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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Brain Food: Eating to Feed Creativity and Clarity

The mental image of a hard-at-work author sitting at a desk with computer, or pen and paper, or typewriter, often seems to include a half-full bottle of whiskey...or a steaming cup of coffee...soda cans...even a smoking cigarette. And, in my world, there's always chocolate too.

But in reality, those items (except for the chocolate! Really! Read on...) serve only to give one an artificial high or boost, and in the end cause more problems than they're worth--even if they help you get through that project.

Ask Stephen King. (Or read his book On Writing.) He talks about using artificial substances to promote his writing. Anyway, I digress....

I know there are times when I have to finish a project (or a word count or page count) and I need to push myself. I used to turn to Diet Coke and chocolate, or anything I could grab from the kitchen. Comfort (ie, junk) food. Anything quick and easy to keep me going. I'd worry about health and losing weight later.

But in the last year I've realized that eating healthier actually keeps my brain fresher, it also provides more clarity and inspiration. It makes writing easier!

I've given up my Diet Coke (cold turkey), and not only has my skin never looked better, but I sleep better at night...and I feel better.

Here are some examples of what I call "brain food" that can help you keep your mind sharp and clear, and give you a natural boost when you're working those long hours to get a project done. (Although...a good night's sleep of 7-8 hours is of paramount importance too.)

1. Get rid of the caffeine and artificial sweetners. (I know. I can hear your groans from here. But it me.) If you get off that artificial high, you'll feel better and sleep better in the long run.

If you need caffeine, drink green or white tea. Sweeten it with a bit of honey or natural sugar, or even agave nectar. Green and white teas are loaded with anti-oxidants...and they seem to help people lose weight. A win-win situation, don't you think?

Stash brand tea is some of my favorite.

2. Eat whole foods. That is, eat foods that are still in their original form. Berries--especially blueberries (they're truly a wonder food!) are a great brain food, but they're no good if they're smashed up in granola bars or dried with a lot of sugar, or canned in syrup.

3. Ginseng, peppermint, and ginger are great options for clearing the mind. You can add them to tea (by ginger I mean the fresh root you find in the produce section, not the powder you add when you bake) or buy supplements. I love a peppermint tea in the morning: it clears my sinuses too, and it smells so good.

4. Omega 3 Fatty acids. You're hearing a lot about them, and there's a reason for it. They're healthy and they keep your brain clean. You can either eat a lot of fish and/or sunflower seeds, and some nuts, or you can take supplements to help you get enough of the Omega 3 fatty acids.

5. Whole grains. (This goes back to the "whole foods" concept.) Not that spongy white bread you get in the store...look for breads or flatbreads that list "whole grain" or "whole wheat" first on the list of ingredients.

6. And, yes, chocolate. (Yay!) But make it dark chocolate, and don't overdo it. By dark chocolate I mean chocolate with at least 60% cacao in it. (It'll say on the package if it is.)

Here's a great slideshow at that shows you how beautiful Brain Foods are--see the variety of color and texture? If you're eating a rainbow of foods, you're doing well.

Here's one of my favorite quick recipes for a breakfast smoothy:
+ 1 cup skim milk
+ 1/2 banana
+ handful of frozen (without added sugar) blueberries or strawberries (fresh is fine, too, of course)
+ a teaspoon (or the insides of a capsule) of ginger or ginseng
+ Toss it in the blender, and you have a fabulous smoothy that includes healthy dairy and brain food.

(You can substitute unsweetened soy or unsweetened almond milk too.)

Green Smoothie Energy Drink

+ 1 cup water
+ half an avocado
+ an apple
+ fresh sprouts (broccoli)
+ generous handful of spinach
+optional: a bit of spirulina (a seaweed supplement that comes in a powder; don't add too much if you don't like the taste of seaweed--no more than a half teaspoon)
+ Toss all in a blender and have a very green smoothy.

