Food is not only essential for our bodily functions, but also for our brain functioning and associated behavioural performance. Some studies have shown that eating more of a certain nutritional compound can enhance your performance. But is it really that simple? Can food supplements support our performance? While performing studies on the micronutrient tyrosine, I found out that it is not that simple, and I will tell you why.

Your food contains a range of nutrients that your body uses amongst others as energy sources and as building blocks for cells. For example, protein-rich food such as dairy, grains and seeds are made up of compounds called amino acids. Amino acids are used for different purposes in your body. Muscles use amino acids from your diet to grow. Some people take advantage of this process to increase muscle growth by eating extra protein in combination with exercise.

But amino acids also have a very important role for brain functioning; specific amino acids such as tryptophan, phenylalanine and tyrosine are precursors for neurotransmitters. Specifically tyrosine is a precursor for the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is crucially involved in cognitive processes such as short-term memory, briefly memorizing a phone number or grocery list. Ingested tyrosine from a bowl of yoghurt or a supplement is digested in your intestines, taken up into the bloodstream and then passes through the barrier between the blood stream and the brain (the blood-brain-barrier). In neurons in the brain, tyrosine is further processed and converted into dopamine. Here, dopamine influences the strength and pattern of neuronal activity and hereby contributes to cognitive performance such as short-term memory.

Short-term memory functions optimally most of the time, but can also be challenged. For example during stressful events like an exam or when faced with many tasks on a busy day, many people experience trouble remembering items. Another example is advancing age; elderly people often experience a decrease in their short-term memory capacity. These decrements in short-term memory have been shown to be caused by suboptimal levels of brain dopamine.

The intriguing idea arises to preserve or restore optimal levels of dopamine in the brain with a pharmacological tweak, or even better, using a freely available nutritional compound. Could it be that simple? Yes and no. Yes, if you eat high amounts of tyrosine, there will be more dopamine precursors going to your brain. But the effects on short-term memory vary between individuals and experiments.

Various experiments have been conducted using tyrosine supplementation to see if cognitive performance can be preserved, with mixed success.

In groups of military personnel, negative effects of stress or sleep deprivation on short-term memory were successfully countered. Subjects were asked to take an ice-cold water bath, known to induce stress, and to perform a short-term memory task [1]. In other experiments subjects remained awake during the night or performed challenging tasks on a computer in a noisy room, mimicking a cockpit [2,3].

The group that took tyrosine before or during these stressful interventions showed less decline in their short-term memory than the group that ingested a placebo compound. Tyrosine supplementation also benefitted performance on a cognitive challenge without a physical stressor, compared with performing a simpler task. Other experiments, without a physical or cognitive stressor didn’t show any differences in performance compared with a control group.

These results show that tyrosine supplementation can benefit performance on cognitive processes, such as short-term memory, but only during challenging or stressful situations that induce a shortage of brain dopamine (for review see 4,5).

However, results have also been shown to vary with age. Experiments in elderly people showed that tyrosine also influences the most challenging task compared with simple processes, but contrary to observations in younger adults, in many older adults tyrosine decreased rather than improved performance [6,7]! It seems that the effects seen in young(er) adults no longer hold in healthy aging adults. This can be due to changes in the dopamine system in the brain with aging, as well as changes in other bodily functions, such as the processing of protein and insulin. This doesn’t mean that tyrosine supplementation should be avoided all together for older adults. The results so far suggest that dosages should be adjusted downwards for the elderly body. Further testing is needed to conclude on the potential of tyrosine to support short-term memory in the elderly.

We can conclude that nutrients affect behavior, but importantly, these effects vary between individuals. So, unfortunately, one size does not fit all. To assure benefits from nutrient supplementation or diet rather than wasteful use or unintended effects, dosages should be carefully checked and circumstances of use should be considered.

REFERENCES
O’Brien, C., Mahoney, C., Tharion, W. J., Sils, I. V., & Castellani, J. W. (2007). Dietary tyrosine benefits cognitive and psychomotor performance during body cooling. Physiology and Behavior, 90(2–3), 301–307

Magill, R., Waters, W., Bray, G., Volaufova, J., Smith, S., Lieberman, H. R., … Ryan, D. (2003). Effects of tyrosine, phentermine, caffeine D-amphetamine, and placebo on cognitive and motor performance deficits during sleep deprivation. Nutritional Neuroscience, 6(4), 237–246.

