammation. Those who consume more fried foods are more likely to develop depression in their lifetime.

3. High glycemic load carbohydrates (e.g. bread, pasta, potatoes, white rice, honey, orange juice). Researchers discovered that people who had the highest score on the carbohydrate-quality index, meaning they were eating better-quality carbs, were 30% less likely to develop depression than those on high carb diets.

4. Alcohol

5. Nitrates. Used as a preservative and to enhance color in deli slices and cured meats like bacon, salami and sausage, nitrates may be connected with depression.

Food affects cognition. A healthy diet fuels the body, provides energy for the brain, and nutrients for the cells. The ultra-processed, modern diet, by contrast, fuels the body with cheap sugars, inflames the brain, and causes oxidative stress that damage cells.

Ultra-processed food is directly linked to 32 harmful effects to health, including a higher risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, adverse mental health and early death, according to the world’s largest review of its kind.

60% of Americans have a chronic disease. 40% have two or more chronic diseases. Someone will have a heart attack every 40 seconds. Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide. 50 million Americans have an autoimmune disease. Almost half the population of the United States are pre-diabetic or diabetic. Brain health problems are also rising. 20% of adults have a diagnosable mental disorder. Depression is the leading cause of disability around the world. Around 1 in 5 American children ages 3-17 have a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. Serious depression is worsening especially among teens… with suicide among girls reaching a 40 year high. Anxiety impacts more than 40 million Americans, and Alzheimer's Disease is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. Since 1979, deaths due to brain disease have increased 66% in men and 92% in women. 1 in 59 children are now on the Autism spectrum (Cole, 2019). There is one underlying commonality between all of these health problems explains Dr. Will Cole in The Inflammation Spectrum. Each of these diseases is inflammatory in nature.

But, facts don’t drive change. Meditation promotes the kind of self-knowledge and experiential learning we need to make more informed decisions. Meditation promotes a top-down approach to self-regulation most effective for promoting and maintaining the kind of action we need to take.

Interoceptive awareness affects our capacity to regulate our emotions and behaviors. And how we read and interpret bodily sensations influences our wellbeing. Meditation not only enhances interoceptive awareness, it promotes health. In a recent 2021 study, researchers found that meditation can improve the immune response for conditions associated with inflammation. Researchers found the response to oxidative stress, detoxification, and cell cycle regulation pathways were down-regulated after meditation. 220 genes directly associated with immune response, including 68 genes related to interferon signaling, were up-regulated, with no significant expression changes in the inflammatory genes.

Stress, via inflammation, is linked to metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of symptoms associated with poor health. People with metabolic syndrome are diagnosed with at least three of five factors that increase the risk for heart disease, diabetes and other health issues—excess belly fat, high blood pressure, low HDL (good) cholesterol, and high levels of fasting blood glucose and triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood. The condition is also referred to as insulin resistance syndrome. Research suggests stress is associated with inflammation, inflammation is associated with metabolic syndrome, and stress is associated with metabolic syndrome. Inflammation biomarkers including IL-6, C-reactive protein, E-selectin and ICAM-1, which help recruit white blood cells during inflammation, and fibrinogen, a protein essential to blood clot formation are elevated when under stress (Jurgens et al., 2023).

Meditation teaches us how to dial stress down. Paying attention to the body, we get feedback and insights. The better we get at detecting our body’s signals, the more insight. This in turn helps us make wiser choices from a more embodied place as we respond more thoughtfully to what we ingest. By contrast, poor interoceptive awareness correlates with increased psychological distress. Major depressive disorder, for example, is associated with altered interoception (Park et al., 2022). Many people with depression present with abdominal complaints. Whereas people with anxiety report more stresses on the cardiovascular system.

In a recent study, researchers found that deep meditation may alter the composition of the gut milieu for the better, which translates to better health.

Meditation is also a tool for rewiring the brain, promoting neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to change. We all know to eat right, exercise, stick to a sleep schedule, save and invest, but this knowledge is worthless if it is not integrated into our lives.

Basic information about how the brain works can help us interrupt the habit loop. Habits describe behaviors that have become so ingrained that we perform them automatically. Habits can become compulsions or addictions. This is in contrast to goal-directed, purposeful behavior, in which an action is explicitly performed to obtain a desired outcome. We can use goal-directed, purposeful behaviors- like mindfulness- to encourage habits that promote well-being and to eliminate those which do not promote health.

Goal-directed behavior (like learning to cook nutrient dense meals), is characterized by active deliberation and exacts higher computational costs, at least initially, until these become habits.

Automaticity allows the brain to free up attentional and decision-making resources. It’s more efficient. However, automaticity can also be detrimental and lead to bad habits, compulsions, and addictions if we’re not intentional and firm.

Habits, compulsions, and addictions rewire the brain; breaking them also requires a rewiring of the brain. The brain's ability to rewire itself is called neuroplasticity. It takes time for new connections to form and for familiar and strong ones to weaken until they are extinguished. The more we reinforce any habit, whether good or bad, the more robust the connections. Non-reactivity can also become a habit. Every time we resist temptation, the weaker those connections become. We may relapse, but if we persist, we can build back a more resilient brain. The brain can heal itself. If it is compromised or damaged, it can make compensatory modifications and reorganize itself.

