This is Your Brain on Food

Mark Hyman, MD
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Summary

This is your brain on food

How a diet high in healthy fats and low in sugar and refined starch can improve your health

Healthy fat is a key ingredient for optimal brain health, but rare is the American who eats enough of it. The average person in the U.S. today eats a diet high in processed foods, white flour, simple starches and refined sugar. 

A high sugar and simple starch diet has numerous consequences, including alarming rates of obesity and chronic disease. Chronic diseases that affect the blood, insulin and heart can affect brain health as well.

Dr. Mark Hyman, a practicing family physician and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator and advocate, is set on improving health outcomes by changing the way people eat. He’s doing this in three ways: treating specific patients, public education and advocacy. 

For him, food is the problem and the solution. Dietary changes are among his first go-to treatments for ailments, chronic diseases and even cognitive decline.

“Our food system, from end to end, is both the cause and the cure for most of the health problems that we’re facing today in the world.” 

Looking at the whole picture of the history of the American diet and how food goes from farm to table, Dr. Hyman realized that how we grow food is directly correlated to the food people consume. This then causes chronic diseases and their associated costs.

 A healthy diet is key to overall health and can even affect brain health.

 

Chronic diseases cost a staggeringly high rate of American lives and money

The majority of Americans today suffer from chronic diseases or are at risk for getting one. Poor diet is a significant risk factor in chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

The cost of healthcare for Americans with chronic diseases affects everyone. Consider the following staggering statistics:

  • Six out of 10 Americans live with at least one chronic disease, such as heart disease and stroke, cancer or diabetes. 
  • Chronic diseases are the leading causes of death and disability in the U.S.
  • Chronic diseases are a leading driver of healthcare costs.
  • 88 million Americans are at risk for Type 2 diabetes.
  • Only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy, which is defined as having optimal levels of blood glucose, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference, without the need for medications.
  • By 2024, $1 out of every $5 in the U.S. is expected to be spent on healthcare.

The more Dr. Hyman saw anecdotal evidence of poor health related to patients’ unhealthy habits, the more committed he became to helping patients make meaningful changes. “I realized I couldn’t cure diabetes in the office,” he says.

Instead, Dr. Hyman thought chronic disease would be cured on the farm, in the grocery, in restaurants, in the kitchen and in the workplace.

“I could not fix my patients if I didn’t deal with the upstream causes,” says Dr. Hyman.

It didn’t take long for Dr. Hyman to realize that food policies and the food industry directly affect what Americans eat. 

He started a nonprofit, The Food Fix Campaign, for grassroots change and an advocacy group to advance policy changes. 

One example of Dr. Hyman’s recent lobbying activities include trying to push for medical schools to build nutrition education and chronic disease into the curriculum. “It’s the single biggest cause of chronic disease and the single biggest cure. Yet doctors know nothing about it,” he says. 

Dr. Hyman adds that the food system is among the biggest causes of climate change. “All these are interconnected problems, and we have to think of them as one whole problem.”

 

Diet can improve overall health, including brain health

Dr. Hyman is making strides with his approach to diet in the medical exam room as well.

Since starting to consider nutrition as a key way to support patient health, Dr. Hyman has seen hundreds of patients improve and heal after making dietary changes, including in brain health. 

One patient who comes to mind for Dr. Hyman is a woman in her early 80s, who had been a successful business woman and on the board of major companies. She was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and told to get her affairs in order.

Instead, she found Dr. Hyman who says he “looked what’s under the hood.” She had severe B12 deficiency, which is not uncommon in seniors because of low stomach acid and diet. She also had problems with methylation and B vitamins, which affect cognitive function. Dr. Hyman prescribed B12 shots and B vitamins that help with methylation, such as folate and B6. 

In spite of her previous diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, Dr. Hyman says, “She was back to normal.”

He heard from her five years later when she called to see what she should bring with her trekking in Bhutan.

Other patients’ cases aren’t as simple, says Dr. Hyman, but this is why he finds functional medicine so helpful in addressing a collection of issues. “If you have 36 holes in your roof and you plug up five of them, it’s still going to rain in your house. You have to find all the holes and plug them all,” says Dr. Hyman.

For everyone, though, Dr. Hyman has one effective antidote: improving diet.

“If there was a single thing I would recommend, it would be to really dramatically reduce or even eliminate refined sugar and refined carbohydrates,” says Dr. Hyman. “Those are the things that are driving so much of the problem.”

 

How diet affects brain health and the body

Americans consume about 152 pounds of sugar and about 133 pounds of flour per person per year. Dr. Hyman says just as we think of overuse of alcohol as a health risk, similarly, the biggest cause of liver damage in America is sugar and starch. Fatty liver affects 90-100 million Americans, making it the nation’s most common chronic liver condition. 

