Unfortunately, neurodegenerative diseases affect millions of people worldwide. Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are the most common neurodegenerative diseases.
Mainstream medicine usually tells us that these types of diseases result from brain degradation that can’t be prevented or reversed. That it is just old age and there is nothing we can do about it.
On the other hand, the internet is full of conflicting information about the link between your brain and the food you eat and how it can change the way your brain ages.
But can we rely on all this information? Is there a way to reduce the risk of neurodegenerative conditions with a specific diet or exercise?
In this episode, Health & Science journalist Max Lugavere will answer these questions and help you make sense of all the conflicting information on this trendy topic, brain health.
He will share powerful insights on preventing and reversing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, and cognitive decline at any age. Also, he will talk about the connection between diet & lifestyle and brain health.
Plus, he will reveal some strategies to achieve optimal brain performance, increase energy, and improve your happiness by eating genius foods. Tune in to discover how to prevent cognitive decline and build your best brain yet!
Max Lugavere is a filmmaker, health and science journalist and brain food expert. He is also the director of the film Bread Head, the first-ever documentary about dementia prevention through diet and lifestyle and author of the book Genius Foods. Lugavere has contributed to Medscape, Vice, Fast Company, and the Daily Beast and has been featured on NBC Nightly News, the Dr. Oz Show, and in The Wall Street Journal, among others.
He is a sought-after speaker, invited to lecture at esteemed academic institutions such as the New York Academy of Sciences and Weill Cornell Medicine, has given keynotes at such events as the Biohacker Summit in Stockholm, Sweden, he also recently spoke at TEDx. From 2005-2011, Lugavere was a journalist for Al Gore’s Current TV. He lives in New York City and Los Angeles.
- How his mom’s memory problems led to Max’s new book and documentary
- How doctors weren’t able to help Max’s mom with conventional treatments
- Why Alzheimer’s disease begins in the brain 30-40 years before the first symptom
- Why neurodegenerative diseases can affect your ability to walk or balance
- How doctors practice the “diagnose and adios” style of medicine
- Why new research takes so long to be used by doctors (and why you shouldn’t wait for them to catch up)
- The connection between diet & lifestyle and brain health explained
- Why Alzheimer’s is called “type III diabetes”
- What type of testing you should do to determine your risk for Alzheimer’s
- Do ketogenic and low carb diets improve your brain health?
- Why whole grains may not be the health food you think
- Why “eating in moderation” is bad adviceBest genius foods to boost your brain power
- The importance of eating quality meat, chicken and eggs
- Is saturated fat bad for your brain?
- For Alzheimer’s, it’s not all about the genes
- Best ways to improve your brain’s health & performance
- And much more…
Podcast Transcription: Outsmarting Alzheimer’s: The Surprising Science Of Eating To Prevent And Reverse Cognitive Decline At Any Age with Max Lugavere
Ted Ryce: What’s up, my friends? And welcome back to another episode of the Legendary Life podcast. I’m your host, health and fitness expert, Ted Ryce, and this is the show that’s all about taking your health, your body and your life to that next level.
Today, we’re going to be talking about a very important part of your body; we’re going to be talking about—no! Get your mind out of the gutter, not that body part! We’re going to be talking about your brain, and we’re going to be talking about foods and other things that you can do to help improve your cognitive performance and prevent neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, because today’s guest, he’s actually written a book about that.
On to today’s episode: so the name of today’s guest is Max Lugavere, and I’ve known about Max for actually a couple years now. And I was really excited to finally get them on the podcast, and we had such an amazing conversation. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go down, I know Max is a big deal, he’s a filmmaker, health and science journalist, and a brain food expert.
And he’s also the director of the upcoming film, Bread Head, the first ever documentary about dementia prevention through diet and lifestyle.
So, he has written a book called Genius Foods, and just really, really amazing conversation, and what I love about Max is his balanced approach to things, because mainstream medicine kind of tells us, “Hey! It’s just age, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Then on the other side, there’s all this pseudoscientific holistic health people who say, hey, just balance your chakras, and eat some whole foods with life force energy, and you’re never going to get a chronic disease, and you’ll live to a 120. And the truth is actually somewhere in the middle, and Max brings that balance to his book, and to this episode. So, get ready to enjoy this interview with Max Lugavere.
Mav Lugavere, welcome to the Legendary Life podcast, man, thanks for doing this.
Max Lugavere: So good to be here, thanks so much for having me, it’s a pleasure.
Ted Ryce: Absolutely. In fact, we were having such a good conversation, and I didn’t want to leave it off of the podcast, I wanted to make sure we got it all. So, very interesting, I’ve known about you for a while, I’ve been following your work. I saw a trailer for your movie Bread Head, I can’t remember when.
And I know that’s not out yet, but you have a new book out called Genius Foods, and I want to talk about that. And you have a very personal story that led up to this line of inquiry that you’re in right now, you know, why you went down this road, and started researching these topics. But before we get to that, can you just tell people who may not be familiar with you a little bit about who you are, and how you describe what you do?
Max Lugavere: Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m a health and science journalist. My background is in traditional journalism in the United States, with an emphasis on video. I used to work for a TV network that Al Gore, former US vice president co-founded called Current TV. And I got to cover stories that really ran the gamut of the human experience there, ranging from more topical stories to pretty hard hitting journalism.
And having always had a passion for health and science, I had free reign at the network to talk about whatever I was into. And that would always tend to be pulled in the direction of health and science, which is something that I’ve just always been a fan of, and particularly nutrition, and exercise and fitness, and anti-aging, longevity, things like that.
When I left Current TV to try to figure out where I was going to go with my career, I described myself at that point in my life sometimes as being a stem cell. I could’ve gone in a million different directions. I was being pulled in a few directions that I didn’t really want to go in as somebody working in Hollywood and having a background and experience in TV hosting.
And during that interim period where I was really trying to differentiate, keeping going with the stem cell analogy, my mom who lives back home in New York city, started to complain to me over the phone of experiencing brain fog, and problems with her memory. And I was very curious about that complaint, I’d never heard it before, and my mom was what anybody would consider at the time to be a high-performer.