I also like to make this for lunch:
+ couscous (1 cup of instant cooks in five minutes)
+ black beans, drained
+ cut up avocado
+ pine nuts
+ cut up veggies--spinach, red or yellow peppers, broccoli, tomatoes--whatever you want, and the more the merrier!
+ fat-free feta cheese
+ Mix it all up and add a sprinkling of balsamic or tarragon vinegar. Yummy and smart!

What are some of your favorite brain foods? Share! I'm always looking for great recipes.
Colleen Gleason. Visit my personal blog for more fun and frolic!


At 8:37 AM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

Great suggestions. I try to make sure there are plenty of healthy nibbles in the house, since I tend to roam as I plot out a scene, or just listen to what my characters are saying, and all roads lead through the kitchen.

I gave up caffeine about 30 years ago, and don't miss it.

Another suggestion is roobios tea. It's moved from the health food stores to the regular coffee/tea section of most grocery stores. It's usually labeled at 'red tea' or 'red bush'. It's from Africa, and although I'd been drinking it for some time prior to my trip, it became my staple over there because they didn't brew decaf coffee. Nothing but instant crystals. Yuck (and they grow coffee in Africa, so it's hard to understand why they don't offer it in brewed decaf). Anyway, the roobios (pronounced Roy Boss) is full of anti-oxidants. I've seen it in flavors now in the store, but I like it plain with just a touch of honey.

Love the dark chocolate, of course. I'll get the Hershey's kisses, because I can talk myself into eating one, as opposed to the new dark chocolate M&M's, which have to be devoured by the handful. I try to save the 'really good' stuff for rewards.

And, although it doesn't fall into your food topic, exercise also keeps the brain clicking.

At 9:05 AM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

This is definitely a blog I needed to read. I am overweight and eat everything that is bad for me. Funny how the possibility of becoming a published author - the second of my two dreams - can inspire one to get it together!!

Tea is my downfall - iced tea and hot Earl Gray. Don't know if I can give it up, but I have cut back. Gave up Cokes a while back.

I will definitely print this blog and try some of these suggestions. I need a healthier life style if I want to live long enough to see myself published! LOL

By the way, Colleen, I LOVE your books! Love 'em! My copy of When Twilight Burns is sitting on my computer desk as inspiration for me to finish the first 100 pages of my WIP. I am keeping it as my reward for getting that done!

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Oh, Colleen!
I am going through a junk food binge! I really need to stop. I did the South Beach diet earlier in the year to rid myself of my sugar and carbo cravings. It worked but I'm lapsing.

I am so addicted to Diet Coke. I really need to work on this....I love tea so I really do have an alternative.

Sigh. your post may just be the inspiration I need!

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

Louisa, you can get Earl Grey in decaf. I have a box in my pantry

At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Colleen Gleason said...

Terry, thanks so much for mentioning roobois tea. I'd forgotten about that, and I've enjoyed it too (although I prefer a green tea).

And thanks for telling me how to pronounce the word. ;-)

Louisa! Thank you so much for your kind words about my books. I'm so glad you enjoy them, and really glad that WTB is a little carrot on a stick for you. I hope it's worth the wait!

Good luck to you in turning around your diet. I've found green Earl Gray tea, organic!, and I love it.

And let me clarify--caffeine isn't totally bad. But I think if you're going to have it, it's best to have it in smaller quantities and also to try to have it with antioxidant teas.

There's a lot less caffeine in tea than in coffee, and I brew my tea reallllly weak.

Diane! You can do this! I did THE IDIOT-PROOF DIET earlier this summer (it's similar to the South Beach), but I've fallen off it.

Now I'm just concentrating on eating whole foods (which ends up making my diet healthy) and doing something active each day.

At 9:57 AM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

And let me clarify--caffeine isn't totally bad. But I think if you're going to have it, it's best to have it in smaller quantities and also to try to have it with antioxidant teas.

