Have you ever heard of the Okinawa Islands, located between Japan and Taiwan, which host one of the longest living people in the world? Even compared with the rest of Japan, to which the islands belong, people grow older on Okinawa.

On average, women become 86 years, men 78 years (1). And more than that, people there maintain a good health up until a very high age. So, what exactly is it that the Okinawans do differently? And what can we change in our lives to get the same positive effects for our health?

Research has extracted many factors that might contribute to this striking longevity, such as a constant moderate physical activity, lack of time pressure and the importance of a solid family structure (see also my blog on effective lifestyle changes here: https://newbrainnutrition.com/four-easy-rules-for-healthy-eating-and-lifestyle/).

What might be easier to change in our everyday lives, however, is the composition of the food we eat.

Let’s investigate what makes the Okinawan diet so healthy (2):

Their diet is rich in root vegetables, especially the very healthy sweet potato. (Who would have guessed that a vegetable carrying the term “sweet” could be more beneficial for your health than its common counterpart?). Sweet potatoes have a high content of dietary fibers, anti-oxidant vitamins A, C and E and anti-inflammatory properties.

They eat many legumes, such as soybeans.

An abundance of mostly green and yellow vegetables is eaten regularly.

Okinawans don’t abstain from meat, alcohol or tea. They consume it in moderation, choosing lean meat and products from the sea.

It seems that no food should be strictly avoided, but that it’s more like the phrase: “Eat everything in moderation and not in abundance.”

Different fruit and medicinal plants (like curcumin or bitter melon) further contribute to a healthy and diverse cuisine.

Altogether, their food is high in unrefined carbohydrates (refined carbohydrates occur e.g. in sweets or white bread, unrefined carbohydrates occur e.g. in brown rice or wholemeal bread) and they consume protein in moderate amounts and mostly plant-based (from legumes, vegetables, but also occasionally from fish or meat).

The Okinawan diet is characterized by a healthy fat profile: rich in omega-3 fatty acids (which occur in fatty fish like salmon, but also in seeds, like flaxseeds, and nuts), high in other polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids (occurring e.g. in olive oil or avocado, and low in saturated fats (e.g. occuring in butter).

Hence, its composition resembles that of the Mediterranean Diet, which also is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and other age- and lifestyle-related diseases (Download your free report on the current state of research on the Mediterranean diet here: https://newbrainnutrition.com/the-mediterranean-diet-and-depression-free-report-download/).

By changing our diet and adapting it to the Okinawan (or Mediterranean) diet, you could contribute to a long and healthy life.

Now you might ask how this relates to “new brain nutrition”? Well, a healthy diet affects our gut, which is linked closer to our brain than we originally have assumed (learn more here: https://newbrainnutrition.com/the-gut-brain-axis-an-important-key-to-your-health/​).

Hence, diet should have an impact on our brain health just as on our general health. Substances from fermented soy beans (so-called ​natto), for example, are said to have the potential to prevent the formation of plaque in the brain, which is related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Also, anti-inflammatory effects of a high polyunsaturated fatty acid consumption might have an effect on the production of neurotransmitters (essential for the transfer of information between nerve cells), which largely takes place in the gut.

Interestingly, due to a more western-style cuisine, the younger Okinawans are starting to face the same diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, etc, just as people from the rest of the world.

Diet matters. So: What changes in your diet do ​you​ want to start with?

Take the first step and try a typical Okinawa dish: Goya Champuru

1 Goya cucumber (may also be frozen)

1 block tofu, dried and as firm as possible approx. 80-100g

Shabu-Shabu meat (thinly sliced pork); cut meat into bite-sized pieces

1-2 tablespoons soy sauce

1-2 tablespoons rice wine (sake)

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons neutral oil (must be suitable for frying!)

2 eggs

For vegetarians: Follow the same recipe, but replace Shabu-Shabu with chopped vegetables like carrots, onions, cabbage and bean sprouts or pumpkin.

Wash the Goya cucumber, cut it in half and remove the seeds with a spoon. Slice thinly, salt it, let it rest for a few minutes. Wash again, press firmly to remove as much water as possible.

Stir-fry the Shabu-Shabu in a tablespoon of oil, salt it afterward.