I started spending more and more time in New York City with her, and I too noticed that it had seemed as if my mom’s cognitive abilities had downshifted, and this coincided with a change to her gait, which is how she walked. So, my mom like any New Yorker, very fast walking, fast talking, the changes that I was seeing in my mom, and these changes were corroborated by my brothers, my brothers saw them as well, and they both live in New York, it was really unsettling to me.
And it all culminated for me and my family really, when we were all actually in Miami, which I know that’s where you’re from. We were hanging out in my dad’s apartment in Aventura, and we were all together. My mom and dad had been divorced since I was 18, but they’re amicable, and once a year we would all get together.
And my mom announced to the family for the first time that she’d been having memory problems and had sought the help of a neurologist. And me and my dad and my brothers, we were dumbfounded, we actually didn’t take what she said very seriously, to the point that my dad asked my mom, “Well, if you’re having memory problems, what year is it?”
And my mom stared at us for a moment, not super responsive, and to break the uneasy silence, me and my brothers who were completely ignorant at the time, chimed in, and were like, “Come on, mom, how can you not know the year?” Like that, like almost mocking of the time that she was taking to recall what year it is or was.
And she essentially broke down in that moment and began to cry, she was struggling so much. And that was the moment that for me everything changed. I ended up going back to Los Angeles, my ability to think about my career at that really critical time for me was… I just wasn’t able to do it. I was dropped by the talent agency that represented me at the time. My career was in a tailspin.
I ended up moving back to New York and really just wanted to figure out what the hell was going on with my mom. That’s 100% what motivated me. And it ended up with me going with her to various doctor’s appointments, to actually be in that office with her, because I’ve always been very health-minded, and my mom, not so much.
So, I really wanted to firsthand know what these doctors were saying about what my mom was complaining of, and what was going on with my mom. And ultimately, the journey culminated in a trip to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, and it was there that for the first time my mom was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease.
And I was shocked, I felt helpless and hopeless. I basically began diving into the research, and really trying to figure out how this could have happened to my mom. She didn’t really have a clear diagnosis, but my mom was prescribed drugs for both Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. And I just focused on those two diseases, to try to learn to the best of my ability, everything I possibly could about the etiology of both of these diseases.
On the one hand to see if there was anything that might be done to help my mom. But on the other hand, it became very apparent that I really needed to focus on prevention, because I stumbled upon this shocking insight that Alzheimer’s disease begins in the brain 30 to 40 years before the first symptom.
So, if you were to subtract 30 years from my mom’s age at the time, you would get me, and it just became very clear to me that this was something that I really needed to go all in on, and I didn’t have any career aspirations initially for it, I just really wanted answers. And the fact that I wasn’t a medical doctor, it didn’t seem as a barrier to truth for me, I was just like, you know…
Ted Ryce: We can get into that in a second, because sometimes the doctors, they definitely have the foundational knowledge, no doubt, like nobody else, right? So Max, I love hearing it, thank you so much for sharing that story. It seems like you found the right thing for yourself too, you’ve combined your passions with something that’s going to make a difference for people.
And one of the reasons why I’m so excited to have you on the show, is because we do have a lot of doctors on this show, and neuroscientists, and sometimes the way they communicate, and I’ve got the good ones on not the ones who say, “Oh, it’s just a part of normal aging,” right? These degenerative diseases. But you have this ability to break it down so that you reach more people, and that’s why I’m really excited to have you on.
I wanted to talk a little bit about what your mom started going through, because Alzheimer’s is a thing in my family too, both my dad’s mom and dad both had it. And my grandmother, when I was maybe 14, 13 years old, was so bad, she didn’t even recognize me, in fact, she was aggressive towards me.
It sounds funny now, but looking back, it’s really sad, but she put me in a headlock one time, and my grandmother was like a model, a former model, and she’s not the type of person to do those types of things, she wasn’t an athlete, but it just messed with her brain so much that I just was like a stranger, or even an enemy in the house.
So, let’s talk a little bit, less unpack your mom’s situation, because you say she was diagnosed and given drugs for both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, why both of those? What were you able to figure out about that? Because that sounds like a very strange situation, I don’t know much about Parkinson’s at all, I know a little bit about Alzheimer’s. What were you able to figure out with that conventional diagnosis? Because it almost seems like they weren’t sure what was going on.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, exactly. So, they weren’t sure. My mom didn’t have a classical presentation of either of those diseases. She had symptoms that were indicative of a movement disorder, so Parkinson’s is the most well-known movement disorder; it affects a region of the brain called the substantia nigra, where the cells that produce dopamine in that region of the brain begin to die.
By the time you show your very first symptom of Parkinson’s disease, half of the dopaminergic neurons in that region are already dead. So, this is a disease that begins in the brain well before the presentation of symptoms. And my mom had movement symptoms, her gates changed, what was previously a stride, a normal stride that you would see and not think twice about became more of a shuffle, and her balance was affected, she started to feel more stiff.
These are all very typical symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. But they’re not the most well recognized symptom of Parkinson’s disease, which is the tremor. So my mom hadn’t really that.
Ted Ryce: Right, the tremor.
Max Lugavere: She also had cognitive problems, which are more indicative of a memory disorder, Alzheimer’s disease being the most common memory disorder affecting 5 million people in the United States, about 15 million people worldwide.
And her cognitive problems were not typical of Alzheimer’s diseases either, it had seemed like her processing speed had severely downshifted, but she didn’t have some of the other memory problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease. A neurologist usually will say, if you forget where your keys are, that’s normal aging, if you forget what your keys are for, that’s a problem.
Ted Ryce: Yes.
Max Lugavere: So my mom at that stage really had just seemed like… The best way that I can describe this, and I describe it like this in the book, is that it seemed like you know when you have a web browser open with too many tabs going at the same time…
Ted Ryce: I have no idea what you’re talking about, Max.
Max Lugavere: You have no idea.
Ted Ryce: Right, just 30 to 40 and three different ones, right, absolutely.
Max Lugavere: Exactly, that’s what it’s like, or like a computer with not enough RAM, that’s exactly what my mom’s brain… it seemed like her RAM had somehow been removed from her brain. And despite the fact that they couldn’t really get a clear diagnosis, it wasn’t Alzheimer’s disease, it wasn’t necessarily Parkinson’s disease, they prescribed the same drugs, regardless of the variant of dementia that you have, typically you get the same battery of biochemical Band-Aids.
