Max Lugavere on Foods for Brain Health, Diet-Gene Interaction, and Exercise for Mental Health

Max Lugavere on Foods for Brain Health, Diet-Gene Interaction, and Exercise for Mental Health

good morning thank you so much dr. tani that was a great presentation my brain was a little impaired after I lost my late husband and I got through with resilience thanks to a lot of people in this audience I'm vice president of Aspen brain Institute and when I'm not here in paradise I'm back in Durham at Duke I get to introduce the next speaker who's talking about healthy brain I've not met you yet max wherever you are okay hi and I'll tell you a little bit about him as one article says he's young tall buff and handsome he's he's also a filmmaker health and science journalist who's been described as one of the new generation of bright lights he's authored a best-selling book genius foods which will be available later and you'll hear from him about his mom a fast walking New Yorker who started to exhibit symptoms that worried him including brain fog and gait changes before being diagnosed with both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's they consulted top neurologists who couldn't do much for her in fact he called some of those doctors diagnosed and a Dios today he's going to tell us what he's learned in searching for help for potential treatments for his mom and preventive treatments for himself and hopefully for all of us thank you max oh man it's so good to be here thank you guys so much for having me definitely still blushing I think a bit from that introduction so my name is Max Lucca vir I wrote a book called genius foods which you can see here I've got my second book coming out next year which I'm super excited for my background is as a journalist I used to work for a TV network that was co-founded by former VP Al Gore and that I got to do it was my first job out of college and I really got to sort of cut my teeth but whereas most journalists sort of get into politics I have no interest in politics I never have I'm really interested in health science nutrition and when my mom got sick about eight years ago I became fixated on trying to learn everything that I possibly could about how best to protect the aging brain I focused on it as an independent journalist I started digging into the primary research and ultimately I realized that I had something that few people in my shoes with a parent with dementia had I had media credentials and so that led to me reaching out to researchers around the world to really get up close and personal with the research being done to elucidate the kinds of diets and lifestyles that we might adhered to to minimize our risk for conditions like Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia I've since gone on to become a very regularly reoccurring guest on the dr. Oz Show the Rachael Ray Show the doctors I'm working on a documentary on dementia prevention called breadhead and I also have a very popular podcast called the genius life so my goal really is to make these kinds of principles actionable and approachable for people of all ages especially younger people all around the globe that's my mission that's my life's work and so I'm glad to be here to kind of give you guys a bit of a Cliff's Notes foray into my findings as was mentioned my mom at a very young age started to develop the earliest symptoms of dementia I had no prior family history of any kind of neurodegenerative disease so it caught me and my family completely off-guard it was traumatic as you guys can imagine and with no prior family history of dementia I was at a loss I couldn't explain it so as somebody who's perennial II curious and optimistic and resilient in the face of trauma I began to roll up my sleeves and do the research for myself because I was met with abject disappointment in every clinicians office that I had the privilege to be in with my mom so because I had no prior family history of any kind of dementia I began to ask myself what it was about my mother's environment that may have pulled the trigger on a genetic weakness in her that led to her being the first person in my lineage to develop dementia I started to look at parts of the world where they have Alzheimers risk genes just like we do here about one in four of us sitting in this room have a gene that puts us at higher risk for developing Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative conditions but interestingly in other parts of the world like in Eden Nigeria that same genetic risk factor is associated with little to no increased risk for developing Alzheimer's disease so just to put that another way to rephrase that so you guys truly understand it if you are genetically at risk for developing Alzheimer's disease in the United States you might simply move to Ibadan Nigeria and see that risk abolished that's kind of amazing right so I started to think about what our ancestral diet might have been like you know the kind of diet that human beings might have consumed during the time in which our magnificent brains evolved right I mean certainly our environment has become a lot different but we ate from millennia and our diets and our lifestyles led to the evolution of the flagship product of Darwinian evolution as I like to call it the human brain which each one of us is heir to this magnificent supercomputer but about 10,000 