Deijen, J. B., & Orlebeke, J. F. (1994). Effect of tyrosine on cognitive function and blood pressure under stress. Brain Research Bulletin, 33(3), 319–323.

van de Rest, O., van der Zwaluw, N. L., & de Groot, L. C. P. G. M. (2013). Literature review on the role of dietary protein and amino acids in cognitive functioning and cognitive decline. Amino Acids, 45(5), 1035–1045.

Jongkees, B. J., Hommel, B., Kuhn, S., & Colzato, L. S. (2015). Effect of tyrosine supplementation on clinical and healthy populations under stress or cognitive demands-A review. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 70, 50–57.

Bloemendaal, M., Froböse, M. I., Wegman, J., Zandbelt, B. B., van de Rest, O., Cools, R., & Aarts, E. (2018). Neuro-cognitive effects of acute tyrosine administration on reactive and proactive response inhibition in healthy older adults. ENeuro, 5(2).

van de Rest, O.& Bloemendaal, M., De Heus, R., & Aarts, E. (2017). Dose-dependent effects of oral tyrosine administration on plasma tyrosine levels and cognition in aging. Nutrients, 9(12).

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Have you experienced drowsiness after eating a large meal? Has an important presentation made your stomach turn? Seeing a special someone made you feel butterflies in your stomach? If you have (and you most likely have), then you know how strong the connection between the brain and the gut is.

Scientists have found that many chronic metabolic diseases, type 2 diabetes, mood disorders and even neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis, are often associated with functional gastrointestinal disorders (1). The importance of the association between the gut and the brain is gaining momentum with each new study. However, the way HOW the signaling between these two integral parts of the body exactly works hasn’t been clear until recently.

It was thought for a long time that the only “communication channel” between the gut and the brain was the passive release of hormones stimulated by the consumed nutrients. Hormones entered the bloodstream and slowly notified the brain that the stomach is full of nutrients and calories. This rather slow and indirect way of passing messages takes from minutes to hours.

But now, a recent study (2) has elegantly proven that the gut can message the brain in seconds! Using a rabies virus enhanced with green fluorescence, the scientists traced a signal as it traveled from the intestines to the brainstem of mice, crossing from cell to cell in under 100 milliseconds – faster than the blink of an eye.

The researchers had also noticed that the sensory cells lining the gut were quite similar to the receptors in the nose and on the tongue (3). The effects, however, differ. In the mouth, the taste of fatty acids triggers signals to increase hunger, whereas in the small intestine, fatty acids trigger signals of satiety. This means that the discovered “gut feeling” might be considered as a sixth sense, a way of how the brain is being signaled when the stomach is full.

This new knowledge will help to understand the mechanism of appetite, develop new and more effective appetite suppressants and help those struggling with weight and problematic eating patterns.

REFERENCES
(1) Pellegrini C et al (2018) Interplay among gut microbiota, intestinal mucosal barrier and enteric neuro-immune system: a common path to neurodegenerative diseases? Acta Neuropathol 136:345. doi:10.1007/s00401-018-1856-5

(2) Kaelberer et al (2018) A gut-brain neural circuit for nutrient sensory transduction. Science 361(6408):eaat5236. doi:10.1126/science.aat5236

(3) Bohórquez and Liddle (2015) The gut connectome: making sense of what you eat. J Clin Invest 125(3):888–890. doi:10.1172/JCI81121

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Psychobiotics are helpful bacteria (probiotics) or support for these bacteria (prebiotics) that influence the relationship between bacteria and brain. The human digestive system houses around 100 trillion of these bacteria, outnumbering the human body cells 10:1. Probiotics provide a great deal of functions vital to our well-being, like supporting the digestion process and improving the absorption of nutrients. Based on the latest research, helpful gut bacteria that can also positively affect the brain – psychobiotics – benefit people suffering from chronic stress, poor mood, or anxiety-like symptoms (1).

