How to fix the Modern American Diet and reclaim our minds and waistlines
“An insightful, eye opening adventure into diet and nutrition. Concise and witty, this book kept me engaged from cover to cover. A must-have for anyone serious about getting happy and healthy naturally.”—Andrew Morton, MD, Board-certified Family Physician; Former Medical Corps, US Navy and Army Infantry Medic, Desert Storm
For the first time in history, too much food is making us sick. The Modern American Diet (MAD) is expanding our waistlines while starving and shrinking our brains. Rates of obesity and depression have recently doubled, and though these epidemics are closely linked, few experts are connecting the dots for the average American.
Using data from the rapidly changing fields of neuroscience and nutrition, The Happiness Diet shows that over the past several generations, small, seemingly insignificant changes to our diet have stripped it of nutrients—like magnesium, vitamin B12, iron, and vitamin D, as well as some very special fats—that are essential for happy, well-balanced brains. These shifts also explain the overabundance of mood-destroying foods in the average American’s diet and why they predispose most of us to excessive weight gain.
After a clear explanation of how we’ve all been led so far astray, The Happiness Diet empowers the reader to steer clear of this MAD way of life with simple, straightforward solutions, including:
• A list of foods to swear off
• Shopping tips and kitchen organization tricks
• A compact healthy cookbook full of brain-building recipes
• Practical advice, meal plans, and more!
Graham and Ramsey guide you through these steps and then remake your diet by doubling down on feel-good foods—even the all-American burger.
Praise for The Happiness Diet
“Finally, a rock-solid, reliable, informative, and entertaining book on how to eat your way to health and happiness. Run—don’t walk—to read and adopt The Happiness Diet. This is the only diet book I’ve encountered that I can actually recommend to patients without reservation.”—Bonnie Maslin, PhD, Psychologist and author of Picking Your Battles
“A lively, thorough, and iron-clad case for real food. You will never eat an egg-white omelet or soy protein shake again.”—Nina Planck, author of Real Food and Real Food for Mother and Baby
“The book includes food lists, shopping tips, brain-building recipes, smart slimming strategies, and other useful tools to lose weight and keep the blues at bay.”—AM New York
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About the Author
Tyler Graham is a wellness expert who has served as the Health and Environment Editor of O, the Oprah Magazine and the Nutrition Editor at Prevention.
Drew Ramsey is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. He specializes in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders using food, psychotherapy, and medication.
Read an Excerpt
This Is Your Brain ON FOOD
What Is Happiness?
We take for granted that the brain is the seat of human consciousness, but it's been less than 200 years since scientists even began to understand how it functions. The ancient Egyptians thought so little of the organ that they discarded the gray matter inside the skull like a piece of trash during the process of mummification, while setting aside and preserving the heart, lungs, and intestines for use in the afterlife.
Greek philosophers debated the value of the brain, and Aristotle deemed it an organ "of minor importance," speculating that it acted as a radiator to keep the body from overheating. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, saw things differently: "Man ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come the joys, delight, laughter, sports and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations." Obviously, scientists now agree with him. He's also famous for another aphorism that we're especially fond of: "Let thy food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be thy food."
The first detailed anatomical atlas of the brain, Cerebri Anatome, was published in 1664 by Thomas Willis. And the notion that electrical currents flow through human tissue, a basic property of the nervous system, was first described a little over two hundred years ago by Luigi Galvani, who observed "animal electricity" flowing through the body. But it wasn't until the 1800s and the invention of new tissue-staining techniques, coupled with the com£d microscope, that scientists could actually see the basic building blocks of the brain. Heinrich Wilhelm Gottfried von Waldeyer- Hartz, a German anatomist, named these cells "neurons" in 1891. Only very recently have new imaging technologies, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron-emission tomography (PET), allowed scientists to observe neurons in action. After thousands of years of speculating on the nature of the brain, we are only now beginning to unravel how it works.
This Is Your Brain
The human brain is a three-£d wrinkly, gray organ that sits suspended in a fluid cushion inside the skull. While the brain accounts for about 2 percent of your body's weight, it burns 20 percent of your body's fuel. That's because the brain is the body's command centerthe most complex supercomputer ever created. It's constantly processing unfathomable amounts of information. While you are running errands around town, for example, your brain is keeping track and regulating your heart rate, blood sugar, temperature, the pressure applied to the gas pedal, the sounds inside and outside the car, the speed of each automobile within vision, and an unconscious memory of nearly every image that passes by at a speed of sixty miles per hour.
We've all heard the old adage that we don't use 90 percent of our brains, but the reality is that we're consciously aware of only about 10 percent of what our brain is doing. The brain has more than one hundred billion neurons. Each one of these cells can be connected by synapses to ten thousand other neurons. Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, MD, estimates that, mathematically speaking, the number of electrochemical configurations possible in the brain is on the order of ten to the trillionth power. This means there are more connections in a single human brain then there are cubic feet in the universe.