Add tofu and stir-fry it until it turns slightly dark. Put tofu and Shabu-Shabu aside.

In the same pan, heat another tablespoon of oil and stir-fry the Goya cucumber in high temperature.

Add the meat and tofu, then soy sauce and sake, stir.

Scramble two eggs and add them.

Stir and don’t let the food turn too dry.

Serve the Champuru with rice.

REFERENCES
(1) https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Präfektur_Okinawa

(2) Willcox DC; Scapagnini G; Willcox BJ. Healthy aging diets other than the Mediterranean: a focus on the Okinawan diet.Mech Ageing Dev. 2014; 136-137:148-62 (ISSN: 1872-6216); found here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0047637414000037

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The more diverse we eat, the more diverse our gut microbiome (i.e., the composition of trillions of microbes in our intestine) will become. Sounds reasonable, right? But – why is that a good thing?

Well, research has shown that a diverse gut microbiome is less susceptible to diseases, such as the well-known western lifestyle associated diseases like diabetes or Crohn’s disease (1). This might be because one’s microbiome and one’s immune system are closely linked. A healthy and diverse microbiome thus might support proper functioning of our immune system and help keeping us healthy.

Eating a variety of different food items also enhances the odds that your body gets all the nutrients like vitamins or minerals it needs for proper functioning. This can have an effect on our well-being as well as on our physical appearance, like shiny hair, strong fingernails and healthy-looking skin.

Besides, research suggests that the more diverse we eat, the better our cognitive abilities might be at older age (see my blog on this topic here:
http://newbrainnutrition.com/four-easy-rules-for-healthy-eating-and-lifestyle/)! Well, how about that!? Research supports the notion that our gut and our brain are more closely linked than we would have assumed. This would mean that our food choices can actually have an effect on our mental health. Great, right?

So let’s have a look at a few simple tips with which you can easily enhance your dietary diversity, and can have fun along the way, too!

1. Add seeds and nuts to your meals
2. Eat a set menu
3. Grow your own fresh herbs
4. Enlarge the variety of what you drink
5. Try alternatives to your staple foods
6. Try new dishes, restaurants and cuisines
7. Join a food cooperative
8. Distribute your homemade meals across different days
9. Experiment with seasonings
10. Try smoothies and soups
11. Share your meals
And the golden rule you should keep in mind:
12. Avoid antibiotics

Add seeds and nuts to your meals
By keeping a variety of seeds and nuts at home, you can easily add them to your meals. If you tend to overeat on nuts (and believe me, many people do), make sure to buy unsalted ones, and simply sprinkle them on top of your muesli, salad or sandwich. Nuts (like peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts) and seeds (like sesame or flaxseed) are a great source of very healthy fats, important vitamins like B-vitamins and vitamin E, and they contain fibres, which our gut simply loves!

Eat a set menu
Yes, you heard me. This is my advice to select a sequence of dishes, instead of only one.
This will definitely result in a larger variety of what you eat. Of course, you should be aware of the overall amount of food – listen to your gut feeling! And I’m serious, this also includes dessert! If you have a little soup, a colorful salad, a light main course and a small treat, you’ve supplied your body with a variety of different nutrients it needs to stay healthy. My extra tip: Keep in mind to include your ‘five a day’ to make sure you eat enough fruit and especially enough vegetables.

Grow your own fresh herbs
Do you notice that food pictures look more appealing when the food is sprinkled with fresh herbs? It will also appeal to your gut! Adding one or two fresh herbs to a dish will give it that little extra twist that it deserves. All it takes is a plant pot on your window sill. Some herbs can be harvested throughout the whole year, and for even more diversity, you can experiment with different plants as you go.

Enlarge the variety of what you drink
Tea or coffee? Both, please! When we think of nutritional diversity, let’s not only consider solid food. Imagine having your coffee and a glass of orange juice (or even a multivitamin drink) with your breakfast. How about some green or black tea as the day goes by? Or an apple spritzer? Herbal teas also offer a great range of different ingredients, and can be soothing in the evening. Just keep in mind that if you taste a few different lemonades, you well might enhance your variety of drinks, but you will consume a lot of sugar, too. The world health organization recommends that maximally 10% of your energy should come from sugar (2), which should be considered when ordering a drink.

