NOURISH | How Nutrition Affects Our Minds
The following is an excerpt from Macrobiotics for Life: A Practical Guide to Healing for Body, Mind, and Heart by Simon Brown.
NUTRITION FOR THE MIND
George Ohsawa introduced the idea that our diets might influence our thinking and Michio Kushi expanded upon it. This even includes the proposition that different cultures think the way they do because of their natural diets. For example, a culture eating strong spicy foods might feel more stimulated and perhaps develop their thinking to be more imaginative, while a culture eating foods with more moderate tastes might be more functional.
It’s a long-held view that eating fish helps increase intelligence. More recently, research suggests that schoolchildren consuming a wide range of vitamins and minerals can concentrate for longer. Research also indicates that when young schoolchildren don’t have foods with added sugar, they tend to be less disruptive. My own experience has been that foods and drinks containing coffee, sugar, or chocolate are stimulating to my mind and help me come up with a wealth of ideas. If I’m writing in this state, I can write thousands of words in a short time. At the same time, my thinking becomes more chaotic and less focused. I also find that when I later read through a chapter written in a stimulated state, I have to rewrite much of it. More important, I would like to offer you something that comes from deeper within than a coffee-, sugar-, and chocolate-fueled mind.
For many years I’ve been aware of how my mind works after eating different foods, and I can choose which foods to eat when I want to use my mind in a certain way.
FOOD, BLOOD, AND THE BRAIN
One way that food affects our thinking is that whatever we eat has an influence on our blood, and our blood flows through our brains. If I were to eat a food that raised my blood sugar quickly, my brain would respond and I would find it easier to use my mind in a certain way. In my experience, this helps me think about lots of things at once and have more wild ideas. I am also aware that I find it harder to complete a train of thought without getting distracted.
The effect that people recognize most easily is feeling sleepy after eating a large meal with lots of saturated fats (such as fried eggs and/or meats, and cheese), as we try to digest the food and our blood becomes richer in fats for a while.
A lack of minerals and vitamins is thought to affect our concentration and, conversely, studies indicate that children who eat more mineral- and vitamin-rich foods are better able to concentrate for longer periods. Poor concentration is made worse when refined sugar is added to the diet. There is also speculation that eating modern processed soy foods (this does not include fermented soy foods—miso, shoyu, natto, and tempeh) increases the risk of premature brain-related degenerative illness such as Alzheimer’s disease.
I would suggest that for ideal long-term mental health, explore eating a wide range of mineral- and vitamin-rich foods. This could include vegetables, fish, beans, grains, fruits, nuts, seeds, and fermented foods. To build up knowledge of your own relationship between food and thinking, it’s important to experiment.
To gain valuable experience, you’ll need to eat a wide variety of foods and be aware of how well you can use your mind before and after eating.
THE ENERGY OF FOODS
In macrobiotic thinking, we also consider foods to have a life force, also described as living energy. The idea is that the living energy of each food we eat will influence our own energies. The states of our energies then have an effect on our thinking. My aim here is to help you think about another dimension to eating, and start to develop your own awareness. These are not rules, but my own experiences and those of other people in the macrobiotics movement; I hope they will inspire you to play with the idea that whatever you put in your mouth may have a subtle influence on how you use your mind. The information here can provide an entry point for your journey of discovering how food influences you. You can read more about the energy of foods in Chapter Thirty-One [of Macrobiotics for Life].
In my experience, the effects of food on thinking are subtle, and you may need to eat a certain food for some time before being aware of its influence. All people will experience the energy of foods in their own way, and therefore writing about the energy of foods is a big generalization. The foods that help me feel calm might lead to someone else feeling dull; the foods I like to eat to feel more creative might lead to feelings of impatience in another person.
You could experiment with looking at any food you’re eating and seeing if you can intuitively feel what kind of effect it will have on your mind. For example, a large fresh salad might have a cooling effect on your mind and help you think clearly and make a decision, whereas a bowl of hot noodles in broth might spread a feeling of warmth to your head, helping you relax and absorb ideas.
In macrobiotic theory, foods that grow upwards—like green vegetables—have more of an up energy. These would be more cooling to our minds and send a more “up” feeling to our heads than, say, a root vegetable soup, which has more of a warming influence and also has as its ingredients vegetables that grow down into the ground. The soup could have a more grounding influence, helping us think in more practical terms, while steamed greens could help us have more inspiring ideas.
Some dishes will bring a faster energy to our beings. Quickly stir-fried and mildly spicy vegetables can bring a rush of energy into our minds, perhaps stimulating our creativity for a while.
It is also interesting to experiment with eating animal foods and seeing whether the character and nature of the animal carries through into our thinking.
Does eating salmon, for example, help us metaphorically swim upstream and express thoughts that go against the grain of society? How does that feeling compare with eating mackerel or herring, which swim in schools and move together? Is eating beef better for feeling calm than eating a relatively lively animal like chicken?
Perhaps the biggest question is whether eating a seed-based diet, with lots of seeds, nuts, dried beans, and whole grains, means that by consuming foods with a very young energy, ready to grow into a plant, results in us being more open-minded and ready to explore new ideas. Also, is the opposite true? Does eating mature, fully grown foods such as meat, fish, and vegetables help us think in a way that is less naive and more competitive and streetwise?
We could also try eating primitive foods like sea vegetables (wakame, nori, kombu, arame, dulse), shellfish (mussels, clams, oysters, snails), and fermented foods (miso, shoyu, sauerkraut, vinegars, pickles) and see if this primal energy helps us think about the more primitive aspects of life: sex and survival.
Image by Spmallare (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons