Gut Health = Brain Health?

One of my first blogs on this site was about a book called Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter – a neurologist who blames lifestyle diseases (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc.) on excessive carbohydrate and gluten consumption. It’s been four years since that post and I have followed much of the book’s advice – I eat a primal diet that consists of meat, vegetables, fruit, and some whole fat dairy. My body is happy when I eat this way and I never have to worry about measuring portions or counting calories – this use to be a requirement because I put on weight easier than a bear preparing for hibernation.  Eating the aforementioned foods is not a diet but rather a lifestyle. Wheat, corn, rice, and added sugars are great once in a while but not as a base for your personal food pyramid. My buddy Chris O’Brien – an aspiring low-carber with a nagging penchant for club crackers – recommended that I read Dr. Perlmutter’s newest book Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain. This book changed the way I think about the microbes that live within our bodies. In a sense, we are more bacteria than human – we carry more single cell organisms than actual cells in our body. These microbes help us with a myriad of bodily functions like digestion, immunity, sense perception, and mental processes. Without microbes, we would simply die.

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The health of your gut bacteria determines the health of your brain. The stomach and brain are interconnected – just think of what happens to your digestive system when you are anxious. The rise in diseases like Alzheimer’s, mood disorders, ADHD, multiple sclerosis, and autism are being linked with imbalances in gut bacteria. These imbalances allow bad bacteria to flourish over good bacteria; this leads to excess absorption of energy (obesity), inflammation that stimulates autoimmunity (Multiple Sclerosis), and/or gut permeability which can exacerbate neurological symptoms (Autism).  Studies show that our ultra-sterile environments and antibiotic use is disrupting our microbiome. Added to this is our Western diet low in prebiotic fiber and high in carbohydrates which foster bad bacteria. As an icing on the cake, exposure to environmental toxins like plastic residues, pollution, and workplace stress can all disrupt good bacteria. The connection between the gut and the brain is most obvious in those struggling with mental health disorders – studies show that more then 50 percent of psychiatric patients struggle with digestive ailments.

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So what can we do to help our microbiome? We need to eat diets which are high in fiber so good bacteria have food to eat. Also, eating probiotics like yogurt or fermented foods like sauerkraut help introduce beneficial bacteria to the gut. Avoiding toxins is an obvious must, but don’t forget about toxins lingering in the food supply like gluten and added sugar. Is gluten actually a toxin? I would argue that gluten in high quantities – the amounts seen in normal Western diets – wreaks havoc on the digestive system and on the microbiome. If you require more convincing then I recommend trying a gluten free diet for a month – I bet you’ll start feeling better after the first week. I recommend these things not only from research studies but also from my own experience. I used to eat “healthy” whole grains and I normally had stomach pains, constipation, and bloating; I was even diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) before I started eating a primal diet. Now unsurprisingly, the only time my IBS flares up is when I go back to eating grains. If you suffer from any of the above ailments, it is worth it to read this book. You may not see a complete reversal of your disorder but I would bet your symptoms will get drastically better. Read the book for yourself. You have nothing to lose except some bad microbes.

McDonald’s as a Registered Dietitian

People are funny when it comes to eating. Food is arguably the most important thing in life. Without food, there would be no sex, religion, culture, love, or even laughter. Do you remember the last time your hunger got to ridiculous levels? I can remember a time when my wife and I went on a hike in Maine; we got lost and were 6 hours deep into the mountains without any idea where we were. Christina was tired, sore, and on top of that she was ravenously hungry. It began to rain and immediately she transformed from a cute gizmo to a scary gremlin. Having to endure a hike with a starving Asian woman is something that few men have survived – if there was video of that day it would be a hybrid of the The Blair Witch Project and The Last Samurai. The only way I came out alive was realizing that our map was upside down and the car was only five minutes away. I floored it to the nearest grease pit and we indulged in every type of unhealthy food that side of the Appalachian.

I am a  Registered Dietitian and usually only eat meats, fruits, vegetables, and peanuts. After some years of giving out dietary advice, I have come to one big realization – people hate being told what to eat. Eating is a very personal thing and there is nothing worse then some emaciated dietitian telling you not to eat something. However, there is one major caveat to this truth. Society as a whole, believes it is fair game to degrade McDonald’s food, McDonald’s customers, and McDonald’s as a whole without one thought of wrong doing. This relentless bashing is so universal that it doesn’t matter if you are a skinny-vegan-white-woman or a fat-coreitarian-black-man. Everyone does it. Walk into a McDonald’s and even the fattest guy is rationalizing his choice, “I know McDonald’s is bad but they put additives in the food that make me buy 10 McChickens.” Everyone nods and begins rehearsing their own defense lines.

Here’s the thing; For the majority of Americans, McDonald’s is probably the healthier option compared to what is purchased at the grocery store. I judge people’s shopping carts and I can tell you they make McDonald’s look like a Panera Bread. Pop is usually hanging over the sides. The only vegetables are frozen potatoes. The staple foods consist of processed meat and processed carbs: bagged chips, cookies, frozen pizza, instant rice, boxed noodles. The carts get worse if there are kids tagging alongside- hovering like some parasitic fish on an obese shark. Kid foods are usually sugary and contain a bunch of weird colors that make everything look like the depressed Circus Circus in Las Vegas. I honestly think that kids are a “get out of healthy eating” free pass for adults; “Oh I buy Lucky Charms for little Susie but usually she only eats a little so I polish off the rest of the bowl when she isn’t looking.”

So what is my point in bashing everyone’s food? My point is to help everyone realize that the food you buy at the grocery store is often times worse then fast food. McDonald’s shouldn’t be the linchpin of all hate when it comes to unhealthy eating in America. McDonald’s is no different than any other burger establishment – they serve greasy food that people want and they should be frequented only on occasion. I say all these things because the unwarranted blaming of McDonald’s distracts us from the unhealthy foods that are eaten everywhere else. Is McDonald’s a saint? No. But, let’s understand that we need to clean up our eating at home before sending the clown to the gallows. I recently watched The Founder and was inspired by the amount McDonald’s has positively impacted American society: affordable food to the masses,  a safe place for kids to play,  a livelihood for many struggling workers; McDonald’s arguably is one of the biggest forces for democracy in the entire world. In the end, I write this blog to remind everybody that fast food has benefited us just as much as it has hurt us. What we need to realize is that our homes should be sanctuaries of healthy eating and not rationalizations for crappy food…”well at least these store bought french fries and chicken fingers are healthier than McDonalds’s.” Good luck on everyone’s New Year’s Resolutions.