years ago we reached a turning point in our evolution where after millennia of growing our brains actually began to shrink ultimately losing the volumetric equivalent of a tennis ball so just to put that another way so you really get to understand it viscerally we ate for a certain way for hundreds of thousands of years that led to the growth and development of the modern human brain and then we turned our backs on that diet and our brains began to shrink we became settlers we went from being hunter-gatherers to being domesticated by the handful of crops and animals that we could cultivate and that paved the way for the fact that today our diets are composed primarily of calories from just three plants can anybody guess what those plants are we've got two of them one more last one I haven't heard not soy rice yes so today 60% of the calories that we consume come from just three plants wheat corn and rice and not only that but these plants are usually pulverized and processed and ground into a dust to form the ultra-processed foods that we now eat with abandon it doesn't help that our dietary guidelines advise us to consume these kinds of foods at every single meal we're told to load up on healthy whole grains well recently Cochrane which is known for their unbiased systematic reviews in partnership with the World Health Organization found that there was actually never any good evidence that grain consumption benefits heart health beyond just epidemiological studies that show that populations that eat you know higher amounts of whole grains tend to have better health but there we can look to something called a healthy user bias people who eat highfalutin grains like quinoa and brown rice they tend to do other healthy things in their diets and lifestyles as well but when we look at randomized control trials which is which are the kinds of trials that can prove cause and effect which this meta-analysis actually chose to look at they found that there's insufficient evidence from randomized control trials to date to recommend the consumption of whole-grain diets to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and of all the researchers that I've spoken to about what causes Alzheimer's disease it seems that vascular dysfunction dysfunction of you know the network of blood vessels that feed your brain nutrients and oxygen may be one of the earliest things to go awry in the body now as I mentioned these grains are packaged and sold to us in our supermarket aisles many of these packaged products make health claims right they compel you to want to buy them because if they've got the beautiful red heart usually on the box right these foods now make up 60% of the calories that we consume worldwide ultra-processed foods these whose are dangerous for a number of reasons I'm going to tell you guys why before we get to that this is one family's food consumption for a week yeah this is a highly problematic see what these foods do is they drive a process in the body called inflammation has anybody heard of inflammation yeah so inflammation is like having a forest fire in the body it's actually meant to occur you know like those tide spot cleaning wipes when you get a stain on a piece of clothing inflammation is naturally meant to spot clean cuts wounds bruises and things like that but the problem is that our immune systems are responding to the fact that our diets that there's this predominance of ultra-processed foods in our diets and so now we have widespread chronic inflammation in our bodies that's like a forest fire it's the equivalent of a forest fire in our bodies and our brains sit directly downwind of that fire now our bodies are incredible right like we didn't make it here through millennia to be taken down by this process necessarily we have an ability to repair from the damage wrought by inflammation but the problem is our bodies need the appropriate ingredients to be able to do that efficiently now going back to these ultra processed foods if you're looking on the backs of most of the packages of them you'll find that they're all fortified with synthetic vitamins and that's because these foods are nutrient deficient and it's the reason why the fact that our diets are based on these foods 90% of Americans are now deficient in at least one essential nutrient so even though our bodies have the ability to defend against chronic inflammation or at least acute inflammation we're seriously handicapping our bodies in profound ways and so it's causing this damage to our bodies and ultimately to our brains these foods also drive the chronic elevation of a hormone in our body is called insulin now insulin is not bad but when it's chronically elevated it drives the storage of fat many people today are overweight or obese in fact two-thirds of US adults are either overweight or obese for the first time in human history there are more overweight adults and there are underweight now the problem when we consume these kinds of foods again the packaged processed foods made of ground-up rice wheat and corn and these kinds of foods is that they cause our fat cells to become sort of like a subway turnstile at rush hour in midtown Manhattan calories can flow in but they can't come out and this is problematic because our brains love to use fat for fuel but we're basically blocking our brain's abilities to use fat for fuel because we're