There are 3 ways psychobiotics can affect your mental health:

  • Brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline can be produced in the intestines directly by gut microbiota.
  • Battling with and protecting from stress by modifying the level of stress hormones.
  • When an inflammation occurs, inflammatory agents are elevated throughout the body and brain and can cause depression and other mood and cognitive disorders. Psychobiotics can affect the brain by lowering inflammation.

Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are the most popular probiotics with respect to mental health (1).

Disruption of the balance of gut bacteria is quite common due to the use of different kinds of medications, antibiotics, artificial preservatives, poor food and water quality, herbicides, stress, and infections (2, 3, 4).

In order to support a healthy microbiota, one should start from eating a diverse range of foods rich in different plant sources. Foods that contain lots of fiber or are fermented also promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Excessive consumption of sugar and artificial sweeteners should be minimized. Managing stress levels, exercising on a regular basis, not smoking and getting enough sleep are also important for keeping microbiota in good condition. When taking antibiotics, one should make sure to consume probiotics so the body can maintain the bacteria it needs to stay healthy.

For people needing help regarding mental health problems, psychobiotics may be a promising relief. Psychobiotics are well-adapted to the intestinal environment and naturally modulate gut–brain axis communications, thereby reducing the chance of adverse reactions.

It is possible that even simple prescribing of a particular diet may be sufficient to promote the selective proliferation of natural or therapeutically introduced psychobiotics (5). Further research focusing on the strain and dosage of psychobiotics, duration of treatment, and the nature of mental disorders will help to determine the most efficient ways of helping people to improve their mental health.

REFERENCES
Abhari A, Hosseini H (2018) Psychobiotics: Next generation treatment for mental disorders? J Clin Nutr Diet. 4:1. doi:10.4172/2472-1921.100063

Carding et al (2015) Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota in disease. Microb Ecol Health Dis. 26: 10.3402/mehd.v26.26191

Lozano et al (2018) Sex-dependent impact of Roundup on the rat gut microbiome. Toxicol Rep. 5:96–107. doi: 10.1016/j.toxrep.2017.12.005

Paula Neto et al (2017) Effects of food additives on immune cells as contributors to body weight gain and immune-mediated metabolic dysregulation. Front Immunol. 8:1478. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2017.01478

Kali (2016) Psychobiotics: An emerging probiotic in psychiatric practice. Biomed J. 39(3):223-224. doi:10.1016/j.bj.2015.11.004

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A hot topic these days, that one can hear more and more information about is the microbiota-gut-brain axis, the bidirectional interaction between the intestinal microbiota and the central nervous system nowadays, this has become a hot topic. We are becoming increasingly aware that gut microbiota play a significant role in modulating brain functions, behavior and brain development. Pre- and probiotics can influence the microbiota composition, so the question arises, can we have an impact on our mental health by controlling nutrition and using probiotics?

Burokas and colleagues aimed to investigate this possibility in their study (2017), where the goal was to test whether chronic prebiotic treatment in mice modifies behavior across domains relevant to anxiety, depression, cognition, stress response, and social behavior.

In the first part of the study, the researchers fed mice with prebiotics for 10 weeks. They were administered the prebiotics fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), a combination of both, or water. FOS and GOS are soluble fibers that are associated with the stimulation of beneficial bacteria such as bifidobacterium and lactobacillus.

Behavioral testing started from the third week including

  • the open field test (anxiety – amount of exploratory behavior in a new place),
  • novel object test (memory and learning – exploration time of a novel object in a familiar context), and
  • forced swimming test (depression-like behavior – amount of activity in the cylinder filled water).

Meanwhile, plasma corticosterone, gut microbiota composition, and cecal short-chain fatty acids were measured. Taken together, the authors found that the prebiotic FOS+GOS treatment exhibited both antidepressant and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects. However, there were no major effects observed on cognition, nociception (response to pain stimulus), and sociability; with the exception of blunted aggressive behavior and more prosocial approaches.

