After his mother was diagnosed with a mysterious form of dementia, Max Lugavere put his successful media career on hold to learn everything he could about brain health and performance. For the better half of a decade, he consumed the most up-to-date scientific research, talked to dozens of leading scientists and clinicians around the world, and visited the country’s best neurology departments—all in the hopes of understanding his mother’s condition.
Now, in Genius Foods, Lugavere presents a comprehensive guide to brain optimization. He uncovers the stunning link between our dietary and lifestyle choices and our brain functions, revealing how the foods you eat directly affect your ability to focus, learn, remember, create, analyze new ideas, and maintain a balanced mood.
Weaving together pioneering research on dementia prevention, cognitive optimization, and nutritional psychiatry, Lugavere distills groundbreaking science into actionable lifestyle changes. He shares invaluable insights into how to improve your brain power, including…
Below is some of what I learned, and my thoughts. A slightly expanded version will appear on my Medium blog.
Genius Foods was a welcome follow up to the book Food: What the Heck Should I Eat by Dr. Mark Hyman (released February 27, 2018), which I read immediately before and also enjoyed immensely. I agreed with everything in Dr. Hyman's book, and I learned a lot. From Genius Foods, I learned a lot too, and it reinforced information in my memory.
Food as medicine
These books follow the ‘food as medicine' principle that foods can help you or harm you. The same foods that are healthy for one person can be toxic to another, but there are some concepts apply to all. I've been saying this for years. Eat the good stuff, cut out the shit. You get to control what you put in your mouth. If it's “bad” for you either don't put it in your face, or consume it and enjoy it.
I like a good debate
One of the things I enjoyed about Genius Foods is that I didn't agree with everything that Lugavere wrote. This thrills me. Not in some sanctimonious way, but because we're all human with our own caches of information, experiences, opinions and perspectives and it's refreshing to read viewpoints that I don't share. I enjoy learning new information, and I like reinforcing knowledge. It helps me learn and retain knowledge. When I disagree with an author, I sometimes imagine myself having intelligent discussions with them. Also, differing reminds me that 1) I know my shit and 2) authors are human, they are not absolute authority figures.
In Genius Foods I highlighted a lot. I bookmarked and annotated. Truthfully, I retained little in my memory. That's what the bookmarks and annotations are for. Notice the Post-It notes that say “liver function”, “intermittent fasting” and “poop”. (You know I'm going to edit this post from my phone JUST so I can use the poop emoji.)
Specific themes have been recurring in the books that I've been reading, and some of those books were written a decade or more ago. For example, while reading Genius Foods, I wondered if Lugavere had read the same book I had that referred to brain-derived neurotrophic factor (aka BDNF) as “Miracle-Gro for the brain”, published in hardcover format ten years ago.
(Or, you know, maybe I've got confirmation bias, and I'm seeking out books that tell me what I already know and think.)
Intermittent Fasting, intuitively
One thing that I've noticed in all the reading and learning is this: My body tends to do what it needs to do instinctively.
Take intermittent fasting, for example, which is another one concept that keeps coming up in my learning adventure. Lugavere discusses that 16:8 method of fasting, which entails sixteen hours of fasting and an eight-hour window in which eating is permitted. Two days ago I listened to Dr. David Perlmutter's interview for the Keto Edge Summit, in which he talked about intermitted fasting. Intermittent fasting and the ketogenic diet complement each other in many ways.
I often joke that when I forget to eat, I'm “intermittent fasting” but when I really thought about it, I remembered that for years I couldn't eat breakfast because eating in the morning made me feel nauseated. I also recalled that when I have an office job I tend to make a smoothie or oatmeal to take to work and I slowly sip or nibble over the course of the morning. I don't get hungry for lunch until around 2 when I do this. Now that I'm once again working from home I often don't eat until later. I drink a fatty coffee with coconut milk stirred or blended in.
I DO do the 16:8 intermittent fast. My body knows. I don't do this because it's the newest fad.
Lugavere points out that women should start with a 12-14 hour fast. That's basically from the end of an early dinner through breakfast. He goes into the concept of cortisol, which you can read about in the book.