always eating these high carbohydrate ultra packaged processed foods now when a baby is developing a baby's brain love to you loves to use fat for fuel in fact mother's milk is full of a type of fat called medium chain triglycerides which turn into ketones in the body has anybody heard of ketones they're kind of trendy right now because a lot of people are on these ketogenic diets Halle Berry I've discovered is on a ketogenic diet the Kardashians are on ketogenic diets very few people actually know at ketogenic diets are but they basically supply fat to the brain the brain to use fat as a fuel source but the inhibition of fat metabolism by high carbohydrate diets may actually be one of the most detrimental aspects of modern diets and part of this has to do with the fact that fat the brain's ability to use fat is shunted by chronically elevated insulin chronically elevated insulin is problematic for many reasons it's pro-inflammatory and published in the Journal of Alzheimer's disease it was suggested that 40% of Alzheimer's cases alone may be attributable to chronically elevated insulin so for the next few slides for the remaining the remainder of my talk I'm gonna give you guys an antidote to the standard American brain shrinking diet by telling you the foods that you should actually be eating every single day I call these foods the genius foods now genius foods is not a scientific term it's sort of like superfoods but I thought that if I could get people to think about the foods that are most beneficial to the brain well then you're gonna be able to choose these foods at every meal and maybe kind of elbow out the foods that are less supportive of optimal brain function and brain health so for one we've got dark leafy greens like kale you should actually write these down I see some people taking notes I'm gonna go over the ten genius foods plus one bonus food so you're gonna get eleven foods you should write these down because they're all of it very beneficial in different ways so we've got dark leafy greens research out of Rush University has found that people who consume a large bowl of dark leafy greens every single day have brains that tend to perform up to eleven years younger okay so what you want to do every day a rule that I lay out in my book and in my work is that you should try to have a big salad every day easy right try to fill it with dark leafy greens like kale spinach and arugula kale is actually very high in two compounds called lutein and zeaxanthin these are carotenoid compound Spacek illipe Lant pigments that have been shown in a University of Georgia study to boost the processing speed of your brain I'm going to come back to those two carotenoids because they're found in some of the other foods that I'm gonna mention as well like eggs when an embryo is developing the first structure to assemble is the nerve system which includes the brain so an egg yolk literally has everything designed by nature to support an optimally developing brain it's amazing it's no wonder that egg yolks are considered nature's multivitamin by some you want to eat the yolks folks the yolks are very healthy they're very good for you grass-fed beef now this is very I think controversial because red meat you know we're always told to limit our meat consumption and I'm not a proponent of eating lots and lots of me but I definitely think that it should be incorporated into your diet and this is in contrast to grain fed factory farm you know I am not endorsing that in any way shape or form no way but grass-fed organic beef is rich in a number of compounds that support brain energy metabolism the fat of grass-fed beef is also very rich in those two carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin which are not only good for your brain health but your eye health and your skin health as well grass-fed beef has three times the vitamin E of grain fed beef vitamin E there's a strong relationship between the consumption of foods that contain vitamin E and better brain health why because vitamin E is a fat soluble antioxidant again it's a fat soluble antioxidant why is this important to the brain because the brain is made of fat and it's not just made of any type of fat it's made of a fat that's very prone to oxidation which is a process in the body that's sort of like accelerated aging we want to consume more antioxidants especially the fat soluble ones wild salmon wild salmon is full of the building blocks that your brain requires to grow healthy new brain cells avocados avocados have a higher concentration of fat protecting antioxidants than any other fruit or vegetable they also have twice the potassium of a banana which supports cardiovascular health which is very important for brain health and also a very good source of fiber which is going to fill you up extra-virgin olive oil extra virgin olive oil is actually a fruit juice that human beings have been creating pressing from olives for thousands of years unlike these newer industrial oils like canola oil corn oil and soybean oil which I'm gonna use the word toxic to describe extra-virgin olive oil is actually quite healthy and it's a staple of the Mediterranean dietary pattern adherence to which is associated with a robust risk reduction for developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease mushrooms mushrooms are incredible there's some really cool