The Psychology of Nutrition (and the Impact of Nutrition on Psychology): A 4-Part Series

Part I: THE BETTER BRAIN:  An interview with Dr. Kaplan

In April 2021, a book entitled THE BETTER BRAIN was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This groundbreaking book by researchers Dr. Bonnie Kaplan and Dr. Julia Rucklidge details what studies are finding about how what we eat affects our mental health.  Given this, I sat down with Dr. Kaplan, and talked with her about this new book, and why we should all be invested in the research and recommendations behind it. 

Dr. Schroeder:  Bonnie you have just come out with a new book on nutrition and health called THE BETTER BRAIN. But when I look in the bookstore, I see lots of books on nutrition and health. Why did you write another one?

Dr. Kaplan:  There are many layers to this answer.  First, most of the previous books focused on the relationship between nutrition and physical health, such as bone and muscle development.  While important, they neglect the proven link between what we eat and our brain health.  Second, many of these books, although maybe well-composed, aren’t written by the researchers who actually investigate these links.  We felt that the general public deserved to hear from those who actually do the studies, not just report on them.  And finally, prior books tend to give advice about how and what to eat.  But I know I am not alone in saying that if you tell me what to do, but don’t tell me why, I am less likely to do it.  Our book is an attempt to provide the how, what, and why

Dr. Schroeder:  Throughout the book you say that there should be more education about this topic. Could you give us a little summary of what you think children in elementary school should learn about nutrition and their brains?

Dr. Kaplan:  Well, what I think we need to start with is teaching our children that the brain is the most metabolically active organ in the body.  Although the brain is only about 2% of our body weight, it utilizes a minimum of 20% (and some believe upwards of 40%) of the oxygen and nutrients available; meanwhile, 1/6 of the blood flowing through our body at any given time is in our brain.   In other words, the brain is a needy, greedy organ.  Kids are taught from an early age that food is important for their bodies, but rarely are they taught it is important for their brains.  And thus, they wouldn’t even begin to consider that it is important for their mental health. 

Dr. Schroeder: Would you please explain the difference between macronutrients and micronutrients, and why you always talk about the micros?

Dr. Kaplan:  Macronutrients are major categories of food such as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.  Few in North America are lacking in these categories.  But micronutrients, for purposes of discussion here, are generally thought of as vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty-acids.  Many people in North America are significantly deficient in micronutrients, which unfortunately is linked to many problems with brain functioning and mental health. 

Dr. Schroeder:  So which will I find in potato chips? Pop tarts? And what are UPFs?

Dr. Kaplan:  The reality is that much of our processed food is full of macronutrients, but severely lacking in micronutrients.  Ultra-processed foods (UPFs), such as Pop tarts, have trivial amounts of vitamins and minerals even though they are loaded with carbs and the like.  So, you might ask, what is the answer to better mental health?  Actually, it is rather simple.  Eat real foods.  But I should note that not all processed foods are bad.  In fact, previous to World War II, most people’s diets were limited by the season and location.  But once foods started to be canned and frozen on a large scale, people all over the country could get healthy options, such as frozen peas, anytime they wanted.  But the key here is that they remained real food, not the UPFs that followed in mass quantity.

Dr. Schroeder:  So, there has been a lot of press lately about the Mediterranean diet being a great way to eat healthy.  If we eat a Mediterranean type of whole foods diet, will we all have really good brain health? And by the way, can we afford to eat that way?

Dr. Kaplan:  The Mediterranean diet is definitely a good start, but research has shown us that there are two major reasons this might not be enough for some people.  One, there is a good degree of individual differences when it comes to how people metabolize food, and the specific nutrient needs they have.  Thus, while eating healthy is important, certain individuals need additional micronutrient options, such as supplements, to help maximize brain health.  In addition, due to a variety of factors, the soil most plants are grown in today in North America is less nutrient dense than it was decades ago.  Thus, the depleted soil produces plants with a reduced concentration of minerals and vitamins —- the carrots you eat are not the same your grandmother ate.  For these reasons, a broad-spectrum micronutrient supplement may be important for some people. As for affordability, research shows that you can save money eating a whole foods type of diet. This will surprise some people, but we explain how and why in our book.

Dr. Schroeder:  So, it sounds like you are saying there is a place for supplements, even for some people who are eating a healthy, diverse diet?

Dr. Kaplan:  Yes, the research indicates this is the case.  But here is what might surprise many people, and this is why we set out to write this book.  It is not just for physical reasons, but rather intellectual, psychological, and emotional ones.  Research has consistently shown that a broad-spectrum micronutrient can benefit kids and adults in areas such as attention, mood, and cognitive functioning.  In fact, one of the most consistent findings is that micronutrients improve emotional regulation. 

