The Brain books by men
Grain Brain by David Perlmutter, How to Feed a Brain by Cavin Balaster, and The Hungry Brain by Stephan Guyenet advocate eating real, whole foods to support overall health and a healthy brain.
In this episode, we discuss:
Undigested food particles in poop, particularly parsley and basil
Julia's pesto made from parsley and basil from the garden
Making delishus hot dogs for camping
Camping in Mammoth Cave National Park
Benefits of drinking raw colostrum
Sasha's rough puff pastry
Stephan Guyenet and Gary Taubes on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast
Chris Kresser endorses Stephan Guyenet's book
Schools feed students garbage
After falling 20 feet from a water tower, Cavin Ballister suffered a diffuse axonal injury and was in a coma for 12 days. He had a 90% chance of being in a persistent vegetative state for the rest of his life. However, thanks to modern medicine and Cavin’s self-directed research, he made an almost-complete recovery. (It appears to be a complete recovery, but Cavin himself says he has regained “most of [his] functioning”.) Now Cavin is a public speaker, author, and host of the Adventures in Brain Injury podcast.
How to Feed a Brain is Cavin’s self-published book that outlines an optimal diet for brain health and recovery from a traumatic brain injury. One benefit of such a small book is that Cavin doesn’t waste pages telling you why you should read the book. He gets right into the meat (pun intended) of a healthy diet. His major points are to avoid industrially created seed oils, refined sugar and grains, conventional dairy, and processed food; “eat the rainbow”; and eat foods that contain a variety of micronutrients important for health.
We like several of his ideas. For example, he advises grinding up your organ meats and mixing them with regular meats so you get all the nutrition of organs without the strong tastes and unfamiliar textures. We love this idea and have been doing this with beef heart for years. We recently added liver to the mix and, naturally, bacon. This delishus combination makes the tastiest chili and the dopest burgers. We also like that Cavin is highly critical of “paleo junk food”. At Paleo f(x) 2018, Julia witnessed plenty of paleo snacks that included “paleo” flours and “paleo” sugars and were designed to be eaten as snacks en lieu of conventional versions of the same foods. However, paleo junk food is only slightly better than regular junk food because it still involves sugar and starches devoid of all their natural nutrients. And the effects on the brain are similar to those from regular junk food, which encourages reliance on these foods for nutrition at the expense of real, whole foods.
Nightshades and oils
Cavin advocates “eating the rainbow” to ensure you get all the nutrients needed for health. There are a few problems with this style of eating. For one, diverse fruits and vegetables are not available all year. We recommend eating seasonally and locally as much as possible. This means that during winter you might have access to winter squash and greens like kale and lettuce, but you will not have peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, and most fruit. In Indiana, we can have local apples almost year-round, but we don’t have peaches, berries, bananas, grapes, and more. We believe the first humans would have eaten mostly meat during winter and leaned out before spring and the resurgence of plant foods, including berries. During the late summer/early fall, insulin resistance kicks in, and the body stores more fat than normal to make it through the winter when food is scarcer. It is not as easy to mimic the diets of our ancestors if we are relying on foods we can buy at the grocery store year-round.
Next, nightshades can be a problem for many people. Lectins are proteins found in nightshades, which include tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplants, and more. Lectins can damage the gut lining and disrupt bacterial balances, so eliminating them in the presence of inflammation and autoimmune disease can be a good idea. Similarly, high-FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) foods can cause issues for people with gut dysbiosis. When choosing a diet based on representing several different colors because each color corresponds with a different nutrient, you may be worsening inflammation and a compromised gut.
Finally, Cavin created a series of printable posters you can display in your home to remind you what you should eat and what you shouldn’t. One of those posters (and the book) suggests that the best fat for cooking and heating is avocado oil because it has a high smoke point relative to all other fats. We disagree with using avocado oil for several reasons. First, high smoke point or not, avocado oil is mostly comprised of monounsaturated fatty acids, which oxidize easily when exposed to heat and light. And the higher smoke point is largely due to the refining process, during which the oil is stripped of chlorophyll and triglycerides.
Therefore, unrefined, unfiltered avocado oil would have a lower smoke point. In fact, due to the various refining techniques, different avocado oils might have different smoke points. And some avocado oil is refined in the same manner as vegetable oil, which would leave it full of volatile compounds and chemical residues. Second, we don’t know what is done with the leftovers from the refining process. We assume it goes into animal feed like the leftover pulp of seed oil production. The uncertainty of the byproducts of the industry is worrying to us, and we are happier avoiding the oil in favor of more sustainable and stable fats, like tallow or lard.