Chronic disease, like diabetes, is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The variant of the “Alzheimer’s gene,” APOE4, seems to interfere with brain cells’ ability to use insulin. This may eventually cause the cells to starve and die. Alzheimer’s disease is unofficially considered a Type 3 diabetes because of its insulin resistance in the brain.

After reading this research along with anecdotal evidence in his office, Dr. Hyman considers overconsumption of sugar and flour as dangerous in the same way alcohol can be dangerous. “I think of them as recreational drugs.”

The idea that refined sugar and flour are culpable for so many Americans’ ailments is contrary to the past when nutrition recommendations were based on thinking that high cholesterol was caused by eating too much fat. Instead, says Dr. Hyman, what causes the liver to manufacture cholesterol is starch and sugar. This causes high triglycerides, low HDL, small LDL particles and mini LDL particles. Those are what we call atherogenic dyslipidemia. “The kind of cholesterol that causes heart disease and hardening of the arteries in your heart, can also affect your brain.”

A lot of dementia is actually hardening the arteries in the brain, which is caused by the same mechanisms as the hardening of arteries in the heart.

 

Healthy fats are good for brain health

Fat, which was thought to be all bad in the 1980s is actually good for the heart and brain, when it comes to certain healthy fats. The brain is predominantly made of fat, which makes the right fats fundamental to brain health.

However, most processed foods lack healthy fats and protein. This keeps people eating addictive sugar and starch without ever feeling full. This is great for processed food companies but detrimental to health.

Dr. David Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and of nutrition at the School of Public Health, who specializes in endocrinology and obesity, studied how two diets with identical calorie intake can have different outcomes by swapping out the fat and carbohydrates. Those who ate high fat, low carbohydrate diets, had a higher metabolism and burnt 325 more calories per day.

Examples of healthy fats that support brain health include the following:

  • Avocados
  • Whole eggs
  • Fatty like salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines and herring
  • Nuts
  • Chia seeds
  • Olive oil

The foundation of functional medicine is understanding that food is information, not just calories. Food intake is like a code that can affect every system of the body, says Dr. Hyman, including: 

  • Immune system 
  • Microbiome
  • Hormones
  • Detoxification system
  • Mitochondrial function
  • Structural system
  • Blood-brain barrier
  • And more

 

The diet that Dr. Hyman promotes for optimal health is the “pegan diet,” which he created. The goal, he says, is to lower blood sugar and inflammation in the body in order to reduce the risk of certain chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cognitive decline.

Unlike the paleo diet, which includes many animal products, the pegan diet offers the following benefits:

  • It’s environmentally friendly because it focuses on plant-based and sustainable foods.
  • It focuses on nutrient-rich foods and minimizes or avoids unhealthy choices.

A person who eats pegan would eat a diet that looks like the following

  • 75% plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
  • 25% meat, poultry, eggs and fish (preferably grass-fed, organic or sustainably raised options).

Dr. Hyman says the pegan diet emphasizes three principles that support overall health and healthy brain function:

  1. Quality of foods: “Most of the stuff we eat is not food. It’s highly processed ingredients that are pretty far from what they looked like when they came off a farm.” 
  2. Food as medicine: “It is literally, coded instructions that are programming your biology with every bite.” 
  3. Personalization to each person’s needs and taste

Improving the health of patients and all Americans doesn’t have to be so hard, says Dr. Hyman. It’s about understanding the imbalances in the body, correcting those imbalances by taking out the bad stuff and putting in the good stuff. “The body can recover. It’s really remarkable.”

 

Dr. Mark Hyman is a practicing family physician and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in the field of functional medicine. He’s founder and director of the UltraWellness Center, the head of strategy and innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and a 14-time New York Times bestselling author and board president for clinical affairs for the Institute for Functional Medicine. He’s also the host of one of the leading health podcasts, “The Doctor’s Farmacy.” 

Transcript
Heather Sandison, N.D.

Welcome back to this exciting episode of the Reverse Alzheimer’s Summit. I’m so thrilled and absolutely delighted to introduce you to Dr. Mark Hyman. He’s a leading health revolution expert. He has revolved his expertise around using food as medicine to support longevity, energy, mental clarity, happiness, and so much more. Dr. Hyman is a practicing family physician and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in the field of functional medicine. He’s the founder and director of the UltraWellness Center, the head of strategy and innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and a 14-time “New York Times” bestselling author and board president for clinical affairs for the Institute for Functional Medicine. He’s also the host of one of the leading health podcasts, “The Doctor’s Farmacy.” Dr. Hyman is a regular medical contributor on several television shows and networks, including “CBS This Morning,” “Today,” “Good Morning America,” “The View” and CNN. He’s also an advisor and guest co-host on “The Dr. Oz Show.” Dr. Hyman, thank you so much for joining us.

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