epidemiological research coming out of Asia where they're finding that people who consume mushrooms habitually have dramatically reduced risk of developing both dementia and a condition called mild cognitive impairment which is sometimes referred to as pre dementia if you eat about a half a plate of mushrooms a week they've found that over six years there's a 50% risk reduction for developing mild cognitive impairment which correlation isn't causation but empowering to know nonetheless cruciferous vegetables like broccoli kale cabbage these vegetables give your body the raw materials for your detox pathways a lot of people are spending money these days on detox teas and the like cruciferous vegetables are the ultimate detoxification stimulus stimuli for the body I'm gonna try to rush through the next few slides because I've only got a few minutes left we've got berries I'm a huge fan of berries blueberries in particular the color in blueberries have been shown to accumulate in the hippocampus which is the memory center of the brain and protected against oxidative stress and aging people who consume more berries tend to have better memory function animal studies validate this fact dark chocolate I usually get cheers from the audience cocoa flavanols very beneficial supportive of heart health again habitual cocoa consumers tend to have better brain function and there's even a correlational study that's found that countries where there's higher per capita chocolate consumption they have higher low higher numbers of Nobel laureates so it's a fact almonds again a very important source of vitamin E and magnesium which is important for DNA repair enzymes in the body nuts in general are important you just want to make sure that they're either raw or dry roasted raw or dry roasted generally if they're roasted and on dry roasted that means that they're fried usually in very unhealthy oils now where's the hard data that all of these kinds of changes are gonna actually minimize your risk for developing cognitive impairment well I had the pleasure of going to Stockholm Sweden where I interviewed the lead researcher behind the finger study which is some of the best evidence to date that our choices matter when it comes to our brain health by adhering to a battery of these kinds of you know the dietary patterns similar to the one that I've described they found that in an older population of adults that were at risk for developing cognitive decline that eating a healthy diet compared to the control group that was just given standard of care they had an improvement in their brains processing speed by a hundred and fifty percent and an improvement in executive function by 83 percent or you guys live in Aspen there's lots of great hikes I live in Los Angeles you know we have the same but I'm also a big fan of resistance training and I like to talk about resistance resistance training in particular because it's underappreciated in my view having stronger muscles is correlated to better brain health we can see this in a number of studies that have come out recently and not just brain health but mental health published over the past year we've had a number of really important and well done meta analyses that have found that not only is aerobic exercise critically important for treating depression but resistance training which I've highlighted on the on the in the bottom two are critically important for a treatment for as a treat as a potential treatment for depression and anxiety so really really critical stuff get to the gym it's medicine for your brain and in fact exercise is now a new treatment guideline according to the American Academy of Neurology that a physician can write on a prescription pad to to prescribe to patients with mild cognitive impairment there is no other fda-approved drug as I sit here talking to you guys for the treatment of mild cognitive impairment so exercise again truly is medicine now when I began my research one of the most startling things that I found and I experienced in myself is that you know brain health is something that it's a huge knowledge gap for people and I've sort of made it my mission to fill that gap AARP performed a study where they found that you know many people will concede brain health is critically important but very few people actually know how to boost it so super excited that you know the brain Institute is here pivoting towards brain health I think it's critically important it's the most important conversation I think of our time and a new dementia cases diagnosed every 3 seconds which is startling so that's it for me I hope this was empowering to guys and actionable thank you guys so much for listening Thank You Glenda for having me


  1. Agree with everything bar "bowl of leafy greens" , broccoli, almonds, chocolate, – oxalates are not good for you, as they leach your food of calcium. See Sally Norton
    Just stick with animal-based foods and lifting weights 😉

  2. Although, I am not a believer in evolution. I believe that The Lord God created all things. That being said, your information is still vital.

  3. The Passion! I'm overwhelmed and already devouring his book. Thank you Max!!! May your love for your mom help me with my own family and friends well being. I've started the Keto eating style and have benefited much in 3 weeks.

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