These drugs have no disease-modifying effect, they don’t slow the progression, they don’t do anything to really solve the underlying crisis that’s going on in the brain. What they do is they tinker with neurotransmitters. So the gold standard Parkinson’s drug is called cinema, it basically replaces dopamine, because as I mentioned, the dopamine producing neurons involved in Parkinson’s, involved in movement are dying.
And then one of the most common drugs prescribed for Alzheimer’s disease basically reduces the breakdown of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is really important for learning and memory, and the neurons that produce it in the brain of somebody with Alzheimer’s disease are also slowly dying.
So, despite the fact that my mom didn’t have a clear diagnosis of either disease, it was clear that she had some kind of Parkinsonian thing going on, and they prescribed her both of those drugs. But in the doctor’s office—and this is I think what fueled, at least initially my quest, was that I experienced what I’ve come to call “diagnose and adios.”
He did nothing to explain these two drugs for me, or to me rather, he didn’t bring up the term Alzheimer’s disease. He didn’t say that one of these drugs is typically prescribed for Alzheimer’s disease.
And he also didn’t mention anything about diet and lifestyle, nothing about exercise, nothing about a potential dietary intervention, even though now I know that the impact that diet and lifestyle have on the brain, even if you’ve progressed to something like dementia is peppered throughout the medical literature.
And so I just became really motivated by that to learn everything I could and to spread that, because I know that most people—if I didn’t hear anything about diet and lifestyle at the Cleveland Clinic, which is considered by many people to be a cathedral to modern medical insight, then I just assume that nobody was getting that kind of information, and that I needed to do my part to really be a catalyst.
I learned that it takes on average 17 years for what’s discovered in science to make its way into day-to-day clinical practice. 17 years…
Ted Ryce: Not surprised to hear that.
Max Lugavere: I mean, it’s shocking and sad.
Ted Ryce: And what you said, “diagnose and adios,” I’ve never heard that before, but right when you said it, I knew exactly what you meant, I’ve experienced myself issues with doctors, and I’ve heard from many listeners, and my dad even has a bunch of bad doctor stories, and it’s just a tough situation, it’s not entirely their fault, but we kind of expect them, “Hey listen, I know you’re having a hard time paying the bills, and you don’t really make money…”
Or actually, it takes a long time to really coach someone to change their lifestyle, I do it for a living, and it’s very difficult, people drop off, and get back on the wagon and fall off, and get back on the wagon. And most people end up giving up, because they feel like they’re a failure, they don’t understand it’s just a learning curve, and you’re trying to do something that nobody’s ever taught you how to do before.
But what did you end up learning about your mom’s situation, and what were you able to learn through your research to help her? I’m really concerned about your mom right now, man. Tell me there’s a happy ending to this.
Max Lugavere: Well, I’m probably going to disappoint you, but a couple of years prior to my mom’s struggles, and this Cleveland Clinic visit, I had watched a TED talk that many people at this point I think have watched, by Terry Walls. She’s a physician who has essentially treated her progressive MS with diet and lifestyle, and I’d watched this a long time ago.
But I had it in my back pocket, and it was one of the first things that I really thought about when I had the hunch that diet and lifestyle might be able to play a role in helping my mom. This is one of the first exposures that I had that TED X talked to the idea that diet and lifestyle were related to the brain. And that the brain has specific dietary needs that are not being met by the standard American diet.
So, the first thing that I did was, I went to PubMed, and I started looking into Alzheimer’s disease and diet. And I intuitively picked out Alzheimer’s disease to really begin researching, because just intuitively it’s the most common form of dementia. And so, I just knew that there was going to be a lot more money there into research on interventions, dietary interventions, risk factors, and whatnot for Alzheimer’s disease.
Just thinking intuitively that whatever I was going to glean from that, I might be able to apply to my mom. I began digging around, and I stumbled in—after not too long— on the insight that was somewhat newly discussed in the medical literature, but since then has really exploded. And that is that Alzheimer’s disease is essentially a form of diabetes of the brain.
Ted Ryce: I’ve read that before, diabetes type III, some people refer to it as.
Max Lugavere: Yeah. So, the researcher who coined that is—her name is Suzanne De LA Monte, and she’s a neuropathologist at Brown University, I’ve had the privilege of getting to go to her lab and interview her. But essentially what happens is that in the brain of somebody with Alzheimer’s disease, there are striking similarities between what happens in their brains, and what happens in, say, the muscle tissue of a person who has become a type II diabetic.
The brain essentially becomes insulin resistant, it becomes less able to effectively process glucose, and the brain insulin has a myriad of roles, some are understood, most are probably not yet elucidated. But essentially what happens in the brain of somebody with Alzheimer’s disease is that their brains become dramatically less effective at producing ATP out of glucose. And glucose generally is one of the brain’s primary fuel sources along with fat.
Ted Ryce: And just so people who didn’t pay attention in biology class, ATP, can you explain that?
Max Lugavere: Absolutely, so, ATP is the energetic currency of cells. It’s essentially the gasoline that allows your cells to perform all of their very many functions that when you zoom out, is what allows you to be alive. Without ATP, no life. And ATP is a highly conserved energy molecule that is used by a myriad of, if not all organisms, it’s the energetic currency of life. And we generate it via a form of molecular combustion in our cells mitochondria, through the utilization of glucose in the brain.
And to a lesser degree, today especially, fat when they’re transformed into compounds called ketone bodies by the liver. Now, this is really interesting because an Alzheimer’s brain—the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s disease, its ability to create energy out of glucose is reduced by about 50%. And the brain is the most energy hungry organ in your body, 25% of your base metabolic rate is being used to create energy in your brain.
So, what that means is all the calories, one fourth of the calories that you consume every single day, one out of every four breaths you take is being used to create energy in your brain. And when you consider the relative proportion of your brain in comparison to the rest of your body, it’s very small, right?
Ted Ryce: Yeah, three and a half pounds.
Max Lugavere: It’s literally… Yeah, it’s the size of a grapefruit, and yet 25% of all of the energy that you are creating in your body is being created in your brain. So, it’s a very metabolically hungry organ. And any disturbance in the brain’s ability to create energy is going to spell trouble essentially. And so, that’s exactly what seems to happen in Alzheimer’s disease, and that’s actually now what I believe is the earliest observable feature.