In the second part, FOS+GOS or water-treated mice were exposed to chronic psychosocial stress. Behavior, immune, and microbiota parameters were assessed. Under stress, the microbiota composition of water-treated mice changed (decreased concentration of bifidobacterium and lactobacillus), which effect was reversed by treatment with prebiotics.

Furthermore, it was found that three weeks of chronic social stress significantly reduced social interaction, and increased stress indicators (basal corticosterone levels and stress-induced hyperthermia), whereas prebiotic administration protected from these effects.

After stimulation with a T-cell activator lectin (concanavalin A), the stressed, water-treated mice group presented increased levels of inflammatory cytokines (interleukin 6, tumor necrosis factor alpha), whereas in animals with prebiotics had these at normal levels.

Overall, these results suggest a beneficial role of prebiotic treatment in mice for stress-related behaviors and supporting the theory that modifying the intestinal microbiota via prebiotics represents a promising potential for supplement therapy in psychiatric disorders.

Watch YouTube Video:
https://youtu.be/E479yto8pyk

REFERENCES
Burokas, A., Arboleya, S., Moloney, R. D., Peterson, V. L., Murphy, K., Clarke, G., Stanton, C., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2017). Targeting the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: Prebiotics Have Anxiolytic and Antidepressant-like Effects and Reverse the Impact of Chronic Stress in Mice. Biological Psychiatry, 82(7), 472–487. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.12.031

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Mediterranean diet could prevent depression, new study finds” [CNN]; “Mediterranean diet ‘may help prevent depression‘” [BBC]. The publication of Lassale and her colleagues in the prestigious scientific journal Molecular Psychiatry on the association between Mediterranean Diet and depression, received a lot of attention in the media last week.

So, can diet really influence your mental health? The publication of Lassale shows that there are indications that what you eat is related to how you feel. But because this study is an observational study, we can’t conclude anything yet about causation. In other words, we don’t know yet whether eating healthy causes you to feel less depressed, or whether feeling depressed causes you to eat unhealthy.

Causal links between diet and mental health

Diet and mental healthThe researchers of the European consortium Eat2beNICE are investigating exactly this causal link. The way we do this is through clinical trials. In this way, we first let chance decide whether a person receives a particular diet or is part of the control group. Through this randomization we can be sure that the differences that we find between the two groups are really due to the dietary intervention that people received, because all other factors are the same between the two groups.

Specifically for the effects of the Mediterranean diet on behaviour, in the Eat2beNICE project we are using the information and measurements available from the PREDIMED-PLUS trial. In this study, we are looking specifically for the effect of a calorie-restricted Mediterranean diet, combined with physical activity, on several behavioral outcomes related with several psychiatric diseases of adults at high cardiovascular risk.

At the same time, we are conducting three other clinical trials:

  1. In Nijmegen (The Netherlands), we investigate the effects of a very strict, hypo-allergenic diet on behavioural problems in children with ADHD.
  2. We are investigating the effects of vitamin supplements in a clinical trial that will be conducted in Mannheim(Germany) and Groningen(The Netherlands).
  3. Researchers in Barcelona (Spain) and Frankfurt (Germany) are investigating the effects of probiotics (i.e. bacteria that are good for you) on mental health in adults that are highly impulsive and/or aggressive.

Through these studies we hope to be able to identify if these types of food improve mental health and in which circumstances. This can have big implications for psychiatry, where putting someone on a specific, personalised diet may be a way to improve treatment. Also, people who are at a risk for developing mental health problems may benefit from specific diets to reduce this risk. But before this can be put into action, we first need good scientific data on what really works.

How can food drive human behaviour?

A second aim of our large research consortium is to identify the mechanisms between nutrition and the way the brain works. We think that the bacteria that live in your gut play a large role in this, as they interact with other systems in your body, including your brain. So we are collecting poop samples of the people that are participating in our clinical trials to identify which bacteria are more or less common in our participants compared to the control population. We are also measuring our participants’ behaviour and we will scan their brains. We hope that this will help us understanding better why certain types of food can be beneficial for mental health, and why some others increase the risk for mental health problems. This too will help to elucidate, and understand, the causal links between food and behaviour.