Change can be challenging to sustain, so we leverage the power of habit. It is easier to take small actionable steps and build them into our daily routines so that we no longer have to think about them or motivate ourselves to do them anymore than we have to think or motivate ourselves to brush our teeth. Good habits become routinized and require little effort.

This may take time. Contrary to the popular notion that it takes 21 days to establish a habit, it can take from 18 days to 250+ days for the brain to rewire itself- depending on the individual and the habit one is trying to adopt... or break.

It took me decades to change my diet. I eliminated pork, beef, and alcohol in my early 20s, chicken and fish in my mid 30s, and reduced sugar, pasta, bread, dairy, white rice, and most cooking oils in my mid-40s. Giving up favorite foods was hard initially, but I reframed the choice by acknowledging that what I was really giving up was inflammation, fatigue, low energy, moodiness, stress, and illness. There’s still room for improvement, and I'm working on it. That said, this recovering fast food junkie has come a long way.

A brain structure called the basal ganglia contains circuits that promote both action execution and action suppression. The basal ganglia runs a "Go/No-Go" algorithm. Experiments suggest that the basal ganglia plays a key role in modulating and gating decisions via the go or no-go pathway. One part of the brain mediates a go signal, the other sends a no-go signal necessary for extinction learning. At the experiential level, many of us find it easy to say go to some things (whether positive like exercise or negative like ultra-processed foods). And many find it easy to say no-go to other things (whether that’s saying no-go to donuts, or no-go to okra).

Within the basal ganglia is another structure called the dorsal lateral striatum. The dorsal lateral striatum is active at the beginning and at the end of a habit. This function is called task bracketing. The dorsal lateral striatum frames events just before we initiate a habit. Other neurons are active during the execution of the habit. Task bracketing is like a script that runs when certain conditions are present. Whether this algorithm runs or not is based on our state: on how focused, how resourced, how calm we feel. When we are tired, distracted, stressed and spent, it is easier for the brain to run the GO command for cigarettes or alcohol to take the edge off the anxiety, to issue GO for cookies or processed foods that suppress cortisol and alleviate stress (at least momentarily) and to issue NO GO commands to work out, to meditate, to prepare a nutrient dense meal.

There are cue-induced and stress-induced triggers. Interrupting these cues and delaying a response is key to breaking habits.

Because once that script executes, the habit follows automatically. This is why you feel powerless to resist the cookies, ice cream, or chips. Once the task-bracketed script runs, we lock in torpedo-like despite all the alarm bells, health risks, or consequences we know will follow.

Task-bracketing is a subcomponent in a complex series of neural processes. It’s like the first domino to fall in a domino run.

This process can be interrupted. Terminating the task-bracketed script is like stopping a domino rally by doing nothing.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Attending to cues and contexts requires vigilance or mindfulness. Cues can be external (people, places, things associated with prior abuse) or internal (stressors, emotions, and somatic states). Habit formation is exacerbated by stress (Dias-Ferreira et al., 2009).

Wanting to change is an important first step. Attending to cues and stress-induced triggers is a second step. Self-compassion can be helpful here. Expect to fail forward.When you learn to identify cues, triggers, and patterns you can run a new script to interrupt the brain just before task-bracketing. It starts with a pause, with a delay, with response inhibition. Response inhibition is key to terminating an unwanted behavior. This response delay terminates the "go" signal.

Dr. Judson Brewer is a leading researcher in the field of neuroscience, addiction, and mindfulness. You can find several of his talks here on Insight Timer. Dr. Brewer proposes 4 simple steps to interrupt task bracketing.

Step 1: What do I get from this?

Think of the habit you want to break. Really imagine the habit. Then ask yourself: What do I get from this? It may feel good or calm you down. Go deeper. What does it feel like in the body? What sensations, urges, or emotions come to mind? How rewarding is the activity really?

If I were to eat a jelly donut, I’d feel an initial rush. After a few hours, though, I may feel the crash: stiffness in my joints, fatigue, a simmering irritability and excitability.

Step 2: Try RAIN. RAIN is an acronym coined by Michele McDonald.

R: Recognize. By practicing mindfulness, we become aware of thoughts, sensations, cravings, and emotions. We become aware of our triggers. During the craving stage, we may be aware of strong sensations in the body, a restlessness of mind, heightened anxiety or other strong emotion demanding to be pacified with this or that. When it comes, welcome it. Sit with that.

A: Acceptance. Allow the unpleasantness to be there without trying to push it away. Relax into it.

I: Investigate. Investigate the sensations? Where are they? How strong are they? Is there a restless quality? Tightness? Tension? Recognize whatever unfolds without reacting to it. Dive deep. Investigate your perceived suffering with curiosity.

N: Non-doing, non-reactivity, non-judgment. Do nothing. Resist nothing. Expect nothing. Anticipate nothing. Don't try to take the edge off of it. Don't try to feel better. Sit with it.

Different meditation techniques train different attentional styles. The body scan meditation is one of the best techniques for achieving this state of non-reactivity and non-judgment.

With practice, we build up interoceptive accuracy and sensitivity. The sensations are linked to our emotional state. We attach valences to sensations (whether strong/weak, pleasant/unpleasant) and we react to these sensations with craving or aversion. Interoceptive learning is a complex process that includes updating and integrating information from current body signals with previous body signals and mental models. Over time, these connections are strengthened. Learning to redirect attention to the body facilitates cognitive insights, helps us manage stress, and regulate emotions.