So, up until fairly recently, we didn’t have a level of imaging technology that we currently do. The only way that you could actually diagnose somebody with Alzheimer’s disease, up until very recently was on death, you would perform an autopsy on that person’s brain, and see their brain riddled with plaques.
So, if you take a person who had the severe cognitive impairment that somebody with Alzheimer’s in late stages will inevitably have, and you open up their brain and their brains are riddled with these plaques and tangles that define the disease, boom! You’ve got an Alzheimer’s patient, right?
And that’s why those plaques and tangles have been so closely associated with the disease to the point that researchers for the past couple of decades have really pinpointed them as being causative players in the disease.
But now, we have new technologies that allow us to look into the brains of people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease way earlier. We can look at amyloid load in the brain way earlier, we can look at the brain’s ability to use glucose way earlier.
And so, whereas amyloid was the most observable feature in brain tissue as it relates to Alzheimer’s disease. Now we have other things, we can look at biomarkers in the blood, we can look at brain scans. And researchers have actually observed that this impaired ability by the brain to use glucose effectively actually occurs seemingly across the age spectrum. So, it seems that this is among the earliest things really to be affected, that’s associated with Alzheimer’s disease. And it really spotlights it as being a probable causative factor in the disease.
Ted Ryce: Interesting. Yeah, it’s been well-known that amyloid beta buildup in the brain, it’s a strong connection there, scientists still use correlation instead of causation. Maybe you can unpack that a little bit, and so, I’m thinking right now for someone listening, and maybe they’re like me, because I have a very personal interest in this.
But what can we do to assess our risk factors now, and what is practical to do? I mean, not all of us have the resources or the time to go in and get expensive brain imaging or biomarker testing. What can we do Max, to try to assess our risk?
Max Lugavere: That’s a great question. So, I don’t recommend that people go and get brain scans and things like that, you don’t need to, because actually there are things that you can easily measure on your next appointment with your physician that are related to brain metabolism.
So, one of the top ways that it’s believed to really ensure that your brain is processing glucose effectively is to really nurture the metabolism of the body. So, today unfortunately, half of US adults are either diabetic or pre-diabetic, and if you have Type II diabetes, your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease increases two to four fold, unfortunately.
But honoring the metabolism of the body, and now there are a myriad of studies showing that a lower carbohydrate diet really seems to be the best way to do that. If you’re already insulin-resistant, getting rid of the processed foods, the sugar, or the unhealthy fats, reducing inflammation, de-stressing, finding a way of healthily dealing with stress, getting rid of the added sugars that now just are so over abundance in our food supplies.
These are the things that really help to bring about insulin sensitivity, and there’s a strong relationship between insulin sensitivity in the body, and brain metabolism, glucose metabolism in the brain. So…
Ted Ryce: Totally made sense after I asked that question, you’re like, well, it’s good for the body, is good for the brain, because it’s just an organ of the body, although it is the most important organ arguably, because once that goes, nothing else matters. At least your heart, you can have it—you can get a transplant, you can still live and still enjoy, but once your brain goes, yeah, it’s over, nothing exists for you anymore except for that damaged brain and your perception of things, which I guess we have no idea what that’s like.
Let’s talk a little bit about what you just said, because if we rewind back a little bit, you talked about ketone bodies in the brain, you just said that low carbohydrate diets, and there’s kind of—as I’m sure you’re well aware of. There’s so much controversy about diet, and I don’t have anything necessarily against the low carb or ketogenic world, but definitely I found that I wasn’t able to do it because carbohydrates, at least in my situation, when I dropped them too low, it heightens anxiety, and I ended up having panic attacks.
And when I talked earlier about my problem with a doctor, he was just like, “Oh well, you had some tragedy in your life, and it’s just, your life was stressful and is hitting you now.” I’m like, “Man, that is so intellectually lazy of you to say that. Why now?” But, I was able to do some research and I found that carbohydrates, in fact, the wordsmith from MIT did some research on this, and that carbohydrate restriction can lower serotonin and conversely, it can raise serotonin in your brain if you eat them.
So, what can you tell us? No, did you mean specifically insulin resistant people as far as low carb diets are concerned, or just in general? Can you unpack that a little bit for us and give us some context?
Max Lugavere: Absolutely. So, yeah, I’m not really a big fan of the zealotry online, and the religious fervor that surrounds the low carb, low fat debate. I think one of the best traits that a scientist can have—and when I say scientist, I’m not affiliated with any academic university, but I think that we all have the ability to practice science in our lives. Science is a method of finding things out, science is not something that is guarded in some Emerald academic city somewhere.
I think all scientists should be willing to challenge their hypothesis and pivot when they’re proven wrong. We should remain skeptical, not cynical, and so, if you were to tell me that a vegan diet would be the ideal diet for the brain, I would say, okay, well, show me the evidence.
So, that’s why I think when it comes to insulin resistance and the rates of type two diabetes that we’re seeing, it would be impossible to pinpoint or to point a finger at even diet alone, because there’s so many other aspects of modern life that really have been to the detriment of our health.
I mean, Chronic stress, toxic exposures to chemical byproducts and food additives, and ultra-processed foods that are designed to create insatiable over consumption, these are really some of the worst offenders, the fact that we all live and work indoors with minimal exposure to the sun and nature. These are all related.
When it comes to dietary patterns in particular, I think it’s really, for me, I look at diet through the lens of evolution, and my focus is really, what diet makes the most sense from the perspective of an evolving brain? So, grains and things like that really have only been around for the last second of human evolution.
Some researchers have pointed to ancient grains being evident in some hunter-gatherer diets, but regardless of the exact percentage of starches that we might have consumed during our evolution, scientists speculate that we probably consumed about 150 grams of fiber per day, whereas today we consume about 15 grams of fiber on a good day.
So, regardless of the exact percentage of carbohydrate intake that our ancestors might’ve consumed, those carbs were clearly accompanied by massive fiber intake, which is a critical distinction between the carbs that we’re consuming today, and the carbs that we likely consumed back then.