Plus, avocado oil has to be transported long distances. We like to consume raw, unprocessed, extra virgin olive oil sourced responsibly from Europe, but we do not consume it often. We use it like a seasoning to be added to salads, drizzled on top of a bowl of soup, or as a dip for gf bread. We do not toss it into our skillets before cooking onions. That is a job for tallow, lard, or bacon phat. Not only are the latter more stable and better to use, but the former has to travel a long way to get to us. Rather than rely on avocado oil shipped from California or Latin America, we use lard or tallow rendered in Indianapolis—either by us at home or by the farmers at the farmers’ market.
Some avocado oil is okay
We are not 100% opposed to consuming avocado oil, however. When we want to enjoy “paleo” snacks (don’t tell Cavin) like Siete Foods tortilla chips, we are happy the chips are fried in avocado oil because the odds that our systems will be able to handle the fatty acids present in the chips are much higher for avocado oil than vegetable oil. Similarly, if we don’t make our own mayo, we opt for Primal Kitchen mayo made with avocado oil.
In The Hungry Brain, Stephan writes that he believes in the energy expenditure equation that weight gain is caused by consuming more calories than you expend. However, he says there is a lot that can affect this equation, including the body’s “fat set point” and the brain’s reward system. Moreover, inflammation and disorders in the body can disrupt the body’s metabolism. He doesn’t agree with the theory that insulin causes weight gain—he does agree that refined carbohydrates and insulin resistance might play a part in the obesity epidemic—but insulin does not account for the entire problem.
Rather, Stephan believes that fat storage is primarily regulated by the brain. He talks a lot about the evolution of the human brain from the version that lampreys have. What we share with them is the basal ganglia, which is responsible for directing movement and making decisions. What distinguishes mobile animals from more primitive animals, like sponges, is that the former have brains that help them move to acquire food. Sponges don’t need a brain because they simply sit and wait for food to come to them, but once animals can be mobile they need a brain that can let them make decisions. One fascinating thing that we learned from this book is that our brain constantly receives options of things to do from different neurons and has to choose the one it likes the best. All the neurons compete for the brain’s attention.
The brain's survival techniques
The brain will also remember negative responses to decisions and create a mechanism to remind you of the negative consequences so the action isn’t repeated. For example, if you get food poisoning from the restaurant down the street, you might feel nauseated years later just thinking about the restaurant. This happened to Julia with Chipotle and Sasha with one Hot Pocket. This also happened to the ruminant animals at Knepp. Isabella Tree writes how an
“Invasive” plant moved in to the pastures and irritated the stomachs of all the animals that ate it. Afterwards, they avoided the area that contained the plant on their own.
The fat set point
We are skeptical that the brain controls every aspect of weight gain and health, however. Aren’t some processes in the body just a result of chemistry? Sasha argues that the brain doesn’t decide what every new cell is going to be; cells divide on their own through mechanisms that are not entirely understood but often involve signaling that originates in the cell itself. We are also skeptical of the concept of the theory of a fat set point—that the body wants to maintain a certain amount of fat storage and will replace weight lost during calorie deficit or increased exercise by encouraging the body to be sedentary or ramping up appetite—thereby making it seemingly impossible to ever lose fat.
We are very anti parabiosis
Finally, we did not like that scientists sew lab rats together in a process called parabiosis to study them. We find this cruel and disgusting and stand with Peta regarding their opposition to the practice. What in the world gives humans the right to treat animals like this?
Julia saw David speak at Paleo f(x) 2018. She expected him to talk about the topics he covered in Brain Maker, which included the gut and benefits of fecal transplants. But alas, he talked mostly about his other major passion, ketosis. Grain Brain deals with this topic in detail because David argues that refined grains and sugars have been the major contributor to the rise of chronic disease, including brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. In fact, Alzheimer’s has been called Type 3 diabetes due to insulin resistance present in Alzheimer’s patients.