If I feel stressed and my conditioned response is to reach for a slice of pie and a glass of wine, rather than react, I can sit with the discomfort, and relax into it. I don’t act on my impulses or urges. The urge arises, I recognize it, accept it, and investigate it without judgment. I can feel the sensations: tingling as tingling, pulsing as pulsing, an accelerated heartbeat as an accelerated heartbeat, shallow breathing as shallow breathing, etc. There is no storyline, just raw moment-to-moment experiencing. Thoughts and emotions will blend with sensations. With practice and over time, we will see these as discrete processes. I may feel uncomfortable. I may feel aversion to the discomfort. Anticipation may follow. I may want to quit. If, however, I can allow this to arise and be and simply watch and feel and stay with the intensity of it all and embrace the chaos of it all, a different neural process will begin to unfold. If we can learn to attend to sensations with curiosity and not judgment, we develop equanimity, a balance of mind. Over time, the brain will change. Meditation promotes anatomical and functional brain changes.

To live more mindfully is to write executable scripts for the brain to run no matter what, to exercise no matter what, to meditate no matter what, to eat well no matter what, to sleep well no matter what. We can do this by visualizing, by mentally rehearsing an event- with particular attention focused on the moments preceding an action and following the action (the task bracketing sequence). We anticipate challenges and imagine obstacles. For example, if I have sugar cravings and know from my experience that I tend to snack on sugary foods when I’m tired or stressed, I can anticipate this and refrain from buying sweets. So that when the urge arises, there will not be anything in my cupboard or refrigerator to tempt me. I might snack on a banana or blueberries instead. Here, I leverage laziness and lethargy. I may want something sweet, but may not want to get dressed and drive to the store for a treat. So, by purchasing strategically, I can make it easier to follow through on my intentions when temptations arise. And as far as food is concerned, they will arise often. You can expect that and plan accordingly.

Sugar is addictive. It activates the nucleus accumbens or reward center of the brain as drugs do. Craving is a sign of addiction. Irritability, fatigue, impulsivity and distractibility are symptoms of sugar addiction. Weight gain around the mid section are the metabolic and physiological symptoms.

Formal meditation practice helps with executive control. We learn to stop reacting with desire to pleasant sensations and with aversion to negative sensations. Meditation promotes emotional balance. Diets are hard to change, because our emotions and feelings often trigger our food choices. Negative emotions cause distress. If I feel guilty because my diet is poor, the tendency of the mind is to respond to the guilt with aversion. Guilt is an unpleasant feeling, and the mind will orient attention away from the unpleasantness. We want to feel better and food provides a degree of comfort.

The good is one thing and the pleasant is another. You’ll find this truth in ancient texts… and in scientific lectures. The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get, Dr. Robert Lustig affirmed. There are biological correlates to this. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps nerve cells communicate. Dopamine is an important chemical in the brain's reward system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with seeking, motivation, drive, and reward. Dopamine levels can be measured. On an average uneventful workday, the brain will secrete around 50 nanograms per deciliter, 40 nanograms per deciliter on a bad day, and around 100 nanograms per deciliter on a great day. Food, interestingly, increases dopamine levels to 92 according to Corey Waller, director, Spectrum Health Medical Group and Center for Integrative Medicine.

Dopamine is excitatory. The brain functions optimally when it is tickled with it, not when its bludgeoned or flooded with it. Too much leads to dopamine depletion. To protect themselves, neurons down-regulate the dopamine receptor such that we need a bigger hits or rushes to get the same effect. We build up a tolerance to the sugars, the alcohol, and the fatty foods. Chronic excess reward interferes with contentment. The good is one thing; the pleasant is another.

And many ultra-processed foods are engineered to last longer on shelves and to taste good. Good for profits, bad for you. They use additives – colors, thickeners, emulsifiers, and gelling agents to improve the properties of foods that might otherwise taste bland. "natural" flavors (that are not natural). So called "Natural" flavors may contain solvents, emulsifiers, flavor enhancers, and preservatives. The term has no formal legal definition. "Unfortunately, the United States has not established clear requirements for natural claims and manufacturers are using this term liberally." (Skubisz, 2016) Out of principle, I don't buy products from companies that mislead with doublespeak.

Ultra-processed foods often lack the antioxidants and phytochemicals we find in whole foods. The nutrients added to foods that have been stripped out during processing are inferior to those found in whole foods, according to Priscila Machado, a public health nutritionist at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia.

A recent study published by the American Medical Association found that consuming just 20% of ultra-processed foods increased the risk of inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, obesity and early death. To put that in context, 20% of the 2,000 calories recommended daily is equal to a regular McDonald's cheeseburger and small fries.

About 80% of the items sold in the typical American grocery store are ultra-processed- NOVA 4. NOVA is a classification system for grouping foods according to the extent of processing. NOVA 1 contains “unprocessed or minimally processed foods,” namely the edible parts of plants or animals that have been taken straight from nature or that have been minimally modified/preserved (if you can name it- for example, carrot, garlic, apple, walnut- it is probably NOVA 1; NOVA 2 contains “culinary ingredients,” such as salt, oil, sugar, or starch, which are produced from NOVA 1 foods (e.g. curried lentils, steamed broccoli, etc); NOVA 3 contains “processed foods,” such as freshly baked breads, cheeses, canned vegetables, or cured meats, which are obtained by combining NOVA 1 and NOVA 2 foods; and NOVA 4 contains “ultra-processed foods,” namely ready-to-eat industrially formulated products that are “made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact NOVA 1 food.