We also had to chase our food for the most part, and our diets were really much more diverse, a hunter-gatherer, the land was of your foragers buffet. There are 50,000 edible plant species around the world. Today our diets have become dominated by three of them, wheat, corn, and rice. And these grains are highly nutrient poor and energy- dense.
So, this is one of the reason why 90% of Americans are deficient in at least one vitamin or mineral.
So, the brain has the ability to mop itself up of oxidative stress and repair against the damages incurred due to just simply living. But we need to give our brains the right ingredients to do that.
So, that’s why when I make my recommendations for people in terms of diets, it’s nutrient density first—I don’t even really think about macronutrients so much, like protein, fat and carbs. I really think more in terms of the whole foods that contain the nutrients that the brain needs. And I don’t think that there’s room in that diet for grains.
I don’t think that grains are toxic. I think that if you’re exercising, if you’re doing high intensity work in the gym, you can certainly eat grains every now and then, and have those grains serve a functional purpose in your body, right? Like, they get shuttled into your muscles where they wait to power you through your next workout. But I think the problem today is that we’re advised to eat them as if there were evidence that they improve health, which there is not, according to the latest…
Ted Ryce: Right, there’s not.
Max Lugavere: There’s not.
Ted Ryce: Talk about it again, where you about to say, are you going to talk about the Cochrane review that it has recently? Yeah.
Max Lugavere: Yeah.
Ted Ryce: That’s like sorry, guys, it doesn’t do anything for your health.
Max Lugavere: Yeah.
Ted Ryce: So, just to unpack that, because the Cochrane, not a lot of people listening are going to know what that is, can you just talk about that?
Max Lugavere: Absolutely.
Ted Ryce: Because we’ve been told that healthy grains-- I mean, I’ve told people to eat healthy grains, but I do it more out of not putting unrealistic expectations on people to change their dietary habits, not because it’s optimal, because I’m like you, eat some fruits and vegetables and get rid of the grains. But anyway, back to the review on grains, so are greens healthy or not?
Max Lugavere: Yeah, so Cochrane. as you mentioned, by the way, I love that you brought that up, because I was getting there, and it’s just like, I love the flow that we’re in. But yeah, so Cochrane is this organization known for their unbiased systematic reviews of medical literature, and they do this in partnership with the World Health Organization.
And they recently looked at all of the evidence regarding grains, but the distinction between this study and other meta analyses that have been performed is that they only looked at randomized controlled trials, which are the kinds of trials required to prove cause and effect, okay?
So, you can look at dietary patterns at the population level, but it’s impossible at that level to tease out the role of grains, which is why grains are included in the Mediterranean dietary pattern, because people in the Mediterranean, they might eat some grains. So, our nutrition policy writers have mistakenly assumed that grains were playing a causal role.
But this Cochrane report was so compelling because they looked at randomized controlled trials. And the advice that we’re given even today is that grains improve health, we have to include grains at every meal, according to the USDA My Plate, because grains improve health, right? And what this research found was that there’s no good evidence to say that grains improve health.
Max Lugavere: Right.
Ted Ryce: And there you have it. That tells you that our dietary recommendations are not evidence-based, right?
Max Lugavere: Yeah, and let me piggyback on that a little bit, because just to really get people to understand what, what you just said. So, a lot of the “research” that’s been shown or that people base their, oh well, grains are healthy for you, and they improve whatever risk factor or biomarker. It’s because it’s self-reported data, and people are like, “Hey, these people didn’t get cancer as much as these other people, and they ate healthy grains, so grains must be healthy.”
It’s not really as strong-- like you mentioned, strong evidence. So, in the Cochrane review, they actually gave people grains, or didn’t give people grains, and actually saw what happened to their health, and they looked at many studies doing this particular thing, to randomized control trials. And no health benefits to eating gains whatsoever.
Ted Ryce: Right. Our nutrition policy is based almost exclusively on epidemiological data. Which, basically, when you look at the population level, well, if you were just to take a group of a hundred people and look at their diets, you can rest assured that the people in that group that are eating grains like brown rice, or quinoa, which is this privileged grain that we love here in Los Angeles, and in Miami, and in New York city.
But if you look at the rest of the country, they don’t even know what quinoa is. And so, if you look at people that are eating these kinds of grains, you can almost bet money on the fact that they have gym memberships, they work out, maybe a few of them take a multivitamin, they’re living healthy lifestyle.
Max Lugavere: They may probably make good money, and have massages, and right, yeah, shop at whole foods.
Ted Ryce: Exactly, poor people are eating white bread and white rice, and they’re eating all the other junk food crap that, you know, there are major food deserts in this country, and it’s so unfortunate where poor people, you know, people on the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum, literally have to grocery shop at gas stations.
And so, that’s why whole grains are so closely tethered to other healthy dietary patterns, that when you’re looking at them from the population level, yeah, they have good health outcomes. But even at that level, it’s impossible to say that the grains are playing a causal role.
So, what I argue in my book, Genius Foods, is that these dietary patterns, the Mediterranean diet, the Japanese dietary pattern, and others healthy diets, are healthy not because of grains, but in spite of them. Maybe these people are exercising more, they’re eating less of the highly processed foods and oils, and all the other things that are associated with ill health. And that’s really what is giving these people the most bang for their buck, it’s not that grains have anything to do with it.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, and I’m in Thailand right now as you know, and most of-- you’re listening to this show for a while, you know, and I’ll tell you, one of the most interesting observations that I’ve made and kind of paradigm shifts, is this is probably what the US was, I don’t even know, like maybe 50 years ago, 70 years ago.
And you see people… for one, healthy food is very diverse, and it’s cheaper than processed food. And so it’s the exact opposite of what you get in the states, where it’s much, much more cost effective, like you said, to buy something from the gas station, or McDonald’s dollar menu, so it’s reversed here. And you can also see the transition towards modernization or industrialization of their food.
And you can see the people having the problems, and it’s so interesting, because here all the low income people are eating a wide—like, this incredible mushroom soup, or all these different varieties of vegetables, and the people who are a bit wealthier, they’re buying muffins, they have this mall right by where I’m staying, and it’s got like all these breads, and all these bread shops, which are—they have some delicious pastries here, by the way. But you see them, and they’re more, they’re overweight, and they’re buying a ton of it, but one of those buns or croissants cost almost the same as an entire meal.
