The link between nutrition and cognitive performance has seen a sharp spike of interest in recent years.
Amidst all the hype of healthy eating, however, many marketers have taken advantage of our newly acquired interest in food, and are deceiving us with questionable claims and dietary recommendations.
What are some of these dietary misconceptions? And how do we spot them?
Let’s take a closer look.
1. Eating “Health” foods that are not actually healthy
Concentrated sugar is one of the worst things you can put in your body (Hu 2013). Sugar intake has been linked to a vast array of problems, including learning and memory difficulties (Agrawal et al. 2012)
We all know that soda, candy and fast food is bad for us.
But what about that health bar? Or fruit juice? It says it’s “organic”, “fortified with B vitamins” and contains “anti-oxidants”. Must be healthy, right?
Not so fast.
A recent review of product packaging showed that we are being downright deceived by many health products on the market (Hayes 2013), including those touting popular buzzwords like “natural” and “organic” (Smith-Spangler et al. 2012).
Sugar is in almost all processed food, including most health products. And the sad truth is that despite the health benefits of whole fruit, fruit juices–which strip the fruit of its original fiber and phytonutrients–pale in comparison to their fiber-rich counterparts. In fact, fruit juice has been shown to contain more sugar than soda (Walker et al. 2014).
The EWG group found that cereals, breads and other processed foods contain equally horrific amounts of sugar (EWG 2012).
Many companies work hard to disguise sugars on their labels. Always check labels (including those boasting terms like “natural”) for hidden sugars on the foods you buy. If you see any of the following ingredients, be very skeptical: Sugar, Brown Sugar, Aspartame, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, Evaporated cane juice, Fructose, Brown rice syrup, Sorbitol, Agave nectar, Fruit juice, Splenda, Equal, Nutrasweet.
2. Eating the wrong Omega 3
Flax seeds and other heart healthy nuts have been advertised as excellent sources of Omega 3, but this is only half true. While a spoonful of flax seed oil may contain plenty of the ALA form of Omega 3, conversion into usable DHA is poor in humans (Brenna JT 2002).
Algae oil (made up of over 50% DHA and EPA) is the first ingredient in a Noggin Nosh bar, and for good reason. These two long chain fatty acids are essential to brain development. Over 40% of our brains are made up of DHA (Singh 2005).
With over 8,000 clinical trials, fish oil is one of the most researched substances in modern medicine.
DHA and EPA are nutritional superstars and have shown proven cognitive benefits in subjects under double blind, randomized control trials.
3. Relying too much on multivitamins
The jury is out as to whether most multivitamins are even utilized by our bodies.
A randomized control trial on long term multivitamin supplementation did not find any cognitive improvements in a sample group of over 5947 men (Grodstein et al. 2013). Even in a meta-analysis of over FIFTY randomized control trials, researchers did not find any benefits in the fight against long term disease (BMJ 2013).
The biggest problem with supplements is that they strip nutrients from their original co-factors, phytonutrients and fatty acids which aid in the absorption and assimilation of these compounds in our body (Brown et al. 2004).
Nature is intelligent in the way it packages nutrients together. While Vitamin C from an apple, for example, offers anti-oxidative effects (Eberhardt et al. 2000), the same cannot be said of an isolated vitamin C compound found in a pill or fortified food (Lykkesfeldt et al. 2010).
Other supplement findings have been mixed. While certain supplements such as fish oil and vitamin D have shown benefits, many have been found to be ineffective, and others have even shown negative effects.
Vitamin E and beta carotene supplementation, for example, has been linked with increased mortality risk (Bjelakovic et al. 2013).
Despite the convenience of getting our nutrients through supplements, the practice of using supplements should be employed sparingly.
You have to realize that businesses want us to think that supplements work. This is how they make a profit. There may not be much profit in selling garlic cloves, for example, but garlic pills can be marked up and sold for exorbitant profits if there is any health benefit associated with them (real or not).
Supplement companies will try to persuade us otherwise, but the truth is that these nutrients are far more bio-available and safely acquired from from real food (Woodside et al 2005).
Instead of relying on pills to make up for deficiency, actually find out where you fall short. A particularly useful method of checking for nutrient deficiencies is to enter your daily meals into a nutrient tracker, such as NutritionData. Determining where our deficiencies lie allows us to optimize our food intake and find other foods to include more frequently in our diets.
4. Underestimating the power of blue light
Blue light waves are emitted in high amounts during the day.
Studies have shown that blue light is as effective as caffeine in raising cognitive performance and alertness (Beaven et al. 2013).
Some companies have even gone so far as to install blue light emitting lamps into the workplace in order to improve performance among employees. Another study even found that blue light exposure during the day helped subjects to fall asleep easier at night (Viola et al. 2008).
It doesn’t take scores of clinical studies, however, to see that blue light exposure is problematic in the Western lifestyle. We spend most of our time indoors, and when we do go outside, we wear sunglasses and sunscreen, shunning any possibility of natural blue light absorption (not to mention Vitamin D, which is essential for every hormone in our body).
On the other hand, our fluorescent lights, computer screens and phones bombard us with blue light at night, inhibiting melatonin production, confusing our cardiation rhythm (Cajochen et al. 2011), and making it difficult to fall asleep, ultimately preventing our brains from forming new neurons.
When it comes to our health, nature knows what it’s doing.
While we might be able to combat this problem using blue light emitters and other esoteric practices, the simplest way is to make sure we get at least 20 to 30 minutes of unprotected sunlight each day, and minimize our use of electronic displays at night.
5. Eating “clean”
Every day we are bombarded with new studies shunning this and that food as being bad for us.
In our pursuit of healthy eating, we often end up cutting out so many foods from our diets that we are left with almost nothing on our plates. Ironically, with increased health awareness, we are still seeing an increase in all sorts of disorders in Western society.
The problem with our obsession with health is that we become so focused on CUTTING out foods, that we don’t actually TAKE IN enough in the way of essential macro and micro nutrients. We become convinced by our eating organic, gluten free, dairy free etc. that we must be healthy, and we forget that we are still falling short on many nutrients needed by our bodies. We end up developing confirmation bias.
Nutrient deficiencies are absolutely detrimental to our brains, and popping a multivitamin is a poor solution.
Studies on health conscious eaters, for example, have shown that many still have various nutrient deficiencies (Antony 2003, Nutr Clin Pract. 2010), despite healthy practices such as exercising frequently and avoiding junk food (Baines 2007).
The greater reports of menstrual problems and the poorer mental health of these health conscious women may be of clinical significance. – Baines
The issue, however, is not so much clean eating or vegetarianism (or any particular diet, for that matter) but rather our failure to take in those nutrients so needed by our bodies. You could be a paleo dieter, a vegan, a raw foodist or even Average Joe and still fall short on many of the nutrients needed by your brain to function optimally.
This is quite possibly one of the most underestimated problems in modern nutrition.
The Bottom Line
Science has repeatedly shown that by gravitating toward nutrient dense, unprocessed and toxin free food, we greatly maximize our cognitive performance and overall longevity.
Many companies have abused the hype surrounding healthy eating, however, and have deceived us into thinking products like cereal, fruit juice and other snack bars devoid of nutrition and loaded with concentrated sugars (natural or unnatural) are good for us. This is turn deludes us into thinking we are eating healthily when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
In our busy lifestyles, however, many of us don’t have the time to prepare our own food or spend hours in the kitchen.
It is for this reason that we have developed our own Noggin Nosh bar. Our focus is to offer a clean, nutrient dense alternative to the limited selection of truly nutritious products on the market.