It's important to note that people have been processing foods for tens of thousands of years. Fermentation, pickling, milling, baking, salting, and brining are examples of processing. Processing allowed our ancestors to travel greater distances by preserving them. Processed foods allowed them to survive cold winters, long droughts, and harsh famines.

Additives like sugar, salt, vinegar and alcohol have been used as preservatives for centuries, but modern-day food labels list unfamiliar ingredients such as sodium benzoate, calcium propionate, and potassium sorbate.

Lanthipeptides, a class of bacteriocins that kill bacteria, have potent antimicrobial properties. They are widely used by the food industry. A new study published in ACS Chemical Biology by scientists from the University of Chicago found that one of the most common classes of lantibiotics has potent effects both against pathogens and against the commensal gut bacteria that keep us healthy (Zhang et al., 2024). Commensal gut bacteria play crucial roles in human health by contributing to the host gut defense system and helping in various gut metabolic functions (Zhang et al., 2015).

Nisin is a popular lantibiotic used in everything from beer and sausage to cheese and dipping sauces. Even though it might be very effective in preventing food contamination, it might also have a greater impact on our human gut microbes. "This study is one of the first to show that gut commensals are susceptible to lantibiotics, and are sometimes more sensitive than pathogens,"explained one of the lead researchers. "With the levels of lantibiotics currently present in food, it's very probable that they might impact our gut health as well."

Recently, California banned products containing potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil, propylparaben, and red Dye No. 3, a synthetic dye made from petroleum that is found in foods, drinks, and medications.

Red Dye No. 3 is used in nearly 3,000 products, including sodas, juices, yogurts, snacks, candy, frostings, instant rice and potato products, cereals, and boxed cake mixes, including:

  • Peeps

  • Hostess Ding Dongs

  • Betty Crocker Fruit by the Foot

  • Dubble Bubble chewing gum

  • Entenmann’s Little Bites

  • Vigo Saffron Yellow Rice

  • PediaSure Grow & Gain Kids’ Ready-to-Drink strawberry shake

  • Dole Fruit Packs

  • Brach’s Candy Corn

  • Jelly Belly candy

  • Trolli Sour Crunchy Crawlers

  • Archer Farms Hand Decorated Sugar Cookies

  • Betty Crocker Loaded Potato Casserole

  • Blue Bunny Chocolate Donut Ice Cream

  • Brach’s Star Brites

  • Dippin’ Dots Cotton Candy

  • Duncan Hines Deliciously Moist Cake Mix

  • Yoo-hoo Strawberry Drink

  • Necco Wafers

  • Pop Tarts Frosted Confetti Cake Bites.

Red No. 3 is already banned in The European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, and Japan. “There is enough evidence that food dyes affect behavior in some sensitive children with ADHD (and other children without the condition) to justify warning labels on foods containing synthetic dyes,” according to Joel Nigg, Ph.D., director of the ADHD Research Program at Oregon Health and Science University.

The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) conducted a food dye assessment in 2021. Its report, titled Health Effects Assessment: Potential Neurobehavioral Effects of Synthetic Food Dyes in Children, found links between several dyes and hyperactivity in children.

How we prepare our meals also matters. Deep-frying is a common method of food preparation especially at fast food restaurants. A new study found an association between reused, deep-frying oils and higher levels of neurodegeneration. The oil effects the bidirectional communication network between the liver, gut and brain. The liver–gut–brain axis plays a crucial role in regulating various physiological functions, and its dysregulation has been associated with neurological disorders. Deep frying food not only adds calories, it removes many of the oil's natural antioxidants and health benefits. Deep frying also alters liver lipid metabolism and decreases the transport of the important brain omega-3 fatty acid DHA. The result is neurodegeneration.

It’s important to note that many foods labeled natural and organic are not. My sister wanted to improve her diet, so I took a trip to Nevada to help. Some of the so-called "food" in her pantry and refrigerator was engineered by chemists, but was labeled natural and organic. More than 73% of the American food supply is processed.

Where in nature do we find Di Sodium Dihydrogen Diphosphate and Sodium Carbonates, Xantham Gum, Methyl Cellulose, Sodium Stearoyl-2 lactylate, calcium propionate, dextrose or "natural flavors?" These are among the ingredients of just 4 items in her pantry. They are packaged in boxes labelled organic and natural.

I took a trip to a Farmer's Market, an international market and several stores for produce and spices. Do you recognize these ingredients: sesame seeds, cucumber, onions, garlic, ginger root, turmeric root, broccoli, kale, asparagus, eggs, carrots, beets, lentils, chickpeas, beans, mushrooms, yams, tomatoes, cilantro, cauliflower, black beans, spinach? These were the ingredients that went into the dishes and beverages I prepared for her that week.

It was all living food. Take a bulb of garlic and plant it in the ground... it grows. Scoop Sodium Stearoyl-2 lactylate or Red No. 3 in the soil. Will it sprout? Your body knows what to do with a bolus of spinach. How does the body react when it does not recognize something you ingest that you yourself can barely pronounce, like mahltitol or is it maltitol?

We have enough research to answer this question.