Max Lugavere: Wow.
Ted Ryce: So, it’s just really interesting to see that, and you kind of like, wow! This is the US is what every place that’s going under this modernization, this technological progress or progression, that’s what they’re going to all eventually end up as, it seems.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, definitely. There was really good research performed out of university of Texas that looked at the advice for people to eat everything and moderation. And they use dietary diversity as an end point. And they basically found that people that adhere to eat everything in moderation advice, which is advice that I hate by the way, and you’ll soon find out why. Eating a diet that’s more diverse in the modern food environment, essentially leads to people eating more, drinking more sodas, eating more desserts, confectionary products, and unhealthy foods.
It’s interesting because dietary diversity as a hunter-gatherer, it was probably an amazing thing, and actually probably is what was responsible for the development of our brains. But today in the modern supermarket, what you really want to do is you want pick a more limited number of healthy foods, and then buy those foods on loop.
The healthiest people—and this was what was discussed in that study—tend to buy a smaller range of healthy foods again and again and again. And I, even before reading this study tend to do that intuitively, I go to the supermarket, and I’ve always got to walk out with the staples that I have to have, pastured eggs, grass fed beef, dark leafy greens, and avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, got to stay stocked up on extra virgin olive oil.
And these are the foods that I think really when you eat them, they provide everything that you need. So, rather than continue to beat people over the head with what, I think many people, especially a more informed audience like yours is, people tend to know that sugar at this point is not good for you.
So, in the book, we really try to go a little bit beyond that and talk about the overabundance of highly processed grain, and seed oils in the food supply, and how damaging those are to the brain. But then also, just to tell people what to eat, not what to—it’s not about fear-mongering anymore, it’s about really carving out a path for people to make healthier choices in their life. So, I talk about what I call the 10 genius foods, I’ve sort of co-opted the term “superfood,” which is not a real scientific terms, you’ll never catch a scientist using the term “superfood,” but I think it’s caught on, so why not co-opt it?
Ted Ryce: I like that term, yeah.
Max Lugavere: So, go for it.
Ted Ryce: I love the term genius foods, because yeah, what are we going to say? Highly nutrient dense, it just doesn’t relate to people, and why make people have to learn all this jargon that they’re uncomfortable with, because the majority of people don’t love science, because it’s like math, right? Probably they got the same love as math. Why make them do that? So, I’m with you a hundred percent on that.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, so I highlight the foods that really have the biggest impact on the brain, and have the most robust amount of research that I can really draw on to support my claim, that these foods are really good for the brain. And will support how well you think, how you feel, help you maintain your energy levels, cognitive resilience, things like that.
Ted Ryce: Can you give us a few, obviously, if you’re listening to this right now and you want to know, this is just a book that you should buy because Max has done his homework, he’s not one of the people who are proselytizing for a very narrow view of nutrition, he’s done his homework, this is something…I mean, I really want to read your book here, because I feel like I don’t know enough about…I’ve been too into fat loss and muscle building, and I really want to step my game up when it comes to the brain.
So, if you’re listening now, you want to step your game up with making sure you’re choosing foods that are helping you cognitively, get his book. But share maybe one or two Max.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, sure. I just want to help people. So, I think one of the most controversial foods that I really, in the book, make the claim that it’s a health food where the brain is concerned, is grass fed beef. Grass fed beef is one of the few foods that is really tricky to try to study, especially at the population level, because the format that most people are consuming meat in, especially in this country, but increasingly around the world, is really unhealthy.
This meat comes from grain fed cows that are pumped full of antibiotics, and hormones, and things like that. But from an evolutionary perspective, researchers speculate that it’s not just access to meat, but in fact, cooked meat that helped catalyze the growth of our brains. Meat provides an abundance of calories, of highly bioavailable nutrients that are very important for the brain, including the zinc and vitamin B12, choline.
And there is a non-trivial source of preformed fats that help serve as your brains building blocks, including, DHA fat, and arachidonic acid, which is an omega 6 fatty acid, which gets a bad rap these days, but actually…
Ted Ryce: It does, yeah.
Max Lugavere: … but it’s vitally important to the brain, but in a ratio that’s comparable to DHA. So, in a healthy brain, you’ve got both present in the neuronal cell membrane, which is really important, you want healthy cell membranes in comparable amounts.
And actually the fat, the polyunsaturated fat profile in grass-fed beef, mirrors that of a healthy human brain. So, grass fed beef is important, and there are a few studies that I draw on that I think are important and interesting. One of them was done out of UCLA, where a researcher named Charlotte Newman basically gave children in Kenya, either dairy, beef, or a traditional dish of corn and green beans. And found that the children that were supplemented with beef actually showed the steepest improvement in reading and math after two years, as compared to the students that were given the vegetarian dish or the dairy dish.
Ted Ryce: Interesting.
Max Lugavere: Yeah.
Ted Ryce: And they think it’s because of this beneficial fat profile that…
Max Lugavere: The fats and the nutrients, the B12, the zinc, the iron.
Ted Ryce: Right.
Max Lugavere: Yeah. So, there’s that, and then also another interesting study that I like to talk about was done out of Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre, which found that women…It was a study of a thousand women, so fairly robust.
Ted Ryce: Food and Mood Centre, I love that, that’s awesome.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, well, the director, there is a great—you should consider having her on your podcast, her name is Felice Jacka, I’ve interviewed her, and she’s one of the foremost researchers really carving out this line of inquiry called nutritional psychiatry.
And I detailed her research in my book, Genius Foods, actually, but one of my favorite studies of hers was that she found in—when looking at a thousand women, that those who didn’t eat the nationally recommended three to four servings of red meat per week, were twice as likely to suffer from a depressive disorder.
Ted Ryce: Interesting.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, but it was like a U-shaped curve, because women that ate more than that also were at increased risk. So, I feel like that dose response to me is pretty suggestive of a causal link. Of course, it doesn’t prove one. But the other thing is that in Australia, which is where the center is, the meat tends to be of higher quality by default, which is an important caveat.