Dr. Schroeder:  Speaking as a parent of many kids, I can’t think of anything more important in our house than our kids regulating their emotions better. 

Okay.  Final question.  Let’s say I am an adult who is reasonably healthy with no known medical conditions.  Beyond everything else you just said, is there any other reason I should pay close attention to my nutrition?

Dr. Kaplan:  As someone in her 70s, I have to comment on how nutrition relates to the risk for dementia.  Studies have clearly demonstrated that nutrition is a key factor related to brain health across the lifespan, and that those who eat highly processed diets have increased cerebral atrophy (brain shrinkage) as they get older. 

In the end, it is clear that nutrition is the foundation of not just our physical health, but our mental health, too.  Our hope is that this book will be a catalyst for the general public and mental health clinicians to take this more seriously. 

Note:  Readers can find out more information about the book and Dr. Kaplan at her website: 

Part II: One of the Best Gifts You Can Give Your Loved Ones:  You Might Be Surprised

When we think of gifts that we give to others, we often think of material objects or acts of service.  If we expand the definition a little further, we might even think about gifts of commitment, time, or even being there when someone needs us.  But what if one of the greatest gifts we can give our significant others, our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, and even our coworkers doesn’t involve a single word or any particular action.  What if this gift doesn’t mandate doing something different from our ordinary lives, but rather involves being intentional and caring in what we all do multiple times each day―a habit so central that we can’t live without it.  The gift I speak of is our nutrition, and just how we eat.

For the past fifty years and more, science has uncovered something undeniable about God’s design of the human body and mind.  Simply put, nutrition is a foundation by which we live.  Although eating well carries no guarantees of a long, healthy life, and certain medical factors are beyond our control, a massive, undeniable body of research has found what we should have known (and kind of did) all along.  For starters, most of us are aware that eating a healthy diet decreases our risk for heart disease and diabetes, both of which lead to either an early death or chronic complications that affect the basic aspects of life.  But did you also know that these findings exist for cancer and dementia?  Put in the context of our loved ones, eating healthy decreases the likelihood that they will lose their beloved (you) earlier than they should, and/or be asked to provide various levels of care that conditions like diabetes require.  It also means you have a much better chance that you will be around and engaged for the generations to come.

Yet there are many more ways that the gift of our nutrition bears fruit.  As fully detailed in the groundbreaking book The Better Brain by Dr. Bonnie Kaplan and Dr. Julia Rucklidge, what you eat has far more impact than just on your physical health.  Study upon study has found that when you cultivate and maintain a healthy diet, you are more likely to focus better, think clearly, and regulate your emotions more effectively.  Think for second.  Just how much of a gift would it be for your family, friends, and even coworkers if your frustration levels decreased and your attention and acuteness of mind increased?  Or what if your energy level improved, and your anxiety lessened?  If you are like me, I can think of few better gifts I could give, or receive, than this gift of self. 

Still, there is more.  Although our bodies will change and evolve as we get older, one of the opportunities that nutrition provides us is the ability to remain active and attractive for those whom we desire.  It goes without saying that couples who are active together, and remain attractive to each other, have opportunities in their relationships that others do not.  But beyond what we do with our significant other, consider that as your kids grow up, eating well increases the likelihood that you can walk, run, swim, hike, and explore with them longer.  Recently, I was blessed to train with my 13-year-old son as he did his first half-marathon.  For all of the events and training I have been fortunate to do, the early morning hours spent running with him will remain as some of my most meaningful experiences.  But I know that this would not have been possible without the foundation of nutrition that is central to my life. 

I think for all of us, to varying degrees, we may regard our choice of food as a personal decision.  Of course, in some ways we are right, but by “personal” I think it is time that we come to understand this doesn’t mean it does not have an impact on others, or our community (which is a subject for another time).  This position is not intended to induce guilt on those who struggle with eating healthy for various reasons;  we all struggle with certain aspects of life, and guilt is only as helpful as it provides a pathway to something better.

But rather, the intention of this article is to further the conversation about how what we eat can be  tremendously life giving not just for ourselves, but for others.  Imagine for a second that you are nearing the end of your life, reflecting back over your time lived.  You find yourself thinking about what mattered the most to you, specifically in your relationships with others.  You think about the time spent with them, and the moments that ended up defining your life.  In doing so, would it be fair to say that beyond just the time spent, what meant so much to you was the presence you felt from them?  Although difficult to define, this “presence” wasn’t just a unique personality or their investment in you, but also the ways in which their energy, enthusiasm, attention, and emotionality influenced your life.  All along (unknowingly), what if it was what they consumed each day had much to do with the legacy they passed on, and you onto others?

