'This is Your Brain on Food': Cancer-Fighting Cookbook Author Investigates Foods That Help Brain Function

The Healthy Mind Cookbook. by Rebecca Katz

At first glance, a lentil is just a lentil, right? Looking somewhat like a pebble, a lentil is a cheap source of protein, sure. But how about viewing the legume as a teeny microprocessor for the brain?

That’s how Rebecca Katz, author of the newly published The Healthy Mind Cookbook with co-author Mat Edelson (Ten Speed Press) sees the lowly legume. After talking to Katz, it’s impossible to look at foods like lentils in the same light.

“Lentils are teeny little nano-bots that get no respect, yet they are so important for focus and memory and learning,” Katz told Bay Area Bites. “They’re full of B vitamins like folate and B9, which keep our mind sharp and B6, which gives us focus and energy. They’re also a great source of iron and zinc, which is great for memory boosting, and from a culinary perspective, they’re the easiest of legumes to prepare, since you don’t have to soak them. You just rinse and shake them in strainer like maracas.”

Such enthusiasm about the healing properties of food is a given for Katz, author of two cookbooks for cancer patients, One Bite at a Time and The Cancer Fighting Kitchen, as well as her last one, The Longevity Kitchen.

Author Rebecca Katz
Author Rebecca Katz

Katz, who lives in San Rafael, is founding director of the Healing Kitchens Institute at Commonweal in Bolinas, and executive chef of the annual Food as Medicine training program sponsored by The Center for Mind-Body Medicine at Georgetown Medical School.

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Already a graduate of New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute, her interest in the healing properties of food began when she was cooking for her father when he was undergoing cancer treatment. She realized there was no guidance as to how to cook for people whose taste buds might be compromised, or might otherwise not feel like eating.

While she touched on science about the brain in her last book, she discovered the research in this field is so new, that there was much more to explore, especially in light of the fact that her father died recently of dementia.

“It was hard for me, knowing what I know about the world of epigenetics, and that genetics are not necessarily our destiny,” said Katz. “But what am I going to do, knowing what I know, to possibly prevent the same thing from happening to me? Of course, there are no guarantees, but I felt that I couldn’t ignore it.”

But in addition to that, there was another reason the brain interested her. “We’re living in a crazy world, where on a day-to-day basis, our brain is being tapped to the max,” she said. “Our brains are being asked to do a lot more than ever before.”

While The Healthy Mind Cookbook is chock-full of healthy yet delicious sounding, mostly gluten-free recipes made from whole foods just as we’ve come to expect from Katz, the introduction offers a lot of the scientific information about how certain foods affect the brain.

Some of it may already sound familiar, especially to those of us who take fish oil to ensure we get our Omega-3 fatty acids.

“For decades, scientists believed that the adult brain was incapable of adding new brain cells or neurons,” she said. “But now they’ve learned not only that new cells can be produced, but where they’re being produced. The hippocampus is connected with learning, and one thing we can do to supercharge that process is consume Omega-3s.”

Eating a diet high in Omega-3s is like doing “yoga for the brain,” said Katz.

Besides taking supplements to get those fatty acids, Katz recommends nuts and seeds, broccoli and citrus.

And as if we needed another reason to eat dark leafy greens, Katz had one at the ready: methylation.

“When you have a deficiency in B vitamins, that can break down the methylation pathway, which means you don’t have the proper tools to express or repair DNA, which can manifest in a whole host of mental issues like depression, pediatric cognitive dysfunction, dementia or stroke,” she said.

So if they’re not your favorite vegetable, picture them as Katz does: like “little vacuum cleaners, going in and getting rid of the debris.”

And you may want to try eating them in her Triple Greens Frittata (see recipe below), which I tried and found to be an excellent way to get probably more than one serving of greens.

Katz also talks about the mind-gut connection, going as far as to call the intestines a “second brain.” By that, she says that if one is stressed out while eating, it can cause digestive problems, which then affects the brain.

To prevent that? “Before you eat, take a moment and a few deep breaths,” she said, “It’s as simple as that. Also, everyone should be mindful before they eat, to be able to engage in proper digestion which leads to proper absorption of the vitamins and minerals, meaning they will then get to the brain.”

As she did in The Longevity Kitchen, Katz includes a chapter called “The Culinary Pharmacy,” which lists in easily readable form, all of her favorite ingredients and how they boost brain activity. A few of her favorites:

  • Lentils: She’s still pushing the lentils, especially as they appear in her Cozy Lentil Soup (see recipe below), a lentil, kale and squash soup with warming spices (that I already tried and found delicious).
  • Mint and Parsley: “It’s like eating oxygen, they’re loaded with this really powerful flavonoid called luteolin, which is linked with improvements in memory and learning skills,” she said. “Plus when you smell mint and parsley, it has this smell, almost like the blinds going up. They boost your alertness.” She says to not think of them only as garnishes.
  • Pumpkin Seeds: Calling them “mini anti-depressants,” Katz says they are loaded with zinc, especially good since there’s a lot of zinc deficiency in a Western diet. “They not only increase memory but they keep depression at bay. They’re a good source of iron and also have what I call the trifecta: zinc, potassium and magnesium, so if you’re having a bad day and your boss is screaming at you, and your kids are screaming at you, or you fall in a mud puddle, you want pumpkin seeds in your pocket, in your desk drawer, or in your purse, because they really are calming.” Katz recommends toasting them, and adding them to salads for extra crunch.
  • Avocados: A good fat, avocados are high in glutathione, which help improve brain performance, prevent cognitive decline and ward off depression. “They’re one of the healthiest fats out there,” says Katz. “And because they have that fabulous texture, it’s another food that you don’t have to be a culinary genius to know what to do with. Slice it in half, put lemon or lime juice on it and a sprinkling of salt.” Katz also loves it for its versatility; it can go in salads, on sandwiches, be blended for a salad dressing, or turned into a spread. “It’s also a satiating food because it’s a fat,” she says.
  • The Cruciferous Family: cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage. Katz says, “They are all “fabulous brain foods because they aid in methylation.”
  • Cinnamon: Not only does this spice help with blood sugar regularization, but it helps with focus and memory. “Cinnamon delivers so much anti-inflammatory benefits and you don’t need a lot, so it’s worth incorporating at least 1/2 teaspoon a day,” she says. Try sprinkling it into your coffee, or on your porridge.
  • Chocolate: And perhaps to the relief of many, chocolate is on the list, too. “It’s a mood enhancer,” said Katz. “I recommend seventy percent cacao and above, the darker the better, as it’s higher in antioxidants. Let’s face it, you need something sweet in your life and chocolate is definitely on my list.” While Katz often mixes chocolate with fruit for the book’s desserts, she recommends that everyone keep some around, because “everyone needs their mood to be enhanced sometimes.”