Alzheimer's is type 3 diabetes
This does not mean that you get type 3 after developing type 2, however. You can, but it is not guaranteed. The two types of diabetes involve the same pathway and result from insulin resistance whereas type 1 diabetes is caused by the pancreas’s inability to produce insulin. Insulin resistance occurs when the body’s cells no longer respond to insulin, and the body has to produce more and more to get a response. The theory is that when insulin resistance affects the brain, the body cannot break down the abnormal protein Beta-amyloid, which results in its buildup into the plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s.
Ketogenic diets and IF
David’s solution to the problems caused by a diet high in refined grains and sugar is to eat a high-fat, ketogenic diet and practice intermittent fasting. The former allows the body to operate on ketones, which are molecules produced from fat cells in the liver when blood sugar and glycogen are low. The latter is much easier to do when eating a clean diet than the Standard American Diet. It is also easier to do once you have figured out how to only have one poop a day. If you are not eating nutrient-dense superfoods and pooping more than once a day, you will be hungry much more often. (And you probably will suffer the effects of low blood sugar because you’re not metabolically flexible.)
We discovered this phenomenon ourselves through reforming our diets and fixing our major gut issues. Julia used to poop between four and six times a day and was constantly starving. She couldn’t contemplate the idea of eating only once or twice a day until she started pooping only once a day and basing her diet on nutrient-rich foods. Before she successfully made this switch, she heard Dave Asprey say that removing food cravings is incredibly freeing and didn’t believe it was actually possible. But it is, and it is freeing. Not being a slave to processed and unhealthy foods is a wonderful feeling. And now fasting isn’t difficult at all, and we often have to remind ourselves to eat.
Gluten, cholesterol, and glycation
David also focuses on the damage gluten wreaks on the body. First, gluten polypeptides can cross the blood brain barrier and bind to morphine receptors in the brain, which can block sensations of pain and, ironically, the gastrointestinal complaints normally experienced when eating gluten.
Next, David discusses the importance of cholesterol in the body and the misconceptions in conventional medicine surrounding treating high cholesterol. First, research has shown an increase in cognitive decline among people taking statin drugs. This isn’t surprising since cholesterol is necessary for a healthy brain. Second, lower cholesterol levels are associated with higher overall mortality. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol, often called “bad cholesterol”) is necessary to create vitamin D. The actual problem is with oxidized LDL, which can be glycated.
Glycation in general is an issue because sugar can spontaneously bind to proteins and lipids in the body, which changes their functions, reduces their functionality, encourages inflammation, and promotes oxidative stress. Glycation accelerates aging, and because it is caused by sugar intake, humans would be better off eating less sugar if possible.
David is a fan of ketogenic diets, Stephan is in favor of overall calorie restriction, and Cavin prefers eating a general paleo diet. We are somewhere in the middle. We do a little bit of everything. We are not ketogenic 100% of the time (which would make Sarah Ballantyne happy), but we do fast and are quite metabolically flexible. In fact, due to the fat and cholesterol in our diets, we believe we are better protected against common colds because we rarely have them. Julia hasn’t had a real cold in years, and she has only gotten sick a handful of times.
We like How to Feed a Brain for the utility of reminding ourselves what nutrients are found in which foods. Cavin has several good ideas regarding how to diversify your diet, which, if you are new to paleo, can be very important. I once saw a post from a former classmate on Facebook bashing paleo because she made steamed asparagus and baked salmon.
If you are already knee-deep into your paleo diet, this book may not add much to your knowledge base. If you have suffered a traumatic brain injury, then you might appreciate the sections devoted to supporting brain health specifically following a brain injury.
The Hungry Brain offers a different perspective on fat storage and the onset of chronic diseases from much of the paleo (and probably all of the ketogenic) community. Rather than attribute the rise of diabesity to an increase in sugar, Stephan relies on the brain’s role in directing hormones and activity in the context of evolution.
Because humans live in a world much different than our paleolithic ancestors but we share a brain, we behave as though we live in the world of our ancestors. It is important to know what our brain is hardwired to do so we can avoid falling prey to the remarkably abundant processed junk food that constantly surrounds us.
Grain Brain is a must-have for anyone who still holds on to gluten as if it’s not that bad. We love this book because it serves as a reminder that relying on wheat and processed sugar as dietary staples damages the body in more than just the obvious ways. It’s not only about tummy problems or headaches.
There is internal damage that can lead to the scary diseases of civilization but of which we can remain largely ignorant. This book also reminds us that ketosis is something we are biologically designed to do, and being metabolically flexible like our paleolithic ancestors is a worthy goal.