I am not suggesting that your diet is the only, or even the most important factor, in helping you be the healthy person for others that you want to be.  But I do believe it is one of the most controllable ones.  Even for those people who struggle to exercise due to physical challenges (including paralysis) or can’t seem to attain good sleep (even when they prioritize it), nutrition is one of the best, most malleable ways to give the gift of your health, and thus self, to others.  Yes, barriers do exist (such as food deserts in the inner city) beyond the psychological ones.  But for almost all human beings, what we eat is our best opportunity to be healthier.

And in being healthier, I think it is due time for all of us to catch up with the science of God’s design.  Apparently, just as God intended food to be good for our own bodies and minds, so he intended it to be good for others, too.    

Part III: Top 10 Bargain Foods: Economical and Tasty

There is a perception that eating healthy is an expensive proposition.  While certain healthy food options do cost more than processed varieties, and other barriers exist in accessing healthy foods, such as food deserts and limited selection in certain groceries, the reality is that eating healthy is cheaper and easier than most people think.   

On this theme, we have composed what we consider to be the top 10 entries for “bargain foods.”  Bargain foods are defined by three parameters:  health value, cost, and accessibility.  Foods that are rated highly in all three categories are considered bargain foods.  Below is the list of what we feel are the best bargains, as organized by the cost per volume of each food.  

1) Eggs:  8 cents per egg

Unlike other high protein options, eggs are low in calories and an excellent source of omega 3. Not long ago, eggs were thought to elevate cholesterol levels, but luckily for eggs, the true culprit is saturated fats, not cholesterol itself.

2) Oatmeal:   10 cents per 1/2 cup

This breakfast option goes far and is flexible, and can be used for much more than a bowl of oatmeal. Throw this in a blender to make oat flour, include it in cookies instead of white flour, prepare an overnight oatmeal bake for the family, or add to a smoothie for a healthy way to consume your complex carbs for the day.

3) Beans & Lentils- Dried:  15 cents per serving and 34 cents per canned serving

A “superfood” is high in nutrients our bodies need but low in calories.  Beans and lentils are superfoods because they fill us with nutrients, without the intake of unwanted calories. Bonus: They contain high amounts of fiber and protein to keep us feeling full.

4) Whole Grain Pasta:  16 cents per 1/2 cup cooked

With the Keto craze going strong, pasta gets a bad rap. Whole-grain pasta with ≥3 of fiber is a filling and healthy option in moderation.  Where fiber goes, nutrients follow. Look for fiber in the grains you consume to ensure you are purchasing a healthy option.

5) Bananas:  19 cents per banana

Bananas are the highest-calorie fruit, but don’t let that deter you from consuming one.  Each calorie is helping your body by filling it with electrolytes and complex carbs to keep your energy up throughout the day.  It’s also one of the most portable fruits with its own built-in wrapper!

6) Whole Wheat Bread:  19 cents per 2 slices

Bread can vary greatly, and just because it’s high-calorie doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy.  Choosing whole wheat or whole grain bread is considered the healthiest option, but there’s no need to give up white bread. They now make healthy albino wheat bread. Just look for the label, “white whole wheat bread.”

7) Sweet Potatoes:  29 cents per potato

Potatoes themselves are not considered to be one of the healthiest vegetables, but their sister food, sweet potatoes, are filled with nutrients and lower in calories.  And there are all sorts of healthy ways to make sweet potatoes a great treat.

8) Carrots:  32 cents per 1/2 cup.

Carrots are one of the most versatile vegetables.  Add them in a salad, toss in a stir-fry, eat them alone for a snack, or roast them as a dinner side. We love to snack, and carrots help satisfy this urge by giving us a healthy snacking option that is readily available.

9) Chicken:  $1.26 per chicken breast

Chicken is considered a lean meat.  This means it packs protein but is low in calories and saturated fats. Since it’s best to limit red meat to 1-2 times a week, it’s great to have a cost-efficient and healthy meat option.  Chicken is one such option.

10) Nuts:  These vary in how much of a bargain they are.  Sunflower Seeds and peanuts are at the lowest end, and pistachios and cashews being at the highest end. These prices range from 22 cents per serving to $1.70 per serving.  

Although nuts are marketed differently, they are all healthy for us! The two things to look out for with nuts are what is being added to them (seasoning, etc.) and the amount consumed.  The more additives there are, the less healthy they become.  Also, nuts fill us up and provide us with healthy fats, but they are high in calories, so moderation is essential when consuming.

As a final note, many people have the mindset that eating healthy is boring or unappealing, but as briefly noted above, this does not have to be the case.  The reality is that healthy foods can be both fun, versatile, and tasty, but it takes a little time to invest in different recipes, methods of preparation, and other creative options if people are used to eating processed foods most of the time.  Most of us have busy lives, but we still find the time to access or screens or engage in other means of entertainment.  If we would just shift a little of this time to expanding our knowledge and preparation of foods, we would all benefit in many ways, including our psychological and physical health, and might just enjoy it more than we think along the way. 