TOP 100 REASONS TO AVOID PROCESSED FOODS
Deciphering food label Ingredients leads to unappetizing results. Take the innocuous-sounding castoreum, which is used to enhance the flavor of puddings, candies, and some frozen dairy desserts. You might be surprised to know that it's derived from beaversbeaver anal glands.
These billions of neurons don't directly connect to one another, but are separated by junctions known as synapses. Messages travel from neuron to neuron with the aid of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Once enough neurotransmitter builds up in the synapse, the brain cell fires and tells other brain cells to fire, creating a ripple effect. This communication is what happens when we figure out a crossword puzzle answer, laugh at a joke, or shed a tear at a sappy romantic comedy.
Some neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, adrenaline, and dopa-mine, have become household names, well-known for the their abilities to affect mood and behavior. Promoting the release of dopamine is how the caffeine in your morning coffee gets your day started. But there are hundreds of others, and, depending on the receptor it touches, a neurotransmitter like serotonin can trigger either the constriction or relaxation of blood vessels, nausea or hunger, an orgasm or the loss of libido. This complex biological machinery is also what ultimately determines how we feel. It's also, of course, made out of the food you eat.
This Is Your Brain on Food
As the Modern American Diet has changed in the past 100 years, so have our brains. That's partly because the MAD diet has replaced many mood-boosting animal fats like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) with new vegetable fats derived largely from corn and soy that humans rarely consumed before. MAD foods are also devoid of many vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrient com£ds found in plants that were once staples of the American dinner table. Instead, we're eating new foods grown and harvested in factories. And to create palatable, presentable products to the public, food processors add artificial dyes (linked to many brain disorders), preservatives (linked to cancer and weight gain), and synthetic nutrients (linked to cancer, asthma, and infertility).
TOP 100 REASONS TO AVOID PROCESSED FOODS
The greater the number of cheap cuts of meat ground into a single patty, the greater the risk of contamination with E. coli. A standard fast-food hamburger contains the trimmings of dozens of cows raised around the globe.
If you eat a diet missing any of the essential elements of happiness needed by your brain to function, what seems a minor imbalance can have a major effect. Our brains have co-evolved with certain varieties of foods over thousands of years. From our brains to those of our most distant ancestors, there is a continuous genetic chain of nutrition that has been broken by MAD substitutions, innovations, and prohibitions, none of which have stood the test of time in the same way as grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, and organic vegetables and fruits. We want to reforge that link to a tradition of eating that has always produced healthy, happy people whenever good food has been in abundance.
Consider what might happen to you if you are running low on iron, a condition shared by about 15 percent of American women of reproductive age. Inadequate stores of iron diminish your body's ability to transport oxygen in the blood. Several molecules needed for the proper connections to occur between your brain cells, such as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, require iron for their synthesis.
You start the day in your iron-deficient state, coaxed out of bed by a loud alarm. Your limbs feel heavy. Your head feels groggy, like the morning after you've had one too many drinks. Your wake-up routine is tough: you misplaced your keys, you feel rushed, and the short walk to work gets you winded. You go to the gym, but then you get lightheaded on the treadmill. You tend to lose patience more easily. You get frustrated with your kids and you snap at your spouse. Over a few weeks the combination of fatigue, bad mood, and lack of concentration starts to fray your life. A ripple of unhappiness begins to spread, and it all began with a set of choices made at mealtimes over the past few months.
Wherever the MAD diet goes, rates of depression tend to rise. The disease has become the leading cause of disability in middle-and high-income countries around the world. A large study recently published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that eating processed foods, such as refined carbohydrates, sweets, and processed meats, increased the risk of depression by about 60 percent. Eating a whole-food diet, on the other hand, decreased the risk of tge disease by about 26 percent.
The most common treatments for depression, of course, are medication and psychotherapynot diet. Although both have proven effective for many people, food is a powerful tool that we can use alongside of these strategies. Though combating MAD will remain an ongoing public health issue for some time, at the individual level, the Happiness Diet can simply and immediately reverse MAD's ill effects.
TOP 100 REASONS TO AVOID PROCESSED FOODS
A Dunkin' Donuts glazed chocolate cake stick contains more than forty ingredients, including five different types of gums and TBHQ, a form of butane (lighter fluid) that's used as a preservative.
Your Mind Is Your Body
There is no separation between the mind and the body. A sickened body almost always impairs the mind. A handful of new studies show that people who are diabetic, obese, or suffering from cardiovascular disease perform worse on cognitive tests than those who are leaner and healthier. New research from Kent State University in Ohio showed that obese patients who received weight reduction surgery improved their cognitive functioning within a few weeks. In other words, the mere fact of being obese undermines the wiring of the human brain.