Ted Ryce: Way better, yeah, that Australian beef, man, US beef, ish, yeah. Even the chicken that I’m getting here, it’s like chicken, I was so disgusted with eating chicken before I left. And now the chickens are so small, and they don’t have that much fat on them, and they just tastes better in the yolks. The yolks of the eggs are orange here, instead of like a pale yellow, it’s so weird, but I believe there’s something to that, that higher level of carotenoids, or I don’t know.
Max Lugavere: Definitely, you bring up a great point that I just want to touch on for a bit, the fact that a properly raised animal has less fat. So, I think a lot of people in the low-carb, high-fat movement now have, you know, the pendulum has swung to the other side, where high-fat diets are being embraced, and people I think are going to town on saturated fat, right?
But if you look at a cow that’s properly raised, and that has been able to consume the diet that it’s meant to consume for its entire life, that cow actually has a much smaller amount of saturated fat in it. Which, to me, hints at the biologically appropriate ratio of fatty acids that we’re meant to have. So, I’m not a big advocate of consuming excessive saturated fat, unlike I think a lot of people in the Paleo and Keto Movement.
Ted Ryce: I was just going to say, yeah, really, that’s such a great point that you’re bringing up, but I was just laughing because that’s like I’ll put a stick of butter in my coffee, then I drench MCT oil all over my salad, and it’s healthy fat, and it’s well, maybe not necessarily. Isn’t saturated fat…? I read some research on Alzheimer’s and saturated fat, and there was some link there, is that still a thing, or was that more observational research?
Max Lugavere: Yeah, it’s really difficult to say, most of the PhDs that I know that are studying Alzheimer’s prevention definitely do not think that saturated fat is good for the brain. My perspective on it is that a lot of them are coming from the same place that our doctors come from in terms of the nutritional schooling that they’ve had.
So, I don’t think that saturated fat as a nutrient is inherently unhealthy or healthy, I think it very much depends on what else you’re eating, as well as your genes. So, I think saturated fat seems to be able to exacerbate the problems associated with the standard American diet.
But also, there seems to be a problem with people that are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, that carry the most well-defined Alzheimer’s risk gene, where they seem to hyper respond to saturated fat in a way that makes their blood lipids, like cholesterol, and stuff like that, take on a less favorable response.
And one of the mechanisms by which saturated fat actually raises your cholesterol, is by reducing the number of LDL receptors on your liver. So, keeping the cholesterol that’s in your body healthy is very important, it’s really important for vascular health. Cholesterol is not bad in any way, but the cholesterol recycling system is of critical importance.
Because when you have these LDL particles in circulation for a longer amount of time, they go from large and fluffy, to small and dense. And it’s the small and dense lipoprotein LDL profile that’s really associated with risk, and it makes sense because these smaller particles are more easily oxidized, and they’re more easily able to embed themselves in your endothelium.
So, you really want your liver, which is what recycles LDL cholesterol, to be able to do that, to be able to fulfill its job. And saturated fat essentially reduces the number of LDL receptors on the liver surface.
And some people are better at this recycling process than others, but this is somewhat speculative as there are no concrete answers. But it’s believed by many that I’ve spoken to, and just in tinkering with my own diet, that carriers of this Alzheimer’s risk gene might actually be better off with less saturated fat in the diet.
I don’t make the recommendation to avoid whole foods that contain saturated fat, but I’m certainly not an advocate of going crazy with butter and coconut oil, and things like that.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, thanks for bringing that up, and how important…We’re coming up on an hour now, I know, I want to be respectful of your time, and, of course, the listeners’ time. But I’ve got two more questions for you, is that cool, Max?
Max Lugavere: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, because man, I feel like I could easily talk to you for hours.
Max Lugavere: Thanks.
Ted Ryce: So, with the genes, I know that’s a tricky situation, one of my favorite scientists, Robert Sapolsky has said that genes can only tell you, they can only tell you something in the context of an environment if it’s not a genetic disorder, like Prater will I, or Down’s syndrome, something like that. What can you tell us about the gene, and can we get genetic testing? And what does that all mean for Alzheimer’s? I’m asking this because I’m very selfishly interested.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, well, look, one in four people carry this Alzheimer’s risk gene. So, this is a big issue…
Ted Ryce: Wow, a lot of people.
Max Lugavere: … relevant to many, many people, yeah. Whether or not you’re cognizant of it, you can easily go to 23andme.com and do a gene test and find out if you’re a carrier of the Apoe4. Carrying two to copies basically results in an increased risk of anywhere between 2 and 14 fold in the United States.
But if you look at other parts of the world, where this gene is equally, if not more prevalent, like in Nigeria. The Yoruba have a very high frequency of this gene, yet there’s little to no association between this gene and Alzheimer’s disease there.
So, what that suggests is that that increased risk that we see in carriers with this gene really is about the interaction between the gene and the American food and lifestyle landscape.
And it also, what it suggests is that if you do happen to carry that gene here, and have such a dramatically increased risk for the disease, all you got to do is move to Nigeria and see that risk essentially abolished. So, it’s all about the interaction between genes and environment.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, and I’m so glad you mentioned that, because my last question, like you said, I feel like we’re on the same page here in this flow. Its like, how are we going to get people to change in an environment where it’s an uphill battle? For me I moved, and I eat less, and I eat more vegetables, and I eat a wider array of vegetables because of where I’m staying right now.
But if I move back to the states, I would probably fall back into this same situation, where cheaper food is worse for you, and the good stuff, the grass fed beef is cost-prohibitive for a lot of people. Man, what do you think is the answer to that for the people in the United States or in other modernized countries where it’s just this upstream thing that they have to deal with? What’s the answer there Max, in your opinion?
Ted Ryce: It’s a really good question. In my opinion, I think we all have the ability to vote with our wallets and create demand. Certainly the fact that you can now walk into a Walmart and get organic food is a change in the right direction. The FDA is listening, trans fats have been banned, they’re now putting added sugar, numbers on the nutrition facts, label of processed foods. And then I think the private sector is also really helping rise to the occasion.
We now have companies sprouting up where you can order grass fed beef to your doorstep, or wild fish to your doorstep, or other health, the products via the mail, which I think is, is super exciting. I also think it comes down to education, and informed consent, I think most of these packaged products, packaged foods that are now making up 60% of the calories that we consume nationwide come from ultra-processed foods, foods which are designed to promote over consumption.