Try alternatives to your staple foods
Are you a muesli guy? Or more of a bread person? Do you prefer pasta as your everyday dish or is your menu dominated by rice? Most of us tend to eat the same basic food items every day. But even here is the chance to enhance diversity: Instead of rice, try couscous, amaranth or millet. Buy a different type of bread every time you go to the bakery. Muesli offers a great chance of variety, you can add honey, yoghurt, marmalade, berries, spices… Talk to your friends to get more ideas.

Try new dishes, restaurants and cuisines
Every cuisine has its own flavours, specific components, and style. So why not raiding cook books and food blogs for inspiration? If you go out to eat, just be curious and pick the restaurant you always wanted to try, yet ending up at the same place you always went. This doesn’t only increase your daily diversity, but also the one across days, which is especially important: Imagine you create a super diverse menu and then eat it day after day after day… Sounds boring, right? Your gut will share this opinion! My extra tip: Choose restaurants that offer a buffet every now and then. This is specifically handy around lunchtime because you don’t have to wait for your food. Again, take a bit of everything, but be careful not to overload your plate. This gives you the chance to try out what you like when you taste a novel cuisine. And imagine the looks you get when you say “Hey, I’m doing this for my microbiome!”

Join a food cooperative
You know that homemade cooking is great. You are in charge of what goes into the pan, you control the ingredients’ quality. But, of course, it requires planning, shopping, cooking – not to forget cleaning the kitchen. An easy step towards a diverse, regular cooking habit is joining a cooperative or booking home delivery from organic farms nearby. You get a box full of seasonal, fresh, local fruit and veg delivered to your door weekly. If you know where it comes from, you might be more reluctant to throw it out, hence you might actually cook it and eat it! The surprising variety of what a season has to offer will boost your cooking creativity and enhance your nutritional diversity even further.

Some might object now and remark that when they look at the back of their ready-to-eat supermarket meals, is states that there are so many ingredients in one package, that there is no need to enhance nutritional diversity even more. Sure, there is a point there! But keep in mind that these foods are massively processed, thus having lost many of the original ingredients’ benefits like vitamins, etc. Also, if you look closely, you might detect declarations you don’t even know what they mean! Those different additives, like E-numbers, are mostly artificially produced, and there is long-term research missing what they actually do to our bodies – especially in interaction with all the other additives found in processed food. Don’t get me wrong – every now and then I also grab a bag of ready-to-eat food from the counter.
But what I personally do is to subtract the artificial ingredients from my daily diversity calculation (and now you also know that I like math).

Distribute your homemade meals across different days
This is the same approach as eating a set menu. Imagine you make yourself a nice pasta dish for the evening, and prepare a mixed salad for lunch the next day. How about splitting both in half? That way you expand your food across days, yet adding more daily eatables at the same time. Your microbiome will like the variety that goes along with this. Plus, you don’t have to buy canteen food the next day and might save some money – money that could be spent at the fancy restaurant we talked about earlier on!

And yes, distributing food across days also applies to cake and desserts. If you baked a cake (consider adding lots of fruit), have one piece now and one tomorrow! And remember to send your mum a picture of your delicious achievements, she will love it!

Experiment with seasonings
If you go through the seasonings in your kitchen cupboard, you will notice that some seasonings provide a literal boost for your nutritional diversity. I just found a curry powder with 13 ingredients! Of course, if you start and mix different seasonings, a few compounds will be redundant. But when you cook – or simply heat up a bought dish – add that little extra. That way, you can even reduce the amount of salt without giving up on flavour. The world health organization recommends 5 grams of salt per day (2). Simply use high-quality seasoning and herb mixtures instead, maybe add a drop of fine oil for flavour, and let it surprise you!

Try smoothies and soups
For a quick energy boost in the morning, I recommend a smoothie. What I love about smoothies? You can virtually throw everything in there, and by adding just a few ingredients for flavour (like oranges) and texture (like bananas) you can create a tasty and always different vitamin shot. Again, remember seasoning like curcuma or cinnamon to increase variety and diversity. For later meals, there are great recipes for soups – even some that don’t require cooking! If you blend your soup, you can easily ‘hide’ some leftovers in there, or some bits of a vegetable you don’t really like.