Everywhere we hear how rates of obesity and adult-onset diabetes are soaring. Rates of obesity and depression have both doubled in recent decades, and they are deeply interconnected epidemics. Today two out of three Americans are overweight and one in four over the age of twenty has something known as prediabetes, an impaired ability to regulate blood sugar that speeds up the process of aging. That's seventy-nine million adults.
Both obesity and diabetes wreak havoc on brain health. As people with these diseases age, their brains starts to shrink. Thanks to the imaging techniques mentioned earlier, we know that specific areas linked to positive emotions and clear thinking, like the hippocampus and hypothalamus, are specifically at risk. Studies show that the brains of the obese appear sixteen years older than those of people of normal weight. The larger the belly size, the larger your risk of dementia and depression.
TOP 100 REASONS TO AVOID PROCESSED FOODS
Eating a diet high in fast food appears to cause an abnormal buildup of tau protein tangles in the brainsimilar to what happens in those diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Here is just a sampling of some important recent studies attesting to the importance of food to your happiness and well-being. In the back of this book you will see documentation for many more.
A study of 54,632 women by the Harvard School of Public Health found that those who ate the most omega-3s and the least omega-6s were significantly less likely to suffer from depression.
Research involving 12,059 college graduates over an average of 6.6 years found that the more trans fats participants ate, the more likely they were to be depressed. Those who ate the most trans fats had a 48 percent increased risk.
When the dietary habits of 4,856 people were followed for more than ten years, researchers found that those who consumed the most oleic acid, the predominant fat in olive oil and lard, were the least likely to report a severely depressed mood. Those who ate the most linoleic acid, the main fat in soybean and corn oils, were found to be most likely to get depressed.
A six-week experiment involving children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder revealed that a diet restricted to simple whole foods like meat, rice, vegetables, pears, and water resulted in significant behavioral improvement for 78 percent of the children. Once they were placed back on a MAD, 63 percent suffered worse ADHD symptoms.
A test of the cognitive functions of 280 healthy middle-aged community volunteers discovered that those with the highest blood levels of the omega- 3 fatty acid DHA performed significantly better on tests of nonverbal reasoning, working memory, and vocabulary.
Some of these studies show more conclusive results than others, but the one result you will never see is one that shows that the MAD improves cognitive function. Or that MAD foods deter depression. Or that those whose diets rely on MAD sugars and vegetable oils have lower rates of anxiety, dementia, or depression. The MAD is a hands-down loser when it comes to your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It is so bad for you that you must wonder how such a thing could ever develop and what the people who created it were thinking. Here's a hint: They weren't thinking about your happiness.
TOP 100 REASONS TO AVOID PROCESSED FOODS
It takes no time to decode the list of ingredients on an applethere isn't one.
A Three-Point Plan for Happiness
To best explain how your food affects how you feel, we're going to separate your "happiness ability" into three areas of brain function. The first area is cognitive functioning, which is your overall capacity to focus, think, plan, and remember. Lost your keys? Can't remember a colleague's name? Where did you park that car? Getting stuck at work on complex problems? While we all experience some decline in these abilities as we age, studies have pointed to beneficial effects from Happiness Diet essential elements such as omega-3s, tocotrienols, vitamins B12 and B6, and folates, which are all abundant in whole foods. (If you think you can match the power of whole foods with supplements, see page 222.)
The second area of brain function that food affects is emotional regulation. Overreacting, temper on high, motor constantly humming . . . all are signs that your brain is dysregulated and that your emotions aren't fully under your control. If your lows and highs are balanced, your overall mood will be more even and your reactions will be much more in check. It's the difference between blowing up in traffic or not, yelling at your kids or talking to them, being devastated that a new love hasn't phoned or diving into a great new book. Research into depression, in particular, has shown that processed foods high in sugar, omega-6 fats, and trans fats are all associated with higher rates of depression, while consumption of oleic acid, omega-3s, and whole foods such as fish, meats, fruits, and vegetables was associated with lowered rates of depression.
YOUR EVER-EXPANDING PLASTIC BRAIN
Table of Contents
Part 1 This Is Your Brain on Food
1 What Is Happiness? 3
2 A Brief History of the Modern American Diet 15
3 Bad Food, Bad Mood 33
4 Good Food, Good Mood 56
Part 2 The Happiness Diet: The Foods, Menu Plans, and Recipes
5 Food for Thought 83
6 Food for Energy 98
7 Food for Good Mood 110
8 Shopping and Stocking Your Kitchen 122
9 Our Favorite Recipes 163
Sides, Salads, and Snacks 172
Main Courses 195
Epilogue: Spreading Happiness 221
Bonus: Top 100 Reasons to Avoid Supplements 222
Appendix: A Complete Guide to the Fats in Foods 235
Select References 268