In short, we are very thankful for the study of Lassale and her colleagues, for backing up the evidence that what you eat is related to how you feel and behave. Now there’s work for us to do to prove the causal and mechanistic links. We’ll keep you posted here!

 

Authors Jeanette Mostert and Alejandro Arias-Vasquez work at the department of Genetics at the Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Alejandro Arias-Vasquez is the project coordinator of the Eat2beNICE project. Jeanette Mostert is the dissemination manager.

 

Further reading

Lassale C, Batty GD, Baghdadli A, Jacka F, Sánchez-Villegas A, Kivimäki M, Akbaraly T. Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Mol Psychiatry. 2018 Sep 26. doi: 10.1038/s41380-018-0237-8.

 

Blog by Jordi Salas explaining the Lassale paper and the PREDIMED trial:
http://newbrainnutrition.com/category/nutrition/mediterranean-diet/

Blog by Jolanda van der Meer on hypo-allergenic diet (TRACE study): http://newbrainnutrition.com/adhd-and-food-elimination-diet/

Blog by Julia Rucklidge on trials with vitamin supplements: http://newbrainnutrition.com/micronutrients-and-mental-health/

Blog by Judit Cabana on the Gut-Brain axis: http://newbrainnutrition.com/the-gut-brain-axis-how-the-gut-relates-to-psychiatric-disorders/

 

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Constantly feeling low mood and blue, losing of pleasure in life and appetite or having difficulties to have good sleep.

These are just some of the symptoms of one of the most prevalent mental conditions worldwide: depression. It affects hundreds of millions people globally, particularly women. Although depression seems to have a genetic component, lifestyle factors like diet have been suggested to play possible roles in the development of this condition and the degree of their symptoms. In fact, many different studies have suggested that different healthy diets may have important benefits for depression.

did i eat thatIn a recently published meta-analysis at the prestigious scientific journal Molecular Psychiatry, Lassale and coworkers aimed to summarize current epidemiological evidence in relation to healthy dietary patterns and depression. They included a total of 41 high quality observational studies conducted in healthy people from different countries, focusing on several types of well-known healthy dietary indices: Mediterranean diet, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, the Healthy Eating Index (HEI) and Alternative HEI (AHEI), and the Dietary Inflammatory Index. These healthy dietary indices score favorably for the consumption of different “healthy” foods, such as fruits and vegetables, nuts, cereals, legumes and healthy fats; and they penalize the consumption of “unhealthy” foods, such as processed foods.

The main findings of the Lassale meta-analysis revealed that those persons following more closely the Mediterranean diet, and those following less the pro-inflammatory diet, showed lower risk of depression and depressive symptoms. Similar beneficial results were observed with a high adherence to the HEI and AHEI diets, yet the evidence was not as strong as with the Mediterranean diet. Indeed, the dietary patterns evaluated in this study contain foods and nutrients which may modulate important biological processes related with depression. For example, healthy diets may reduce oxidative stress and inflammation processes, improve insulin sensitivity and blood circulation in the brain.

These important findings give a strong basis to the role of healthy dietary patterns like the Mediterranean diet in preventing depression and depressive symptoms, and they contribute to build future dietary recommendations to prevent this mental condition.

However, as the authors comment, it is important to keep in mind that all the studies included are observational, meaning, it is not possible to establish causal effects between diet and depression.

To establish causality that can be used to directly translate the knowledge into clinical practice, science needs specific intervention studies. In these studies, a healthy diet is followed for a long time and depression incidence is evaluated.

An example of this is the study conducted in the frame of the PREDIMED study with a population of Mediterranean adults at high cardiovascular risk. In this study, participants consuming the Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts showed 41% protection against depression, although these benefits were only observed in people with diabetes. In view of the PREDIMED-Plus trial, a multicenter study is being conducted in Spain for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease using an intensive lifestyle intervention. It will be possible to confirm these results and have new knowledge in the field of depression. With PREDIMED-plus, the investigators will be able to evaluate whether an energy-restricted Mediterranean diet,  with promotion of  physical activity, may be effective for reducing the risk of depression in elders at high cardiovascular risk. In case of the Eat2BeNice study we plan to analyse in the future the effect of PREDIMED-PLUS interventions not only on depression but also on mood and especially on impulsivity and compulsivity, two important domains related to brain function.