Share your meals
This is my favourite tip. Have you noticed that also during lunch with colleagues, the grass is always greener on the other side? In our lab, we have switched to a food sharing concept where everybody can take a bit of everyone’s meal. In some cultures, like Corea, it is common to place all the food one orders in the middle of the table. They know that sharing is caring – especially caring about one’s microbiome diversity!

And last, not least: Avoid antibiotics!
Of course, there are some illnesses where antibiotics are essential. But did you know that animals are fed large amounts of antibiotics, and that we consume them, too, when we indulge into our chicken breast or piece of veal? These antibiotics not only kill unwanted microbes, they also heavily disrupt the ecology of our microbiome (3). So in order to keep your gut happy and to get the most out of your nutritional diversity experiment, think twice before you buy or order conventionally produced meat. Consider organic meat or vegetarian alternatives – hence adding even more possibilities for a diverse menu.

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3577372/
(2) http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/healthy-diet
(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4831151/

Want to learn more? Visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zpf27hv#z8qrg82 for a little quiz and some more information and https://experiencelife.com/article/your-microbiome-the-ecosystem-inside/ to find out more about your microbiome.

 

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Tips Against Overeating

Have you ever noticed that the type of food you eat can affect how you feel afterwards? Some food might make you wish to rest and relax, some food might give you the little extra energy you just needed. Evidence is accumulating that also in the long run, diet may play a pivotal role for your mental health. For example, it might have an effect on impulsive and compulsive behaviour [1].
But it’s not only the diet that affects our body, mind and brain – it’s also the amount of what we eat. Research shows that people don’t necessarily know what a suitable amount of food might be. Sure you can imagine that this can easily lead to obesity – which in turn can impair our general health.

A meta-analysis (that is, a study that investigates an effect among many independent studies that have been conducted so far) from 2018 came to the conclusion that serving size and the size of the tableware has an effect on the amount we eat: When offered larger-sized portions, packages or tableware, participants ate or drank more than when offered smaller-sized versions [2].

British nutritional scientists now developed a guideline for the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) to help people estimate the suitable serving size. For example, they recommend that when having a pasta dish, you should take as much pasta for one person as fits into both of your hands (before cooking). A portion of fish or meat should be about half the size of your hand. However, this does not mean that when you eat more than one portion, you are an overeater.

According to their tipsheets, which can be found here,
https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/find-your-balance/portionwise.html
one should compose his or her daily menu based on a mixture of different portions. For example, 3-4 portions of starchy carbohydrates (such as the above-mentioned pasta) are recommended daily. Their guidelines, however, offer a few handy (literally!) advises to help you get a sense of how much food you should consume, thus preventing you from overeating. With a few simple tips kept in mind, you can do some good for your physical and mental health, daily.

REFERENCES
[1] Sarris J, Logan AC, Akbaraly TN, Amminger GP, Balanzá-Martínez V, Freeman MP, et al. Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. Lancet Psychiatry. 2015; 2(3):271-4.
View here:
https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(14)00051-0/fulltext

[2] Hollands GJ, Shemilt I, Marteau TM, Jebb SA, Lewis HB, Wei Y, Higgins JPT,
Ogilvie D. Portion, package or tableware size for changing selection and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. Cochrane Database of Systematic
Reviews 2015, Issue 9. Art. No.: CD011045. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD011045.pub2
View here:
https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD011045.pub2/full

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Breaking news: It has long been assumed that the gut and the brain communicate not only via a slow, hormonal pathway, but that there must be an additional, faster association between gut and brain. Melanie Maya Kelberer and her colleagues from Duke University, NC, now managed to detect this connection. Their paper has just been published in the renowned journal ‘Science’.

By researching a mouse model, they were able to show that the gut and the brain are connected via one single synapse. This is how it works: A cell in the gut (the so-called enteroendocrine cell) transfers its information to a nerve ending just outside the gut. At the connecting nerve ending (the synapse), the neurotransmitter glutamate – the most important excitatory transmitter in the nervous system – passes on the information about our nutrition to small nerve endings of the vagal nerve, which spreads from the brain to the intestines.