I'm more than happy to give it up in coffee, tea, and soda. But I REFUSE to give up my chocolate, so yes, I get small doses of caffeine. What really got me off caffeine was realizing the headaches I got when I visited my mom for summer vacations with the kids were actual withdrawal. I didn't like the idea of being addicted to anything, so I switched. And that was back in the day where decaf was Sanka. Period. So, if I could do it then, anyone should be able to do it now, given all the gourmet choices.

At 10:45 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Oooh, this all looks and sounds delicious. I don't like dark chocolate, but I'm acquiring a taste for the stuff little by little. I only drink one cup of coffee a day but I would love to break myself of that habit. We eat lots of blueberries over here and I eat sunflower seeds every day. I also take the supplements and flaxseed because I heard that was a brain food, too!

Thanks for the great post, Colleen!

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Good for you, Terry, giving up the caffeine! And I've never heard of roobios tea. Must give that a try. Thanks!

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

This is so true, Colleen. I make a point to eat better and take even more care of myself when I have a tough deadline, because I'm so much more productive that way.

I've had problems with every kind of caffeine except for the levels in green and oolong tea. (Stash makes a great decaf green and also a decaf Earl Grey.) Oolong is even more effective than green for weight loss, from what I've read and my own experience. For women, it's also important to keep your protein kind of high during stressful times. Here's a good, relatively low-cal pick-me-up.

Put a mango or other fruit-flavored (but not citrus) green-tea bag in a double-size cup and fill halfway with water. Brew for 5 minutes. Stir in a agave syrup (I use 1/2 tsp). Fill to the top with plain soy milk. Microwave to bring up to warm temp, or pour over ice and drink cold. By the way, many flavored teas (especially my hometown brand of Celestial Seasonings) use excitotoxins to boost flavors. MSG and Aspartame are in this family. None of these are good for the old brain cells. For artificial sweeteners, I use Sacharin or stevia. Sweetleaf makes flavored stevia drops. In summer, I put 1/3 to 1/2 a dropper of Grape Sweetleaf in a can of selzter and add a bit of lemon or lime juice for a calorie-free diet soda that doesn't have any weird effects. Some but not all people think stevia has a weird tang. I never did, but regardless, most people can get used to it.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger janegeorge said...

Celestial Seasonings uses excitotoxins? Way to sell out! Say it ain't so. I like their green teas. I shall double check the label. Pah and poohey.

My favorite black tea is PG Tips.

A great breakfast I've found is pumpkin flax granola (available at Trader Joe's) with nonfat plain yogurt and blueberries on top. Since I've been eating that concoction regularly, my chronic excema on my back cleared up!

Last October I was forced to give up Diet Coke, Peet's coffee and wine. All of which I consumed in quasi-mass quantities because of my former previous awful day job. The stress of the job gave me a painful case of duodenitis. An unexpected bonus to giving up the high-acid stuff was my joint inflammation went away.

Now that I'm gleefully an unemployed vagrant with a happy tummy, I can have an occasional cup of coffee or wine, but I honestly now prefer the green tea and it makes me feel good!

At 4:18 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Jane: Here's the deal -- MSG and other excitotoxins other than Aspartame can be listed on ingredients lists as "natural flavors," or "spices" under FDA regs. I wrote Celestial Seasonings and said I wanted to avoid excitotoxins, and did their flavored teas contain any? I received a letter that didn't say "yes," but told me I might want to stick with their peppermint tea.

At 6:31 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Oh, Colleen, GREAT blog. I'd like to second the value of eating whole food. You just can't get those phytonutrients from a supplement or processed food.

I have a dear friend who battled breast cancer last year. She's done a lot to educate herself about healthy, healing foods, and encouraged me to look into them. I'd already turned my diet around and lost quite a bit of weight by focusing on whole foods and balancing protein/carb intake, but in the weeks since I've adopted some of these foods, I feel so much better and more energetic!

Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc.) are potent immune boosters, and have anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-cancer properties. You should eat them every day! Off the top of my head, also very good are red peppers, onions, garlic. Oh, and spices! Turmeric is a wonder drug. Cumin is also purported to have many of the same properties. Both of these should be taken with black pepper, which increases their bio-availability. Cinnamon is another powerful spice. The more I read about these things, the more they seem to have in common -- anti-cancer properties, anti-inflammatory properties, digestive aids, positive impact on brain clarity...

My favorite way to incorporate these spices every day: I sprinkle cumin on my scrambled eggs each morning and eat it in a 12-grain wrap, and turmeric on my cottage cheese and fruit snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Yum!

My last thought -- L-Glutamine. Athletes have long used it for muscle repair, but it's great for digestion, is a liver tonic, and improved brain function. I take a supplement, but you can also find healthy levels of glutamine in some of the food you mentioned, Colleen (eggs, avacados, dairy, wheat germ).

At 8:25 PM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Decaf and green Earl Gray!! I am so on it!! Tea is definitely my thing. I never drink coffee. Never acquired a taste for it. At the age most Southern children learned to drink coffee (9 to 12) I was living in England and I wanted to fit in with my chums in the village so tea it was. Now I can't even think about coffee. Giving up soft drinks was hard, but I didn't drink them when I was singing (cut down on air capacity) so it was easier to give them up.

Unfortunately I am not a big veggie eater. Carrots (raw, not cooked) are pretty much it. Sad, I know! I do, however, love blueberries, strawberries, apples and bananas. And I only eat a wheat 9 grain bread these days. I'm getting there!

At 8:26 PM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Colleen, I know WTB will be worth it as you left me hanging in the last book!!

At 12:23 AM, Blogger janegeorge said...

Thanks Esri.

That sucks! Looks like I have to add my own honey, lemon & ginseng to plain old sencha and eschew the illustrated boxes.

I do know that MSG can masquerade as autolyzed yeast in other foods.

At 8:41 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Fabulous post!!

I have another suggestion to mull over, if any of you suffer from thyroid issues. I'm not a doctor, so this isn't medical advice, just something to be aware of. :)

Cruciferous vegetables can suppress your thyroid function, not a good thing if you're already taking meds for it. (You need to watch how soy products affect you as well.) If you eat them raw already and notice no problems, then great! But evidently cooking these vegetables cuts down on the interference. Many raw vegetables are more nutritious than cooked, but cooked is certainly better than none at all.

I'm going to try those shakes. They sound delicious.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Oh, I've also got to chime in on the tea and coffee. Yes, caffeine can be a bear, but keep in mind many studies have linked the consumption with reduced chances of Alzheimer's disease. My husband treats cancer patients and does acknowledge the huge impact of diet on health, but if you need to "keep" a vice, coffee or dark tea is so much better than processed foods.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am biased, as my dad and I have always suffered from horrid headaches, and his cure for me was always Excedrin and real Coke. The minute I feel one coming one, it's the first thing I reach for. But I do not drink Coke on a regular basis. I'm always shocked by how quickly I put on weight, and how different my skin looks (I know one of you mentioned that) when I have "regular" soda for longer than two days.

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Gillian: That's so true about soda and skin. Wonder what the deal is with that?

At 6:01 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Gillian, great point about the cruciferous veg/throid issue. You raise an important issue. If you have any kind of medical condition, for which you take drugs or not, you should be aware how foods interact with your condition and/or drugs. Bananas are a wonderful, nutrient-packed food that has a hypotensive effect on blood pressure. A good thing for almost everyone, unless for some reason you're already hypotensive. Turmeric is amazing, but you probably shouldn't take it in quantity if you have stomach ulcers or bile duct obstruction. I think if you educate yourself about your conditions and drugs, avoid foods, herbs and spices that are contraindicated, and eat a variety of whole foods, you should be good. ,-)


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