Overall, following a healthy diet, like Mediterranean diet, not only has important benefits for different aspects of human health but also it is likely that the diet prevents depression,  depressive-related symptoms and possible other mental related conditions. For this reason, a healthy diet nourishes a healthy mind.

 

References

Lassale C, Batty GD, Baghdadli A, Jacka F, Sánchez-Villegas A, Kivimäki M, Akbaraly T. Healthy dietary indices and risk of depressive outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Mol Psychiatry. 2018 Sep 26. doi: 10.1038/s41380-018-0237-8.

Sánchez-Villegas A, Martínez-González MA, Estruch R, Salas-Salvadó J, Corella  D, Covas MI, Arós F, Romaguera D, Gómez-Gracia E, Lapetra J, Pintó X, Martínez JA, Lamuela-Raventós RM, Ros E, Gea A, Wärnberg J, Serra-Majem L. Mediterranean dietary pattern and depression: the PREDIMED randomized trial. BMC Med. 2013 Sep  20;11:208. doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-208.

 

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This month, August 2018, I started as dissemination manager at New Brain Nutrition. This means that I will make sure that the information generated in this research project is spread out to society. Together with the dissemination and communication team of New Brain Nutrition, I strive to inform and educate as many people as possible about how nutrition influences our gut, our brain and our mental health.

Now I didn’t study communication or marketing. Rather, I studied Cognitive Neuroscience and did a PhD on brain connectivity in adults with ADHD. But while doing this PhD research, I became very interested in science communication. I organised an open day, started a blog with fellow PhD students, and participated in science battles. And through these experiences I learned that for science communication the most important ingredient is a willingness to convey your story to someone else.

The art of storytelling is thought to be as old as humanity itself. People are better at remembering and comprehending stories [1] and stories attract more attention than what’s called ‘logical-scientific communication’ [2]. However, storytelling is often viewed as unfit for sharing scientific results, because a story provides a subjective interpretation of data [3]. In a good story, only the elements that contribute to the story are told, while the ones that do not match the narrative are left out. That surely is not what we want to do in science communication!

New Brain Nutrition Research through StorytellingHowever, I do think that scientists should use the art of storytelling in their science communication to non-expert audiences. There is just too much and too complex data and information out there. If we want people to hear about our findings, and understand what they mean, we need to help them to read, comprehend and remember this information. Narratives are often the best way to do this. When telling these stories, we need to make careful decisions about the goal of our story (do you want to persuade your audience of something, or is the goal comprehension?), the level of accuracy (can you use a metaphor that is not entirely accurate, in order to accurately describe a certain process in an understandable way?) and whether or not to leave out certain facts of the story [2]. These decisions can be difficult, and we might sometimes make the wrong decisions, but overall I believe that we can all learn the art of telling good, honest stories.

At the same time, science can be much more open and transparent about the data and the findings themselves. I therefore think that open science, including open access publications and data sharing, should go hand-in-hand with storytelling in science communication. Share your story, your interpretation of the data, with the public. Take them along in your reasoning, which you have developed over the years as an expert in your field. And at the same time, share your data and your findings so that those who want to can come up with their own interpretations and conclusions.

So that’s my goal: telling you the stories of our research. As accurately as possible, without hiding information or twisting plots, but in an interesting, engaging and comprehensible way. And I hope that this will be a dialogue rather than a monologue. Tell us what you think, what your questions are, what you find difficult to believe, what you want to know more about. Then together we can build the story of New Brain Nutrition.