When the body recognizes something as foreign, whether an allergen, pathogen (like a virus or bacteria) or chemical, the inflammatory response is triggered. "Inflammation is the body’s response to a problem," according to Doctor Edwin McDonald, M.D. of the University of Chicago School of Medicine. And much of what we eat is the problem. Many of the foods we eat trigger inflammation. "All processed foods can cause inflammation," asserts Dr. McDonald. "They can alter the bacteria that live in our gut, and that alteration has the ability to interact with our immune system and eventually trigger it in a way that leads to chronic inflammation."

Morganella, Klebsiella, and other gram-negative bacteria in the gut have been implicated in depression and other diseases. Their presence triggers the activation of the inflammation response system. Once these molecules cross the blood brain barrier and enter the brain, microglia are activated. Microglia, the resident immune cells of the central nervous system, respond to neuronal damage and remove the damaged cells by phagocytosis. Microglia clear away dead cells and other used-up materials in the brain like decomposers do in a forest. Chronic microglial activation, however, is a hallmark of brain pathology. TREM-1 and TREM-2 proteins intensify the inflammatory response. Microglia can eliminate synapses by eating them the way beetles might nibble away at the leaves of a branch until eventually all the leaves are gone and the tree dies. Like this forests of neuronal trees can die.

"Imagine the brain as an air traffic control tower, overseeing the crucial and complex operations of the body's 'airport,'" writes Nathi Magubane. "This tower, essential for coordinating the ceaseless flow of neurological signals, is guarded by a formidable layer that functions like the airport's security team, diligently screening everything and everyone, ensuring no unwanted intruders disrupt the vital workings inside." That security ring is the blood brain barrier.

Now, imagine inflammatory microglia with security clearance crossing this barrier and interfering with air traffic controls. The brain gets flooded in an inflammatory bath. Over time, inflammation causes neuronal damage through the release of toxic molecules such as pro-inflammatory cytokines, reactive oxygen intermediates, proteinases and complement proteins.

Exercise, sleep, intermittent fasting, and diet are simple lifestyle choices that reduce pro-inflammatory microglial states.

Other gut bacteriophages particularly in the Caudovirales order may improve executive function and memory. Diet has been shown to alter the composition of the gut biome. The microbiome thrives on fermented foods. 2 to 4 servings daily can do the body well (assuming one does not have a histamine intolerance).

In a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Diabetes, researchers found that people with higher levels of a bacterium called Coprococcus tended to have higher insulin sensitivity, while those whose microbiomes had higher levels of the bacterium Flavonifractor tended to have lower insulin sensitivity. Coprococcus was also associated with improved sense of well-being. Depleted levels of Coprococcus, by contrast, seems to be associated with depression (Vieira-Silva & Raes et al., 2019).

Coprococcus produces a fuel called butyrate which keeps the gut lining healthy and helps lower inflammation. What we eat affects the gut milieu. Prebiotic and fermented foods promote gut health.

Fermented foods are integral to diets around the world ( not so much in the West). But you might find some items at the grocery store: kimchi, yogurt (without the sugars), kefir, injera bread, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha, natto, miso, and tempeh.

Foods that are good for you may take getting used to, especially fermented foods. The good is one thing; the pleasant is another. I don't let my preferences dictate what I eat. If, in my ignorance, I could force myself to acquire a taste for beer, I can force myself to drink kombucha. Processed sugars are toxins. If I can happily ingest them, surely I could ingest foods and drinks that are better for my health. The good is one thing; the pleasant is another.

Many ultra processed foods contain sugars. Sugar inhibits mitochondrial functioning, which results in a lack of energy. The activity of 3 enzymes which mitochondria need to function are disrupted: AMP-kinase, the fuel sensing enzyme, Carnitine palmitoyltransferase I (regenerates carnitine which shuttles fatty acids into mitochondria), and ACADL acyl-CoA dehydrogenase long chain (necessary to get chop up those fatty acids in order to be oxidized to create energy). Many of the products we eat, in other words, contain mitochondrial toxins. That's why so many are tired, crash, and feel irritable after consuming sugar.

It's a bit like putting teaspoons full of sand in the gas tank of a car. In time, it will muck up the motor. We are smart enough not to pour sand or cement into our gas tanks, but many don't think twice about ingesting garbage that will destroy the only vehicle we gwill be leased in this lifetime. It would be funny if the consequences weren't so dire.

"Sugars obtained by chemical synthesis, such as high-fructose corn syrup and invert sugar, are common low-cost ingredients of ultra-processed foods," according to Fernanda Rauber, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo.

Sugar is everywhere. About 75% of the items sold in the supermarket contain it. Many products advertised as sugar-free contain sugary substitutes. Ingesting these foods or beverages can be dangerous for those with diabetes. Many "sugar-free" labels are misleading. Maltitol syrup, for example, has a glycemic index of 52; table sugar has a glycemic index of 60. If a manufacturer substitutes table sugar with a sugar alcohol like maltitol, and labels it sugar free, the manufacturer can fool the diabetic, but the pancreas will still secrete more insulin.

Sugar goes by many different names (about 262). Here's a short list: dextrose, fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, cane juice crystals, honey, malt syrup, maple syrup, corn syrup solids, crystalline fructose, dextrin, diastatic malt, ethyl maltol, Florida crystals, glucose syrup solids, maltodextrin, sucanat, agave nectar/syrup, barley malt, blackstrap molasses, brown rice syrup, buttercream, caramel, carob syrup, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, golden syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup. Often more than one of these will appear on an ingredients list. They're all sugar!

