You Get Out What You Put In (Food part I)

The brain weighs approximately 2% of your body weight, but consumes 20% of your calories

I was invited on a hiking trip to the Grand Canyon in 2010. It was November, so it would be chilly at the top and pretty nice (80’s) on the bottom. I packed a small backpack with water, a few sandwiches and some room for shedding clothes as the weather warmed up. The hike is 9 miles down, 2 miles of flat bottom, and then 9 miles up. After reaching the bottom, I was feeling good. As we started heading up, I immediately knew that this was going to be significantly harder than I had first thought, but whatever…I would push through. I was halfway up when all of a sudden my legs were not doing what my brain was telling them to do. My brain was telling my legs to go at a normal pace, but my legs were not cooperating. After about an hour of my pathetic pace, my fellow hikers couldn’t take it anymore and took off. I understood and was fine with it…I would see them at the top. After a couple of hours by myself, the sun was about to set, and I could feel the air starting to chill. I started layering back on some of the clothes I had taken off earlier. With the sun finally down, and the darkness upon, my mind started to play tricks on me. I was all alone, in the dark, it was cold, and I was on a trail in the Grand Canyon…was I going to make it out?

The Beginning (happy)

As I sat on a rock, I did something to this day, I look back on and laugh, but at the time was dead serious. I pulled out my phone, and after not being able to reach my friends, I punched in 9…1… the last number was never pushed, but I was close. I slowly rose from the rock to proceed with my snail like pace along the trail. As I rounded the next turn on the trail I was met with shock initially, which quickly turned into relief…A man was sitting on a rock just as I had been. I said almost casually “hey” and he replied “hello.” Turns out, this gentleman was in the same predicament as me. His body had given up, and his friends had left him. The fact that we weren’t alone anymore was all we needed to get us going again. Talking to each other about our lives took our mind away from the desperate state we had just been in. As it turned out, we were only about 100 yards from the top. As we emerged from the Canyon, we met up with our friends, shared a beer, and thanked our lucky stars we were alive. A little dramatic, but at the time…it was no joke!

That was the only time in my life I’ve hit the wall physically. Mentally, that is another thing entirely! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hit the wall mentally. Whether you realize it or not, your mind goes through struggles on a daily basis to keep its energy and concentration. The brain needs certain nutrients in order to function at it’s best.

I’m sure you can remember a time (maybe in the last week) when you either couldn’t get to food because you were so busy and your brain started to lose concentration, or you ate a huge meal and shortly after wanted to take a nap. These effects are all based on the amount of nutrients, mainly glucose (sugar), the brain has available.

I’m not going to get into technical jargon as that is boring, and if you are really interested in that information there are a few links I have included for you to explore. Instead, I’m going to give you a quick cheat sheet on the food your brain likes and some possible ways to take advantage of your brains possibilities.

1) Good fats — The brain is made up of 60% fat. When we talk about good fats and bad fats, we refer to polyunsaturated (good), trans and saturated (bad).

Examples of good fats are Fish (salmon, tuna, trout), avocados, olive oil, nuts (pecans, almonds, pistachios, walnuts), dark chocolate, vegetables (spinach, kale, Brussel sprouts), beans (kidney, navy, soybeans) to name a few.

A great page to reference on good and bad fats is…

2) Proteins — Proteins have amino acids that are building blocks that support neurons (a cell that transmits information). Some examples of foods rich in proteins are fish, chicken, nuts, lean meat, and beans.

3) The brain loves Carbohydrates! Sugar is the brains favorite fuel. Before you go and start eating candy bars and cake thinking that’s going to help… keep reading. I’m sure you can remember eating or drinking something with a lot of sugar, feeling the rush, only to be followed by the crash. This has to do with the insulin which is released by the pancreas as your blood sugar rises. When you consume a bunch of sugar your system has to work hard releasing insulin, the result…you feel tired.

So how do you solve the rollercoaster effect when consuming sugar? Stay away from simple (refined) sugars… soda, candy, sweets in general. How do you feed your brain the sugar it loves? Complex carbohydrates… whole grains! A couple of easy substitutions are brown rice instead of white, whole grain bread instead of white, whole grain pasta instead of regular…catching on? The great thing about whole grains is the fiber in them. The more fiber you get, the slower the release of sugar into your system, and the longer your energy and brain will last. A great list of complex carbohydrates can be found at

4) Water! It not only does the body good (no, not milk), but it is essential for brain function. Water enhances circulation, removes waste, and keeps the brain from overheating. The beginning stages of being “thirsty” can decrease your cognitive abilities by 10%. Your brain needs water, so make sure you are drinking enough…you will feel the difference in both your body and your mind.

5) Micronutrients are a key factors to excellent brain function. The vitamin B family gives your brain energy, and helps you to focus and concentrate. Another group is Phytonutrients which act as antioxidants, which protect your memory. You can get your Phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables.

So, we have fats, proteins, carbohydrates, water, and micronutrients. Let’s break it down into some foods, and alternatives, we can actually start applying without thinking about the science behind it. Here is a list of foods that you can incorporate into you daily consumption to make you smarter and healthier…

Now that you are educated with a list of food that the brain likes…should you just consume as much of the “good” food as possible? NO! According to Michael Green of Aston University in England, the brain seems to work best when it has approximately 25 grams of glucose circulating in the blood…about the amount found in a banana. So, eat smaller portions, and more often during the day. If you graze throughout the day, you will keep the brain and body working at full capacity without the crash you get after a big meal.

I recently watched the movie Limitless starring Bradley Cooper. The premise of the movie is that Bradley’s character was a defunct writer, who had no real motivation, and a serious case of writer’s block. He stumbles upon a new drug called AZT, which stimulates the brain to the point of functioning at 100%. He could learn new languages in a few days, figure out complex mathematical equations, and articulate himself as though he had 10 PhD’s. Although, taking a drug that would stimulate the brain to that extent would be detrimental (as it was in the movie), just by changing a few things we eat, and how we eat them, we can stimulate our brain, our mood, and ultimately our quality of life.

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