This blogpost was inspired by a recent article in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/20/our-job-as-scientists-is-to-find-the-truth-but-we-must-also-be-storytellers

 

References:

[1] Schank, Roger C. & Abelson, Robert P. (1995) Knowledge and Memory:  The Real Story.  In: Robert S. Wyer, Jr (ed) Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story. Hillsdale, NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.  1-85. http://cogprints.org/636/1/KnowledgeMemory_SchankAbelson_d.html

[2] Dahlstrom, Michael F. (2014) Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. PNAS, 201320645. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1320645111

[3] Katz, Yarden (2013) Against storytelling of scientific results. Nature methods, 10 (11). https://doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2699

 

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Assessing someone’s diet can be tricky and particularly time-consuming. People choose from millions of groceries every day, and the vast range of products available adds a further level of complexity to accurately assessing diet. Traditionally, dietary research is based on food diaries, meaning participants keep record of what they eat and drink by writing it down on paper. To extract nutritional information, researchers have to input the paper-based data into nutrient analysis software by hand, which is extremely time-consuming and error-prone. Furthermore, each country has local and distinct food products to offer. These differences need to be considered when assessing nutritional intake in an international project such as New Brain Nutrition.

Faced with these difficulties we are delighted to announce the use of the online 24-h dietary assessment tool “Measure Your Food On One Day (myfood24)” at the University Hospital in Frankfurt for our project. The study aims to investigate the effects of exercise and nutrition on behavioural measures regarding impulsive, compulsive and externalising behaviours.

myfood24 is a quick and easy online dietary assessment tool that tracks, monitors, and analyses dietary intake.

myfood24 is based on a novel approach to assess food intake through technology.

A collaborative project between the University of Leeds (PI Prof Janet Cade) and Imperial College London recognized the need for a valid, reliable, low burden and user-friendly dietary assessment tool. Funded by a UK Medical Research Council grant, the team of experts developed and tested myfood24 for a wide range of age groups including adolescents, adults and older adults and validated myfood24 against a suite of biomarkers.

Participants enter all the foods and drinks they have consumed during one day (from midnight to midnight) into the online tool. They can choose from an extensive range of food items including generic foods (e.g. milk chocolate) and branded products (e.g. milka & daim chocolate). Food portion images are available for a variety of items to help quantify consumed foods. myfood24 is easy to use with no training required; it can also be interviewer-administered. These features help to maximise participation throughout the research project and to cater to a wide range of research project types, study participants and clinical needs.

The academic rigor, automated data processing, and immediate production of results contribute to improved data quality and a drastic time reduction.

myfood24 has 4 country-specific versions available: United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark and Australia. These include localised food databases and translations.

A teaching version is also available in the United Kingdom; it has been tailored to a classroom situation and allows for immediate feedback from the whole class to be explored together (without aggregating information elsewhere). Feedback includes a variety of visual and easy-to-interpret graphs at both the individual and group level and includes over 100 different nutrients. myfood24 has wide application in research, teaching and health settings, globally.

Click here to try a free demo of myfood24.

Further information on myfood24 can be found on the myfood24 website.

myfood24 was developed through Medical Research Council funding, grant G110235 by a collaborative project between the University of Leeds (PI Prof Janet Cade) and Imperial College, London. Requests to use myfood24 should be made to enquiries@myfood24.org

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As described in my previous blog post (Nutrition, Gut Microbiota and Behavior, 4th of April), I will investigate the association between nutrition, gut microbiota and behavior. One of the main focuses within my research is to investigate the association between early life nutrition, gut microbiota development and inhibitory control within toddlers and pubertal children.

The first 1000 days of life (starting from conception) were shown to be a critical window for child development. In this phase, nutritional intake of the infant can stimulate the body and brain towards a healthy development, also known as nutritional programming1. Hence, early life nutrition, i.e. breastfeeding, can exert a major influence on infant development and thus future behavior. Breast milk contains many beneficial components such as sugars, immune factors and bacteria which are difficult to process in bottle formulas. Thus, exclusive breastfeeding is recommended until six months of age in the Netherlands.breastfeeding and early nutrition

Several studies have looked at the association between infant breastfeeding duration and future executive functioning. (Executive functions are cognitive processes in the brain that contribute to regulating thoughts and behaviors. Executive functions can be roughly divided into three core functions, namely: inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Inhibitory control, which can be interpreted as the opposite of impulsivity, is necessary to suppress impulses.) Two studies found positive associations with breastfeeding duration and executive functioning in childhood2,3. However, some studies have found no associations between infant breastfeeding and future executive functioning 4,5. These studies have examined general executive functioning and mainly focussed on attention, and not inhibitory control. Furthermore, different ages and populations were examined which makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the association between breastfeeding duration and future executive functioning. Thus, it is of particular interest whether inhibitory control is association with breastfeeding duration.