Part IV: Top 10 Trap Foods: Not as Healthy As We Might Think

As we continue our series on psychology and nutrition, we come to the topic of foods that pose as healthy options, but can end up being anything but good for you, especially if consumed in medium to large quantities on a regular basis.  We call these “trap foods.”

There a few primary reasons trap foods can pose as healthy foods.  The first is marketing.  Certain foods, such as granola bars, have been promoted in a way to make them seem as though they are always a healthy food; even the name itself (granola) sounds like it must be a food for the fit when may actually not be.  The second reason trap foods exist is that they start with something healthy and whole, like oatmeal, and then create such a processed product, such as oatmeal packets, that it barely resembles the original food for which it is named.   Thus, what was nutritious at first no longer is.  Finally, trap foods are created when a particular item, such as salad dressing or coffee creamer, claim they are low sugar or low fat.  What regularly happens is that the substitute used to create artificial sweetness or heartiness, is in fact not only artificial but just as unhealthy as what was originally removed.  It is safe to say that while there are certain healthy options that do exist for these substitute purposes, the cheaper the food, the more likely that unhealthy options are used for these enticing reasons.  

With that being said, here are our entries for the top 10 trap foods in no particular order:

1) Yogurt: Here’s something scary. Many yogurts contain more sugar and artificial ingredients than ice cream.  But yogurt can be an excellent food to consume, if the right one is chosen.  It can be packed with protein, calcium, vitamins, and live culture, or probiotics, enhancing the gut microbiota.  Many notice significant improvements in GI issues after adding this into their diet. The key is aiming for low fat (<1.5g of saturated fats) and low sugar (<8 g of sugar) in whatever you buy.

2) Oatmeal (Packets): On average, you will consume 12 times the amount of sugar from an instant oatmeal packet compared to a regular bowl of oatmeal.  Although the cost may not seem like much, a 1/2 cup of oatmeal runs around 10 cents per bowl, while instant packs cost around 25 cents per bowl.  You could save close to $100 a year just by switching up your oats to the natural, real variety and be a lot healthier for it.

3) Peanut Butter: Unfortunately, all peanut butter is not created equally. Unless the peanut butter you’re buying contains only 1-2 ingredients, it’s most likely packed with extra fats and sugar. Peanut butter can be a very processed food and exceptionally calorie-dense.  Just 2 tablespoons equal around 180 calories. Limiting this or switching it out for a healthier dip or spread can help cut back on unwanted calories.

4) Granola Bars: Although these are not typically high in calories, they fail to provide our bodies with much of anything.  Unless the granola bar is packing ≥3g of fiber and ≤5 g of sugar, it most likely is full of processed ingredients such as sugar alcohols and artificial ingredients that can have pretty harsh effects on your health. Taking a look at where your calories are coming from will help in choosing a healthy option.

5) Coffee Creamer: On average, people use at least twice as much coffee creamer as the label suggests.  This turns the typical 35 calories to 70 per cup.  Although sugar-free sweeteners cut down on calories, beware of what is being used to sweeten the creamer.  Sucralose (Splenda) is commonly used and has been found to have side effects, including a negative impact on gut bacteria. Using a more natural sweetening option like Stevia or Monk Fruit along with half-and -half (which contains only milk and cream) is a healthier way to get that coffee creamer taste.

6) Juice: 100% Juice can be deceiving.  This means that any fruit juice can be used in the product, not necessarily just the one being advertised. Juice is also typically best in moderation. Most contain high amounts of sugar and lack the fiber found in fruit. Think about adding water to your juice or substituting a healthier piece of fruit.

7) Popcorn: Although this can be a healthy snack option, the way it’s made makes all the difference. Microwave popcorn typically contains artificial flavoring and unnecessary calories.  Opt for air-popped or stovetop popcorn for a healthier option.

8) Pop-Tarts:  Although a quick and easy option, Pop-Tarts are loaded with sugar.   In fact, 1 Pop-Tart serving is equal to 1 can of coke.  If you’re looking for a fast and easy breakfast option, consider switching to a protein bar with <10g of sugar.

9) Muffins:  Did you know the highest calorie items at Donut Bank are the muffins?  We tend to think of muffins as a healthy option, but they are often loaded with sugar (about the same as a 20 oz coke) and can pack over 500 calories.  Going for a bran option can cut out calories & sugar while increasing fiber intake.

10) Salad Dressing:  A typical serving of salad dressing has over 100 calories, but looking at where those calories are coming from is just as important.  Many salad dressings have high saturated fats and artificial ingredients.  Choosing a vinaigrette dressing can cut calories in half, limit unhealthy ingredients, and increase your intake of healthy fats.

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