Vagal nerveBy travelling along this vagal nerve, the information from the gut reaches the brainstem within milliseconds. The authors now state that a new name is needed for the enteroendocrine cells, now that they have been shown to be way more than that. The name ‘neuropod cells’ has been suggested. The authors interpret their findings as such, that this rapid connection between the gut and the brain helps the brain to make sense of what has been eaten. Through back-signalling, the brain might also influence the gut. In sum, this finding is an important step towards a better understanding of how the gut and the brain communicate. Findings such as this one help us to find ways to positively influence our brain states and our mental health by our food choices.

Read the original paper here: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaat5236.long

Kaelberer, M.M., Buchanan, K. L., Klein, M. E., Barth, B. B., Montoya, M. M., Shen, X., and Bohórquez, D. V. (2018), A gut-brain neural circuit for nutrient sensory transduction, ​Science,
​ Vol. 361, Issue 6408

 

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Every time I travel and enter the breakfast room of my hotel, I think of Japan.

And not just because of the curious surprises that I encountered when traveling there. (Once, the hotel’s definition of a ‘western style breakfast buffet’ was shrimp pasta and pepperoni pizza!) The Japanese have an interesting relationship with their nutrition. Japanese cuisine is said to have a much higher dietary diversity than western cultures do.

This is associated with a reduced intellectual decline at older age, as was reported by Rei Otsuka and colleagues in 2017 (among others).  In other words, daily intake of various kinds of food lower the risk that you encounter a reduction of your cognitive abilities as you grow older.

Outstanding, even in Japan, is the island of Okinawa, where many people grow very old very healthily. It is not only dietary diversity that contributes to a long and healthy life. The Okinawans have a useful saying: “Hara hachi bu,” which loosely translates to “only fill up to 80%”. Unlike many of us, they don’t snack, but leave their intestines several hours to process the food. And they move a lot – from walking to dancing and martial arts.

Four Easy Rules for Healthy Eating and Lifestyle

So when I approach the buffet, I like picking a little bit of everything – which is fun, contributes to an interesting breakfast conversation, and might even be a smart move for my brain function and mental health!

The real challenge at a buffet, of course, is not to overeat.

Otsuka, R., Nishita, Y., Tange, C., Tomida, M., Kato, Y., Nakamoto, M., Imai, T., Ando, F. & Hiroshi Shimokata, H. Dietary diversity decreases the risk of cognitive decline among Japanese older adults, Geriatr Gerontol Int, 17: 937–944 (2017)  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/ggi.12817

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Isn’t it amazing what a regular breakfast habit can do for you?

An old German saying states breakfast as the most important meal of the day. And it might be right! A review by Rampersaud and colleagues (2005)(1) investigated the effect of a regular breakfast habit on a variety of outcomes. They concluded that children and adolescents who typically ate breakfast – irrespective of the quality of the food – tended to have better nutritional profiles, were less likely to be overweight – even though they consumed more calories per day! – and had improved cognitive function (measured by memory assessment and test grades).

These findings are crucial since more than half of the high school students reported having skipped breakfast most days in the previous week. What was a big surpriseMuesli yogurt fruit was even a bowl of ‘unhealthy’ ready-to-eat cereal seems to be superior to not having breakfast at all.  However, to maximize the potential benefits of breakfast consumption, of course, a healthful breakfast should be favoured.

In addition to the effects stated above, children’s psychosocial functioning improved significantly when a school breakfast was introduced, indicating that it’s never too late to change your eating habits and benefit from the positive effects of a regular breakfast. A school breakfast program even had positive effects on measures of child depression and hyperactivity.

Parental Eating Habits Effect Children
Importantly, parental breakfast eating was not only a significant predictor of adolescent breakfast eating. The frequency of family meals was the most significant parental influence on adolescent eating habits and even increased the likelihood that children, as well as adolescents, made more healthy food choices in general. So whether you are a caring parent seeking to support your child’s mental health or whether you are a student seeking to improve your potential – remember the German saying when you enter the kitchen in the morning. Grab that whole grain bread, muesli or fresh fruit and vegetables and start your day with an extra portion of brain food and good nutrition!

(1) Rampersaud GC1, Pereira MA, Girard BL, Adams J, Metzl JD. Breakfast habits, nutritional status, body weight, and academic performance in children and adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc.2005 May;105(5):743-60; quiz 761-2. PMID: 15883552; DOI: 10.1016/j.jada.2005.02.007

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