In addition, previous literature has focused mostly on duration of breastfeeding, while the composition of breast milk is also of major importance. Breastmilk contains many nutrients that are finely attuned to the needs of the infant. It contains biologically active compounds which have diverse roles, among others guiding the development of the infant’s intestinal microbiota6. Breast milk also contains specific sugars, also known as human oligosaccharides, which have been shown to influence the types of microbiota colonizing in the infant gut7. This may potentially be associated with impulsive behaviour8. Thus, in addition to examining breastfeeding duration in relation to inhibitory control, I will also examine the breastmilk composition in relation to inhibitory control.

  1. Agosti, M., Tandoi, F., Morlacchi, L. & Bossi, A. Nutritional and metabolic programming during the first thousand days of life. La Pediatr. Medica e Chir. 39, (2017).
  2. Hayatbakhsh, M. R., O’Callaghan, M. J., Bor, W., Williams, G. M. & Najman, J. M. Association of Breastfeeding and Adolescents’ Psychopathology: A Large Prospective Study. Breastfeed. Med. 7, 480–486 (2012).
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How many total food-and beverage-related decisions do you make in one day? Have a guess!

You reckon more than 15 decisions per day?! Congratulations! You are closer than the average (14.4) of 139 participants who were asked exactly the same question in a study by Wansink and Sobal (2007). However, you might still be far off. Let’s have a closer look at the study.

Being aware of the impact nutrition has on our physical and mental health as well as brain functioning, you might expect people to make well-considered food decisions. Wansink and Sobal (2007) aimed to answer the two following questions:

Are we aware of how many food-related decisions we make?

The results are clear, indicating a large degree of unawareness regarding the number of daily food decisions. The participants underestimated the number of food-and beverage-related decisions in a day by more than 200 decisions. We make an estimated 226.7 food decisions each day. Were you close? The authors conclude that we often engage in mindless eating which results in a lack of control of our food intake. There is a need to increase the awareness of the decisions we make regarding what, when and how much we eat to promote a healthy lifestyle.

These findings raise the question which factors determine our food decisions if we don’t. One potential factor that should be considered is our environment which was addressed in the second question of the study.

Food Choices cartoonAre we aware of the environmental cues that lead us to overeat?

To shed light on the second question the authors analysed data from four studies in which participants were either assigned to the control condition or a so-called exaggerated treatment condition. Environmental factors such as package size, serving bowl and plate size differed for the two conditions. In each study participants in the treatment condition served/prepared/consumed more food than the control group (between 29 and 53 % more). Afterwards the 192 participants of the treatment group were asked “How much did you eat compared to what is typical for you?” Across all four studies 19 % said “less” and 73 % “about the same” as normally. Just 8 % were aware that they consumed more. Afterwards they were informed about the environmental cues and asked a second question: “In this study, you were in a group that was given [a larger bowl]. Those people in your group ate an average of 20%-50% more than those who were instead given [a smaller bowl]. Why do you think you might have eaten more?” Interestingly, 21 % still claimed they did not eat more. 69 % justified the greater food intake with being hungry and 6 % with other reasons. Just 4 % admitted that the environmental cues influenced them.

These findings highlight the unawareness or denial of the influence our environment has on us and our food intake. However, they can be used as a starting point to improve our nutrition. Changing your immediate environment to make it less conducive to overeating can help you improve your health. Start with putting the sweets just a bit further away from you.

Further information on how to make your environment less conducive to overeating you can find in the book “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life” by Brian Wansink (https://www.slimbydesign.com/book)

You can also visit Brian Wansink’s website where you find more cartoons – like the one above -amongst other things: http://mindlesseating.org/index.php

Wansink, B., & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless eating: The 200 daily food decisions we overlook.

Environment and Behavior, 39(1), 106-123.

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0013916506295573

 

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