In Genius Foods, Lugavere does discuss the ketogenic diet, including this bit:
It's been so effective, and its safety record so robust, that it's currently being evaluated as a therapeutic option for numerous other neurological diseases. Migraines, depression, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and even [ALS] are all conditions that have been associated with excessive brain inflammation.
He presents his own diet, which he calls The Genius Plan, which is like a modified version of keto. His plan differs in the types of fat and in how it nourishes the microbiome.
If you want to learn more about what he said, buy the book. I also recommend the Keto Edge Summit. Dr. Perlmutter's interview talks about nourishing the microbiome on keto, sot the two resources complement each other well.
Also, one day of the event was about cancer. Lugavere mentioned cancer concerning keto in his book.
The truth about poop
Another fact from Genius Foods (which I knew because I'm a microbiome nerd): Each gram of poop contains one hundred billion microbes. Every time you take a dump, you excrete about one-third of your colonic bacterial content, which rebuilds over the day. Each microbe carries its own unique genetic material. Think about it. Howdy ho!
And speaking of poop…
Living with a dog is one of the top ways to increase the microbial diversity of the home and in the gut. Yep! My gut is diverse!
I've talked a lot about the microbiome so far. Honestly, that's because I have the book beside me and I'm going in order of the chapters to refresh my memory, but there is a ton of information about neurotransmitters and brain health. Some of the bits that I highlighted:
In a forced swimming test to study depression in mice: “Mice that are depressed tend to give up hope and allow themselves to sink sooner than happy mice.” Don't be a mouse.
Mice given probiotics seemed more eager to stay afloat in these studies. They also showed an increase in anti-anxiety receptors in certain parts of the brain.
Healthy serotonin levels may rely on vitamin D, as Vitamin D helps to create serotonin from tryptophan. This makes sense in the context of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Meeting and book signing
It was a coincidence that one of my favourite brands, Genuine Health, was the host/partner. I didn't find out about this event through their PR people or their mailing list (their emails go to an email address that I check maybe weekly), but through Max's Instagram account. (Side note: If you click the link above, you'll see every post I've written for this website that mentions Genuine Health. Those products are still my favourite. My love affair with fermented Greek yogurt proteins+ is going strong after two years.)
I nearly had a “hi, let's be friends” moment. It was slightly awkward. I went with it because I'm determined to use my voice, be visible and not get rattled.
When I saw him at his Toronto book signing, Lugavere emphasized that he doesn't recommend adding extra fats but eating foods that naturally contain fat. Avocados are good. Someone in the audience asked him about what health advice he thinks is bad. He answered, butter coffee. I noted this because I was amused. Lugavere said that he drinks it once in a while because “it's tasty AF.” Yes, he said “tasty AF” and not, “tasty as fuck”.That's almost like verbalizing a hashtag. 🙂
One place where he and I disagree: He claims that there's no evidence that butter is good for health. Yes, your fat calories should come from more nutrient-dense sources, but there any many health benefits to eating butter made from the milk of grass-fed cows. Among these:
It contains vitamins E, D, A (great for hair and skin) and K2 (crucial for regulating calcium metabolism in the body).
It contains the ideal ratio of omega 6: omega 3 fatty acids, which makes it anti-inflammatory.
Furthermore, fat and cholesterol have been shown to improve hormone regulation and cell membrane function. Grass-fed Butter
Diversify your nutrition sources. You don't need to consume butter in your coffee every day – even if you agree that it's tasty AF it's probably not a good idea – but I don't think that butter is poor advice.
I learned this phrase in the talk he gave before signing books, but I knew correctly what he was talking about. A report published in medical journal EBioMedicine in March 2017 calls nutritional psychiatry a “nascent field” and refers to a “consistent evidence base from the observational literature confirms that the quality of individuals' diets is related to their risk for common mental disorders, such as depression.” However, my aunt Dr. Hyla Cass (a real doctor who went to medical school) has been practicing this for decades. She's the one who got me into essential fatty acids for brain health. Gotta love when the mainstream medical community catches up, and she IS part of the mainstream community.
I feel like I've said enough but I don't know how to end this. How about this: Buy Genius Foods. If you're not ready to commit to that, follow Max Lugavere on Instagram.