People tend to think that they’ve had a moral failure when going through the entire bag of chips, or the entire pint of ice cream. And I’ve certainly done this, I’ve bought the healthiest version of ice cream that I could find, and I will keep it in my freezer, I’ll go to it, and I’ll have a spoonful and tell myself that this is all I’m going to have, and I walk away from the fridge, and then five minutes later, I’m walking back to the fridge.
It’s because these foods literally push your brain to a bliss point, and it becomes impossible to control yourself. I’ve noticed this, and this is something that food scientists are very familiar with. And I think that when people are aware of the foods that trigger them, I think we can make informed consent, we can opt to not purchase them, because at the end of the day, if it’s in your shopping cart, it’s as good as in your stomach.
And knowing what to avoid, I think it gives you the ability to opt in when you want, because certainly if you choose to eat that entire bag of chips, go for it, it’s not a moral failure, you’ve made that choice, you’re an adult, you can do whatever you want.
But it’s when people don’t know these sorts of things and they spend a lifetime eating these kinds of foods, and they feel trapped on that moving walkway, where they feel like they can’t get off, and ultimately they develop a chronic disease, which is impossible to fix when speaking about some of them, that to me is what’s sad, and what I want to try to help prevent.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, and thanks for bringing that up, I did a couple episodes on the science of food cravings and how we’re just fighting our biology, and biology is going to win out. It’s been millions of years to create this system that keeps you alive, that keeps you searching for food for, for nutrient dense and calorie dense foods, and for you to think that, oh, I’m just going to exert a little bit of willpower and self-control, it only takes time or an argument with your partner, or an issue at work, or some stress coming home, on your drive home in traffic, for you to just say just fuck it, and eat whatever it is that is in your refrigerator.
So, I’m so glad you brought that up and talk about the moral failing, because we got to start understanding how we’re wired, and work with that, instead of trying to fight it and think we’re so autonomous. I think Americans in particular, we feel like this rugged individualism, that we can just do whatever we want, and in a way we can, but it’s so much easier when you just understand the rules of biology, the rules. So, thanks for bringing that up. Did you have a follow-up there Max?
Max Lugavere: No, yeah, I agree with you, I think it’s about, just giving people the tools and what you’re doing with your podcast, and spreading this message, I think this is all part of the ultimate solution at the end of the day. I think that we live in a time where there’s this new kind of healer out there.
There’s this ability to reach people in a way that is unprecedented, that didn’t exist prior to maybe 10 years ago. And previous generations were just completely in the dark, only the doctor could know about health, only the nutritionist could know about nutrition. If you wanted to know anything about something that wasn’t within your professional wheelhouse, you had to go to the library, and think about how arduous that probably was.
Ted Ryce: Oh, man.
Max Lugavere: Yeah, and I know that my mom’s generation was probably the last generation to be really victims of that. My mom, everything that she knew to be true about nutrition, came from the US government, came from her doctors, and came from whatever she read in the newspaper.
And unfortunately, all of that nutritional insight and information and all the recommendations that were made for-- built on the USDA food pyramid, and prescribed to her since she was a little girl were all complete bullshit.
And thankfully we now have access to research, and to people that are helping to on earth the truth that’s out there. I’m one of many people that are doing this, but I’m very optimistic that our generation is going to be the first to really live to old age, and do it in better health, I mean that’s my hope anyway.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, well, Max, thanks so much for coming on the show today, thanks for being a person who’s stepping up, and stepping out there, trying to get people this information, and thanks for the kind words about this show, and I really appreciate what you do as well, and especially after spending time today speaking with you, I just feel like a kindred spirit. And where can people buy your book, and find out about your documentary?
Max Lugavere: Thanks so much. And I feel the same way. People can go anywhere they buy books to buy Genius Foods, it’s on Amazon, it’s at Barnes and Noble, international listeners can go to—well, on Amazon too, but there’s also a site called book depository that has free global shipping.But yeah, Genius Foods is out there.
And then find me on social media, I’m on Instagram @ maxlugavere. I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook, say hi.
Ted Ryce: You got it, I’ll have all those links on the show notes, and I was just thinking about what you said, having to sit down, learning about nutrition through textbooks in the library. Now we have podcasts like this, now we have Genius Foods, where you’ve presented the information in a way that people can actually understand, instead of the big words that you have to have at least an undergraduate degree in biology to figure out.
So, thanks for that, man. I feel like this is the first of many interviews to come. I can’t wait to see what you do, and what you get out there, and yeah, until next time, Max.
Max Lugavere: Thank you so much, dude, it’s been a pleasure.
Ted Ryce: Wow! What an incredible interview, how knowledgeable was Max? So, you’re listening to the Ted’s takeaways part of the interview, this is where I break down the top lessons that our guests shared today. And since it was kind of a long episode, I’m just going to keep it very short, in that, keep in mind that you’ve got to start thinking about your health now.
If you remember what Max said, he said that dementia, things like dementia and Alzheimer’s, they start 30 or 40 years before you start showing symptoms. And it’s so hard to wrap our heads around that, you’ve got to push your emotions to the side, because the emotional part of us, we’re like, “Man, that’s not going to happen to me. That’s never going to happen to me, I feel good now, and I’m going to eat my pizza, my cookies, my ice cream, I’m going to sit my butt on my couch and binge watch, Game Of Thrones, Stranger Things, This Is Us, all your favorite shows, or altered carbon, or what else have I been watching? I’ve been watching the new Jessica Jones, just finished that season two. And I’m just going to do all those things, and then I’ll worry about my health later.
Well, if you’re one of those people, it may be too late. And I see that with my dad. Now, his mother and father both had Alzheimer’s, and it was really scary, like I talked about that story in the interview with Max, about how my grandmother put me in a headlock. I mean, it was so weird and crazy, and it was very sad to watch her degenerate.
But the thing is, you’ve got to start thinking about your health now, especially if you’re in your 40s, 50s, this is the time to really pull it together and focus on your habits. And don’t say you’re going to do it when it’s convenient, don’t say you’re going to do it yet when you have better time, focus on it now.
That’s all I’ve got. Have an amazing rest of your week, and I’ll speak to you soon.
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