Sucralose, scientists recently discovered, was genotoxic, meaning it damages DNA- effectively breaking up DNA in cells exposed to the chemical. It also adversely affects gut health, and increased activity in genes related to oxidative stress, inflammation and carcinogenicity. Sucralose is one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners.

Another artificial sweetener, aspartame, was listed by the World Health Organization as "possibly carcinogenic (ie., cancer causing) to humans". This artificial sugar-substitute is present in about 6000 products from Coca-Cola diet sodas to Mars' Extra chewing gum and some Snapple drinks.

These sugars are in products where you wouldn't expect to find them from salad dressing and breads to condiments and pet food. What happens to the body when sugar intake is excessive? First, the intestines will absorb about 10% of the sugar consumed and turn it into fat in a process called intestinal de novo lipogenesis. The rest ends up in the liver which causes glycation (a chemical reaction that causes impairment in normal cellular and tissue functions), oxidative stress (which also leads to cell and tissue damage), mitochondrial dysfunction (which accelerates aging and is characteristic of all chronic diseases), and insulin resistance (which leads to pre-diabetes).

Sugar is in so many products, including pet food. Even our pets are becoming diabetic and getting sick.

I came across a disturbing study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics on the doubling of pre-diabetes in children 12 to 19 years old. Pre-diabetes is a condition marked by high blood sugar levels that have not yet crossed the diabetes threshold.

"If we do not intervene, the children who have pre-diabetes have a higher risk of developing diabetes and also have a higher risk of all cardiovascular diseases," study author Junxiu Liu said. Type-2 diabetes, in turn, accelerates aging, cognitive decline, and other forms of neurodegeneration (Antal et al., 2022).

A 30 year study which tracked 1244 children aged 7-15 in 1985 found links between cognition and fitness later in life. Those children who were more active and fit performed better on cognitive tests than those who were obese in early childhood (Tait et al., 2022).

Obesity, by contrast, is linked to poor brain health in children. Researchers observed structural brain changes in children with higher weight and body mass index (BMI) scores. Areas of degradation included the white matter of the corpus callosum, the principal connector between the brain’s two hemispheres, and tracts within the hemispheres that connect the lobes of the brain. Resting-state fMRI images revealed that increased weight and BMI scores were associated with decreased connectivity in the functional networks of the brain that involve cognitive control, motivation and reward-based decision making.

“Increased BMI and weight are not only associated with physical health consequences but also with brain health,” Simone Kaltenhauser, who led the study at Yale's School of Medicine, said. “Our study showed that higher weight and BMI scores in 9- and 10-year-olds were associated with changes in macrostructures, microstructures and functional connectivity that worsened brain health.”

A recent study found that preteens with excess BMI showed troubling changes in brain function, structure, and cognition. Brain circuits supporting higher-level cognitive functions, reward, emotional processing, and attention were found to be organized less efficiently, less well connected, and less resilient than in preteens with normal BMI.

Higher BMI is linked not only to reduced brain volume but to white matter lesions and abnormal micro-structural integrity. Higher BMI is detrimental to brain health, especially for younger adults, where it corresponds to approximately 12 years of brain aging (Lv et al., 2024).

In another study, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research found that individuals with obesity had a reduced ability to associate sensory stimuli compared to those with normal weight. This suggests that obesity might affect our brain’s capacity to connect and process information, which can potentially influence our behavior as well as affect our decision-making and learning abilities.

In addition to the links with diabetes and cardiovascular disease, obesity is linked with a 30-70% higher risk of mental health disorders.

What people eat may influence decision making. An unhealthy diets causes inflammation which causes people to make less effort when choosing food.

So, rather than shop for groceries and prepare a meal, the depleted body may chose the easy and quick option with more calories and fewer nutrients- which leads to more body fat and inflammation. In other words, there may be a biological reason behind the decision not to exert effort- which becomes self-reinforcing.

In a large study involving over 180,000 people, researchers examined how food choices affect cognitive function, mental health, metabolism, brain imaging and genetics. They found that 57% of participants had food preferences for healthy, balanced diets.

Those healthy balanced diets were associated with better brain health, cognitive function and mental health. People who ate a more balanced diet had better fluid intelligence (the ability to solve new problems), processing speed, memory and executive functions (a set of mental skills that include flexible thinking and self-control) than other diets. This also corresponded to better brain health—with higher gray matter volumes (the outermost layer of the brain) and better structured neurons (brain cells), which are key markers of brain health (Zhang et al., 2024).

"When you improve nutrition, you reduce violence, " psychologist Kimberley Wilson asserted. Her years of providing therapy to women in Europe's largest prison suggest improved nutrition could be key to mental health and brain function. These anecdotes are consistent with the data thus far.

Unfortunately for kids, many adults have abdicated their responsibilities and power. Some shamelessly market garbage to children. Others wallow in guilt and shame or make excuses for poor choices. Many educators approach nutrition as if they feared offending some multinational conglomerate or hurting a caregiver's feelings with facts. As an educator, I compromise my integrity if I withhold truth.

