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Diet, Cognition, and Wellness: Advice from The Integrative Health and Wellness Program Co-Founder
May 13, 2020
Weill Cornell Medicine, in conjunction with the 92Y, presented a full-day summit on mental health and whole body wellness. During one session, Dr. Alka Gupta led a discussion about diet and how it can promote overall wellness and brain health.
Dr. Gupta is the Co-founder and Co-director of the Weill Cornell Medicine Integrative Health and Wellness Program. This Program helps patients achieve greater physical, psychological, and social wellness by complementing their current health care with nutritional counseling, acupuncture, massage therapy, and other mind-body educational services.
The mind-gut connection
“Over the last several years, we’ve learned so much about how there’s bi-directional communications between our gastrointestinal tracts and brains,” Dr. Gupta explained.
“We’ve known for a long time that if we’re anxious or down, that can impact digestion. But we’re only recently starting to understand that the connection actually also goes the other way. That how we digest, break down, absorb, assimilate what we eat actually impacts the way that our brain works.”
“If we look at our digestive system,” she continued, “we can see how it’s built to serve that function. A lot of our digestion absorption happens in our small and large intestines. And if you were to take that and splice that open, it would be approximately as large as a tennis court. There is a huge amount of surface area that creates the lining of our intestines.”
This lining has hundreds of trillions of bacteria that complete the digestive process for us. “We can harness that interaction to work for us in a lot of beneficial ways,” she asserted optimistically.
Changes in diet can, over the long term, improve our mood and mental wellbeing, lessen symptoms from chronic illnesses, improve cardiovascular health, and prevent cognitive decline.
The best, evidence-based diets for overall health
There is so much evidence that a healthy diet is important to our overall health and wellbeing. However, the question remains: what is a healthy diet? Dr. Gupta recommended three well-known diets.
The Mediterranean diet: “The Mediterranean diet is one of the most science-backed diets across the board for health,” she stated. “This diet focuses on plant foods. Lots of vegetables and fruit. This is not a low-carb diet, but your carbohydrate intake is coming from those vegetables, like fruits and whole grains. The protein sources include fish and poultry, plant-based sources like tofu and beans. This diet also has plenty of healthy sources of fat, mainly olive oil.”
The statistics surrounding the Mediterranean diet are impressive. The diet is associated with lower rates of depression, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis. It is also associated with increased survival and longevity rates.
MIND diet: This diet is a newer, evidence-based diet designed to prevent dementia as you age. It combines the Mediterranean diet with the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). MIND stands for “Mediterranean DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.”
Dr. Gutpa explained, “The MIND diet is, basically, the Mediterranean diet on steroids.” It emphasizes specific foods that have been shown to prevent cognitive decline: leafy greens, berries, nuts, olive oil, fish at least twice a week, beans, and lentils. The diet recommends limiting fried foods, red meat, cheese, and processed sweets.
Plant-based (vegan) diet: Dr. Gupta advocated that a plant-based diet has many benefits, but suggested seeking guidance and supplementing with certain vitamins and minerals, including B12.
“If you’re interested in moving toward a totally plant-based diet, I think that’s wonderful, but it has to be done correctly.” she explained. “I see a lot of patients that are doing a vegan or plant-based diet, but not in the most balanced way. They’re going a little too heavy on the carbs. They’re not getting certain important minerals like calcium or iron. Maybe they’re not getting enough protein in general. But can you have a balanced, plant-based diet? For sure.”
“It’s definitely important that you do your research,” she continued, “and maybe meet with a professional so that you get all the information that you need and know that you’re not deficient in anything.”
Foods to limit
In general, Dr. Gupta advocated for a diet full of unprocessed, whole foods. By advocating a “food as medicine” philosophy, she cautioned that we should limit processed foods as much as possible.
She also warned that added sugars, especially those found in processed foods, cause our blood sugar levels to spike—and then crash. This leads to mood swings and inflammation. Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols should be consumed sparingly. Natural sugars, like agave or honey, are more natural alternatives, but should still be limited.
Dr. Gupta helps her patients set goals for their health, including reducing their consumption of sugar and processed foods. “Whatever you set as your goal on day one is not necessarily what your goal at your second or third visit looks like,” she explained. “I would say any progress is progress.”
“Figure out where your major sources of sugar are. For many people, it’s soda. For many people, it’s the dessert that we’re used to having after dinner. If there’s something that you’re finding yourself eating or drinking every day, that’s probably what you’re going to get the most bang for your buck by cutting in half or only having that in social situations.”
“And,” she reminded, “if you just get into the habit of looking at the nutrition facts for everything that you can look at, just that awareness is the biggest and most important first step, I think.”
What about supplements?
Dr. Gupta suggested that we strive to get as much vitamins and minerals from our food as possible. “I think we should take a ‘food first’ approach when possible,” she asserted, “but there are certain situations in which supplementing can be helpful.”
For example, if you are healthy overall and looking to add more fiber to your diet, she recommended chia seeds and eating more vegetables. Someone living with inflammatory bowel disease or autoimmune disorder, on the other hand, may benefit from seeing a registered dietician to determine the best prebiotic and probiotic supplements.
Mindfulness while eating
As the Co-founder and Co-director of the Weill Cornell Medicine Integrative Health and Wellbeing Program, Dr. Gupta sees how mindfulness helps her patients achieve greater health.
“Mindfulness is a fancy word for awareness,” she explained, “just being aware of how we’re responding in any given moment. Doing that proactively allows us to intervene and change things a lot earlier in the process so that we don’t get to that point where we’re super stressed out or irritable or anxious or scared or whatever the case may be.”
Mindfulness while eating is important. It helps our brain connect to the experience and communicate to our body that it is full. Typically, your brain needs twenty minutes to signal that it feels full, so be sure that you are taking at least 20 minutes to eat your meals. Focus on the specific flavors, colors, and textures of your meal to promote greater mindfulness, awareness, and enjoyment.
When it comes to nutrition and diets, it can be easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of information, theories, and approaches. Dr. Gupta emphasized that we should focus on overall health and wellness. “It’s important to not lose the forest,” she cautioned. “Zoom out and pay attention to the whole body's health.”