In the wake of being a dietitian in today’s instant gratification-crazed jungle, it has become apparent that ‘magic foods’ and ‘quick fixes’ have achieved an astonishing level of falsified trust from consumers. I have found it particularly contradictory to believe that these ‘magic foods’ deserve oodles of confidence in improving our health, especially with the rate of eating disorders skyrocketing and our overall mental and physical health plummeting in the U.S.(1). With pure intentions and the innocent hope of changing our patterns to become healthier and happier, we often fall prey to the oh-so-believable ‘magic foods’ and ‘quick fixes’ to accomplish our goals. I have often heard, “It simply is too hard for me to make all these changes, even though I really want to.” This has led me to the question: “Well, how do you actually get someone to make the changes they want to make for their long-term health to avoid turning to ‘quick fixes’?” There is much more to nutrition than simply putting food in your mouth and digesting it; your mind is intimately involved with your eating and motivation levels. Instead of consistently shaming yourself for being unable to make long-lasting changes to your health, ask yourself, “How can I train my brain to want to make changes for my health?”
Let’s get down to the science of why some foods affect your level of motivation more than others.
Your brilliant brain has around 100 million neurons that communicate with the rest of your body (but your gut has 500 billion neurons—say what?!). Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, are brain chemicals that are needed for nerve cells to communicate effectively. Neurotransmitters are made from proteins, vitamins and minerals. Despite being brain chemicals, it is important to mention that some neurotransmitters are made in the gut instead of the brain (4). This marks the beginning of a relevant conversation involving, what scientists call, the brain-gut axis. The brain-gut axis refers to the communication between the brain and the intestines, linking emotional and cognitive centers of the brain to the gut (5). In summary, this means that the health of your gut determines the effectiveness of neurotransmitters submitting signals to the brain. Neurotransmitters communicate with your brain and can affect your mood, motivation levels, efficiency and efficacy in daily life. To tie food into this conversation, we digest foods differently. Some foods contribute to the health of our gut more than others. Trans fats maycontribute to inflammation, while fiber aids in the production of good bacteria in the gut and regular digestion. Fiber would ultimately increase the health of the gut, which increases the health of your neurotransmitters. In-turn, this would increase the health of your brain, giving you the motivation and strength to healthfully process your thoughts and actions.
Brain Food: Carbs, Carbs, Carbs
For decades now, you’ve have been inundated with all the reasons why carbohydrates are bad your health. These diet-praising, opinion-based, fear mongering fads need to stop now to change our societal-influenced belief system about food. Carbohydrates are, simply put, brain food.
All carbohydrates that we ingest are broken down to glucose in the body, which is the only fuel source for our brain under healthy conditions. Our brain relies on a daily, steady supply of glucose and if this fuel source is inadequate – fatigue, confusion and even dizziness will prevail. During glucose inadequacy,neurotransmitters like serotonin and adenosine levels increase in the brain, which leads to fatigue. Simultaneously, dopamine levels decrease, which reduces your ability to focus and stay motivated (6). It is important to note the various types of carbohydrates for your health and motivation level. There are three types of carbohydrates, but I am only going to go into two types now.
These are known as simple sugars, either as added sugars found in pastries, candy or pasta sauce; or natural sugars found in foods such as fruits and milks. Depending upon the other nutrients found in foods that contain simple carbohydrates, they are typically digested rather quickly. In other words, they may provide a temporary ‘sugar high’ vs. a sustained source of energy. With ingestion of simple carbohydrates, you may be at an increased risk of glucose inadequacy due to high-speed digestion. Glucose inadequacy leads to increased serotonin and adenosine levels in the brain, causing quick fatigue.
These are known as starches, and can be refined or unrefined. A refined complex carbohydrate could be white rice or white flour, and an unrefined carbohydrate would be whole grain bread or oatmeal. Complex carbohydrates are typically digested over a longer period, allowing for a more sustained energy supply compared to simple carbohydrates.
Fueling your body regularly should be at the top of your to-do list. Eating regularly, mostly complex carbs, can stabilize blood glucose levels throughout the day, avoiding bursts of short-term energy and mid-afternoon crashes. I recommend eating every 3-5 hours to avoid significant blood glucose fluctuations.
With sustained levels of glucose for your brain to use, your levels of serotonin and adenosine will stay stagnant and your level of dopamine will allow for increased focus and motivation.
A Healthy Gut = A Healthy Mind
As I had mentioned before, the brain-gut axis refers to the connection between your gut health and mind. If your digestive tract is not flourishing with beneficial bacteria by making the right food choices, your cognition could be sacrificing. Here are a few scientifically-proven nutrients that can help you craft a blooming intestinal tract.
- Probiotics are ‘good bacteria’ that are already in or can be supplemented to your lower digestive tract. Probiotics have been found to promote digestive health (7). They can be naturally found in foods and in the dietary supplement aisle at your local grocery store. These healthy bacteria are found in some yogurts, cheeses, kefir and sauerkraut. The most popular probiotic dietary supplements contain the Lactobacilus species, Bifidobacteria, Saccharomyces boulardii and Bacillus coagulans. Ask your dietitian or doctor what dose and type of probiotic they recommend.
- Fiber, insoluble and soluble, can be found in vegetables, fruit skins, whole grain breads, pastas, and other plant-based foods. Fiber is a magical, indigestible plant-based nutrient that helps build healthy gut microflora and improves the fluidity of your bowel movements. Fiber plays a role in many other processes in the body, but for now, I will focus on gut-related functions. The recommended dietary fiber intake is 25 to 30 grams per day for healthy individuals (4).
- Polyphenols are plant compounds that have many antioxidant properties arming them to fight inflammation and disease in the human body (8). The functionality of these disease-fighting properties has been attributed to their ability to increase good bacteria in the gut (8). Common foods containing polyphenols are dark chocolate, red wine, grapes, almonds, blueberries and broccoli. Red wine may make you temporarily forget your worries, but it also has long term effects on your mood and motivation (in moderate amounts, of course). Just another reason to enjoy it!
The body is more complicated than we think, given the start of the discussion of the brain-gut axis and neurotransmitter fluctuations. Consuming complex carbs frequently throughout the day, eating probiotics, meeting your daily fiber goals and enjoying some polyphenols with friends, can help you feel more motivated, day-to-day. A well-rounded diet can lead to a healthy mind, which ultimately leads to increased levels of motivation to do the things you want to do. It takes two to tango, but three to party, and as we looked deeper into the correlation between your diet, your mind and your motivation, we have reached a level of solidarity that your brain, your digestive tract and your diet are connected factors contributing to your motivation to do what you want to do.