Consumers must be informed and self-advocate... even a 12 year old diagnosed as prediabetic. Such are the norms of the times. If a child is suckered by false advertising into buying an energy bar and vitamin drink marketed as sugar-free from a school vending machine and becomes diabetic, it's her fault- or we blame her parents. We don't examine poor policy, the educational curriculum, misleading ads that affect consumers' perceptions, corporate complicity, or willful cultural ignorance.

According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, the leading causes of death in America- heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cirrhosis, and high blood pressure- are largely preventable and could be avoided with the right diet, exercise and lifestyle. Complications related to poor health from osteoarthritis to respiratory impairment to the cognitive decline that accompanies old age have also been linked to lifestyle choices and diet.

Obesity rates are driven partly by sedentary lifestyles and the consumption of cheaper, processed foods. As an educator, I'm concerned with the trends I see on the ground. Childhood obesity is epidemic in America. Roughly ⅓ of children and adolescents are obese. Over the past three decades, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2-5 years and adolescents aged 12-19 years, and more than tripled for children aged 6-11 years. In the inner city, where I started my career, the statistics are worse. The disparities in obesity prevalence are higher for Latino and Black children.

These children will grow up and parent children in their turn. According to a recent study, girls born to mothers with obesity may be at increased risk of becoming obese themselves.

Nutrition affects I.Q. If a mother is pregnant, a nutrient dense diet can increase a child's IQ by 3.5-6.5 percent. Many building blocks for nerve cell development are obtained through the foods the mother eats.

Even a father's diet before conception can impact his child's health. Eating poorly affects mitochondrial tRNA fragments in a father's sperm cells which influences gene expression which, in turn, exposes the yet unborn to greater risk of metabolic disease (Teperino et al., 2024).

Junk food diets reduce acetylcholine levels which impairs episodic memory. These memory impairments persist even after the switch to a healthy diet, indicating lasting impacts of early dietary choices (Hayes, et al., 2024).

In a recent study, researchers found that soybean oil, one of the most widely produced and consumed oils could potentially impact neurological conditions like autism, Alzheimer's disease, anxiety and depression. The consumption of soybean oil decreased levels of oxytocin, had a pronounced affect on the hypothalmus- a critical part of the brain that regulates sleep, temperature, body weight, stress response, reproduction and growth. Consumption of these oils also affected about 100 other genes related to brain function and metabolism.

How those foods are packaged can also affect health. Traces of polystyrene, a plastic widely used in food packaging, have been detected in the brain. These micro and nanoplastics breach the blood brain barrier and increase the risk of neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration (Kenner, et al., 2023).

Plastics, like Bisphenol-A (BPA) have been linked to neurodevelopmental disorders in children, namely ASD and ADHD. Glucuronidation is a metabolic process that eliminates harmful drugs, toxins, and carcinogens from the body through urine. BPA is typically metabolized quickly; when glucuronidation is impaired, however, the body is exposed to the adverse effects of BPA. Children with compromised metabolic processes are unable to effectively eliminate toxins in their bodies which places them at higher risk for some conditions. At certain levels, BPA and phthalates can lead to reproductive harm, including infertility and early puberty. Disruptions to hormone functioning and gene mutations have also linked plasticizers to neurodevelopmental disorders (Stein, T.P., Schluter, M.D., Steer, R.A., & Ming, X, 2023).

These micro and nanoplastics are not only found in our foods. In a 2018 study, researchers found an average of 10.4 microplastic particle per liter of bottled water."These are particles that can be seen under a microscope. In a 2024 study, researchers found 240,000 nanoplastic particles per liter of water (Qian, 2024). These are smaller particles less than 1 micron (μm) in diameter. A human hair, for perspective, is about 50 μm.

Good health is a wellspring of intangible wealth. If I could encourage students to be good custodians of their health and well being, I could spare them and their loved ones the misfortune of ill health, both physical and psychological.

Food affects mood. In a recent study, researchers found that "young men with a poor diet saw significant improvement in their symptoms of depression when they switched to a healthy Mediterranean diet" (Bayes, 2022).

Change your diet, change the way you feel. Many studies have found improved mood regulation and reduced irritability and explosive rage, including in placebo-controlled randomized trials of children with ADHD (Rucklidge aet al., 2017) and mood dysregulation (Johnstone et al., 2021).

Changing your diet and you can affect global change. The ancients didn’t write much about nutrition because foods were locally grown and nutritious. Today, we can't be 100% certain that the foods we buy have not been genetically modified, sprayed with pesticides, contaminated with molds, or grown in mismanaged and degraded soils depleted of their nutrients- like B vitamins, and minerals like magnesium and zinc essential for health.

Agribusiness is the largest contributor to climate change- more than all forms of transportation combined. Raising livestock is an inefficient use of limited resources. One acre of land can produce 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, 53,000 pounds of potatoes, 30,000 pounds of carrots, but only 250 pounds of beef. To produce one pound of beef takes 2,400 gallons of water. 55% of the fresh water used in the United States goes to animal husbandry, compared to 5% for private consumption. Globally, the figure is between 20-30%.

The Venerable Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh cited a statistic claiming that if we in the West reduced our consumption of alcohol and meat 50%, we could end hunger. Small sacrifice to contribute to the well-being of others.

Compassion for all living things is at the root of the vegetarian diet. How animals are raised today is appalling. 13.6 million kilograms of antibiotics are used for livestock in the United States annually, to arrest the spread of diseases common in crowded and unhygienic factory farms. What does that do to your gut microbiota?

For a meditator seeking to purify the mind, a vegetarian/vegan diet is ideal. The choice is an act of compassion that grows out of practice. We are aware of what we eat, mindful of what we consume.

It takes a strong resolve and firm determination to discipline the mind. Controlling the appetites of the body is a way to strengthen one's practice and resolve. Another way to strengthen one's resolve is with data.

I ordered Inside Tracker's Ultimate Plan which tests up to 43 blood biomarkers—including glucose, cholesterol, cortisol, and hemoglobin. I had my blood drawn and was eager to see my results.

95% of my biomarkers were within optimal range. Results tagged with a yellow dot indicate that those markers, while within a healthy range, can be improved. My HDL levels are below optimum. HDL helps protects against damage to the cardiovascular system by removing excess LDL (the "bad cholesterol") from the bloodstream. My sugar levels (glucose & HbA1c), by contrast, are on the higher end of the spectrum.

I started a no-sugar challenge prior to ordering Inside Tracker and will continue until February. My sugar will come from fruits, vegetables, and the occasional dollop of honey. I also started taking spirulina, a blue-green algae, which reduces the rise in blood sugar following a meal (called postprandial glucose). Spirulina has also been shown to be effective at lowering high levels of fasting glucose. I'm consuming probiotic foods for breakfast (miso and unsweetened Greek yogurt). Fasting glucose levels improve after regular consumption of probiotic foods. (Note: subsequent bloodwork showed I was able to get my HbA1c down to optimal levels).

I bought an ALA supplement (alpha lipoic acid). ALA can lower blood sugar levels by reducing excess fat in muscle cells.

ALA also acts as an antioxidant to reduce free radicals. Free radicals, if left unchecked, can cause oxidative stress, which contributes to body-wide inflammation. Inflammation is the body's response to a problem. High-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) is an inflammation biomarker. ALA can decrease CRP by about 38%.

My hsCRP levels can be improved. I'll drink more green and black tea. Black tea is prepared from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. Compared to green tea, black tea has been oxidized for a longer time resulting in darker color and stronger flavor. Black tea contains the polyphenols catechin, theaflavin and flavonoid which help prevent oxidative damage and can improve hsCRP levels in a month or two according to the research.

Most of my biomarkers were optimal, 9 were average and 2 were outside of optimal range: Transferrin Saturation (TS) and serum iron. High TS levels indicate that my iron levels are too high. I supplement. High dosage dietary iron supplements combined with high intake of foods fortified with iron may be causing these elevated levels. Serum iron was the second biomarker outside of optimal range. My ferritin and hemoglobin levels, however, were optimized. Optimized ferritin and hemoglobin levels indicate that I am consuming enough iron to meet the body's needs. So I can titrate down and decrease my dosages. (Note: Subsequent bloodwork showed I was able to bring my iron and TS levels down to normal).

The data is granular and gives me the feedback I need to make minor adjustments to improve my performance. My Vitamin B12 levels, for example, are slightly elevated most likely due to supplementation. Vegetarians tend to have low B12 levels, so I take a B-complex, a multivitamin, and a B12 supplement. Bloodwork suggests it's overkill. My creatine kinase levels are also slightly elevated which may indicate over-training. Elevated levels of creatine kinase are present when muscle cells rupture during intense exercise. The more creatine kinase in the bloodstream, the more muscle damage there is. When creatine kinase is above optimal, an athlete increases his risk of inflammation, muscle damage, cramping, fatigue, delayed recovery and injury. This is why rest and recovery are so important. Nutrition also plays a key role. Protein is essential for muscle repair. CoQ10 supplementation has also been shown to decrease high creatine kinase.

My father’s death was preventable. The thousands of dollars he spent over the course of his lifetime on junk and processed foods sickened him. Not one of the food companies that engineered the foods he consumed sent him a get well card when he was admitted to the hospital. Not one of the multibillion dollar, multinational corporations helped with his medical expenses which crippled the family's finances. Not one of the lobbyists or lawyers who promoted and defended the interests of the conglomerates shared in the burden of his care.

Disgust is sometimes considered a negative emotion, but it can be transformed to action. We can leverage negative emotions to sustain motivation and change.

Better to educate ourselves than to trust the integrity of advertisers, the goodwill of marketers, or the moral codes of elected officials. A marketer can deceive me with clever packaging, but in the end, the body keeps score. The pancreas, the liver, the gut microbiota, the cells and molecules do not respond to clever ads, but to the chemical composition of the foods we consume.

Teaching what matters is my tagline. And what we eat matters. I can’t tell you what to do or how to eat. I’ve presented the facts as best I could. Sadly, the standard American diet, ultra-processed foods, illness and obesity have become so normalized, that facts alone probably may not inspire right action.

Please do not cede responsibility for your health over to systems, clinicians, grocers, marketers or anyone else. Doctors are excellent consultants, but, as of this writing, clinicians are not incentivized to address root causes. Commit to learning and growing. It takes resolve and discipline to commit to a healthy lifestyle. Don't hope to feel equanimous, be proactive. Don’t leave your well-being to chance, set your intentions. Don’t blindly follow so-called experts (including this author). Beware of trends. Assume responsibility for your well-being, listen to your body, and self-advocate. Choose well. May you enjoy good health and vitality.

I wish you good health and a sound mind.

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The Gift of Speech

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat, Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best, Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice. -Walt W


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