A happy and successful life is as much about diet as anything else. When you feel well, it’s easier to be happy and productive. Every day we’re bombarded with messages and opportunities encouraging bad eating habits and many people don’t even realize it. To help us learn more about eating well to stay healthy, we spoke to Kelly Dorfman, one of the world’s foremost experts on using nutrition to improve brain function, energy and mood.
An interview with Kelly Dorfman, M.S., L.D.N,
Clinical Nutritionist, Speaker and Award-Winning Author
Most people are aware of the fact that “you are what you eat”, and would agree that our diet directly affects the function of our brain, mood and overall health. Do you think most young people are aware of what they are eating and its impact on their health?
When it comes to young people, there’s a wide variety in their exposure and experience. Some are quite aware, and others don’t have the opportunity, the education, or the resources, so they are less aware. I think the bigger issue is: what they know they need to do and what they actually do in the moment aren’t the same. That’s because their prefrontal cortex is not developed completely. The prefrontal cortex lets you do the hard thing like wait your turn, say no to the donut, or get your homework done in advance. While most teenagers can tell you those are good things to do, in the moment they would say, “I’ll deal with this later.” That’s completely normal developmentally, but it just means that you’re never getting to it. You mean to eat well, but not now – you’ll eat better tomorrow. They can basically resist everything but temptation.
Your book, “Cure Your Child with Food”, talks about the hidden connections between food and disease. A lot of teenagers suffer from things like anxiety, rashes, stomach aches, ADHD and more – what’s the connection?
The connection is basically the whole field of therapeutic nutrition – you’re made up of a bunch of chemicals. Everything you do from raising your arm to thinking a thought has a chemical reaction that goes with it. Those chemicals are made up of the foods you eat. If you don’t have them, you don’t make them. There’s not a deficit you can run on. You’re not the government. You can’t borrow from the future or take from something else. If you want to think a clear thought, then you need certain chemicals to do that. If you’re not eating them, breathing them, or drinking them in some form, you just won’t have the materials to do that. It’s not always clear-cut exactly how that works for everyone. Let’s say that a girl has ‘fuzzy brain’ – you can’t necessarily say that’s because she ate cereal for breakfast or because she eats too many cookies. There are so many moving parts – like an algorithm. Usually, it comes down to either missing something they need or eating something that’s irritating them.
Is there a way to use food and dietary supplements to stay really healthy and even turn around a health problem? How could anxiety, for example, which affects about a quarter of teenagers between 13-18, be helped by diet?
In many cases, anxiety and most of the mood disorders including depression have an inflammation component. We know an anti-inflammation diet can help that.
There was a trial called ‘SMILE’ that looked at major depressive disorders. They found by improving the diet and reducing inflammatory foods, extra sugars, bad fats, and less processed packaged foods, that in just a couple weeks they could find that many of the participants had improved significantly. We’re seeing more and more of this. An anti-inflammation diet can absolutely help anxiety. There are many different anti-inflammation diets, but they’re very close to the Mediterranean diet. It’s a diet that is rich in fruits, nuts and vegetables because that’s where all the compounds in the diet are that are anti-inflammation. The key is to avoid white processed food, heavy dairy food, fried foods, packaged foods, and sweet drinks.
Most people know that some foods – like fast food – are less healthy than others, but some supposedly good foods are also less healthy than we think. What are some tips to recognize quality healthy food from something that isn’t?
A really good tip is not having a long list of ingredients in it. If you see a label with many ingredients and you don’t recognize most of those ingredients because they’re chemicals, try to avoid it. The other thing is you can look at shelf life. Good food spoils.When food has an extremely long shelf life, you’re looking at food that’s more processed.
What’s the difference between a food sensitivity and a food allergy, and how should people deal with either one?
A food allergy is now medically defined as a histamine reaction, which means the chemical histamine is involved in creating the reaction. That reaction is usually some kind of itching, or redness, or irritation, a hive, a rash, your throat closing up or swelling, and it usually happens within two hours. That’s the kind of reaction that can be tested with an allergist (a scratch testing or a blood test). Most reactions now are non-allergic reactions, which means they’re not derived from histamine, meaning that you eat something and you don’t get a hive but maybe you get a headache or maybe you feel tired.
These are mediated by different chemicals. We don’t know all the chemicals that mediate them, but one set of chemicals that for sure is involved is called cytokines. These are messenger molecules that help to upregulate and downregulate inflammation as well as gene expression. They are chemicals that are released by the immune system but talk to both the immune and neurological systems. You can get neurological symptoms and other symptoms besides just allergic reactions. They’re much, much harder to find because they’re widespread, they can happen a day later, not just two hours. The best way to find them is elimination. You need a fair amount of time just to see a pattern. The problem with food sensitivities is that very often it’s not even food. It’s some chemical that the food was processed with or some secondary factor, and you don’t even have any idea what that is. The biggest example of that is Roundup. Roundup is the world’s most popular herbicide, and it is often found in food now. The reaction to Roundup looks very much like gluten-sensitivity or stomach pains. There’s no way to know whether the grain that you’ve eaten has been processed with it or not unless you’re eating strictly organic.
What are your thoughts on probiotics? How can teenagers factor this into a healthy lifestyle?
In a healthy diet, there would be probiotics, which are good bacteria, naturally in the foods you eat. You’d bring it in from your garden, you shake it off a few times, you rinse it, and there would be live bacteria in it. Then if you were preserving it with live bacteria like raw sauerkraut or pickles, you would have even more good bacteria. Actually, good raw fermented food that’s kept in the refrigerator is full of natural probiotics. Even good organic food now is sometimes processed in the way to remove bacteria off its surface so that you can have salad on the East Coast in the middle of January. Because of that, you don’t always have all the good bacteria either because the producers are removing all bacteria so the food doesn’t spoil.
It’s good to add probiotics back. You can do that in capsules or in, in live food and yogurt. I always recommend a variety, which means switching them up, because there’s a couple of dozen different types of probiotics that are proprietary blends that are sold through health food stores, or Whole Foods, or Wegmans, or wherever you shop. Even Walgreens and some of the drug stores carry them now. Use the ones in the refrigerator, because most of the species are heat-sensitive.
The human brain is nearly 60% fat. Recent studies suggest that fatty acids are among the most crucial molecules that determine our brain’s integrity and ability to remember and perform. What food is good for your brain?
Fats are structural nutrients. They literally incorporate into your brain and become part of the structure, like you said. In some parts of the brain, like the myelin for example, it can be up to 70% fat. The fats that are preferred are the long-chain fatty acids that are found in fish, like DHA. Seaweed snacks have good fat for the brain. Nuts like walnuts and the whole nut family has good fats for the brain. Olive oil is a good fat for the brain. Then of course, fish.
Eating healthy and caring about what you put into your body can sometimes be seen as different or just not cool, especially among teenagers. This can discourage kids from trying out healthier options. How could someone avoid this need to belong and eat what makes them happy and healthy? Do you have any healthy snacks of your own that you would like to recommend?
I’ve seen a lot of kids who eat poor diets and try to become elite athletes. They want to play high-level soccer, or dance, or whatever. They get injured out – if you don’t eat well you’re going to get injured out. So look at it from a perspective as an elite athlete. All the Olympians you’re seeing, those ice skaters, they’re not eating junk. They might be advertising soda on TV because they need money for their ice skates, but they’re not doing that in real life.