Event:
Rebecca Katz will be speaking about The Healthy Mind Cookbook at Omnivore Books in S.F. Wed, February 11 at 6:30-7:30pm.

Recipes

Recipes reprinted with permission from The Healthy Mind Cookbook by Rebecca Katz, copyright (c) 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography (c) 2015 by Maren Caruso.

Cozy Lentil Soup with Delicata Squash. Photo: Maren Caruso
Cozy Lentil Soup with Delicata Squash. Photo: Maren Caruso

Cozy Lentil Soup with Delicata Squash

MAKES 6 SERVINGS • PREP TIME: 20 minutes • COOK TIME: 35 minutes

Silicon Valley has promised us that, someday, little nanobots will act like tiny microprocessors in our brains, helping to make us smarter. I say, Why wait? We already have a teensy food that does that. It’s the lentil, the vegetable kingdom’s version of a Lilliputian flying saucer. Lentils, ounce for ounce, pack an amazing amount of brain boosters, such as iron (essential to the function of myelin, which is involved in quick information gathering). From a culinary viewpoint, it’s a myth that you have to soak lentils overnight; just a quick rinse will do. With a host of spices, cubed delicata squash, and thinly sliced kale, this is my go-to soup when I’m working hard and need to process a lot of information.

    Ingredients:
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced small
  • Sea salt
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced small
  • 2 celery stalks, diced small
  • 1 medium delicata squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup dried green lentils, rinsed well
  • 8 cups store-bought organic vegetable broth
  • 1 cup tightly packed, stemmed, and thinly sliced kale
    Instructions:
  1. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the carrots, celery, delicata squash, and another pinch of salt and sauté until all of the vegetables are just tender, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add the curry powder, cumin, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and red pepper flakes and give a stir. Add the lentils and stir to coat. Pour in 1/2 cup of the broth to deglaze the pot, stirring to loosen any bits stuck to the pot, and cook until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the rest of the broth. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Taste; you may want to add a pinch of salt. Stir in the kale and cook until it’s tender, about 3 minutes.

VARIATION: Substitute fennel, which is a good digestive aid, for the celery to add more depth to the flavor.

COOK’S NOTE: If you have trouble finding delicata squash, use its cousin, butternut squash.

PER SERVING: Calories: 224; Total Fat: 6 g (1 g saturated, 4 g monoun-saturated); Carbohydrates: 37 g; Protein: 9 g; Fiber: 10 g; Sodium: 329 mg

STORAGE: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months.

Triple Greens Frittata. Photo: Maren Caruso
Triple Greens Frittata. Photo: Maren Caruso

Triple Greens Frittata

MAKES 6 SERVINGS • PREP TIME: 15 minutes • COOK TIME: 40 minutes

A frittata is an Italian omelet but, unlike the French version, you don’t have to figure out how to do that funky half-flip with the eggs in the pan. Frittatas bake, and in Italy they’re often eaten at room temperature: they really are a good on-the-go food. The eggs are also a great binder for the greens, which include kale, chard, and spinach. Add some red bell pepper, marjoram, thyme, and feta, and you’ve got a super protein hit for lunch on the go—just the thing to keep your brain working optimally throughout the day.

    Ingredients:
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper Sea salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup tightly packed, finely chopped kale
  • 2 cups tightly packed, finely chopped chard
  • 2 cups tightly packed, finely chopped spinach
  • Freshly grated nutmeg
  • 10 organic eggs
  • 2 scallions, minced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 ounces crumbled feta
    Instructions:
  1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly oil a 6 by 8-inch baking dish.
  2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When it’s shimmering, add the bell pepper and a pinch of salt and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté until fragrant, another 30 seconds or so. Stir in the kale and another pinch of salt and continue to sauté for 5 minutes. Add the chard and spinach, and one more pinch of salt, sautéing until the greens are wilted and tender, about 5 minutes more. Remove from the heat and add a few gratings of nutmeg, stirring to combine.
  3. Whisk the eggs, scallions, marjoram, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and the pepper together in a large bowl. Lay the cooked greens along the bottom of the prepared dish and top them with the crumbled feta. Pour the egg mixture over and bake until the eggs are just set, 25 to 30 minutes.

PER SERVING: Calories: 169; Total Fat: 12 g (3.5 g saturated, 6.5 g monounsaturated); Carbohydrates: 6.5 g; Protein: 8g; Fiber: 1 g; Sodium: 388 mg

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STORAGE: Store, tightly wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

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