Delia McCabe lost her enthusiasm for the “talking cure” after completing her Master's degree in Psychology. She had discovered that what you eat affects your brain function and that until the brain is properly nourished, no amount of talking will get it working properly. For nearly two decades, she's immersed herself in the fascinating world of nutrition and the brain and offers a focused and insightful approach - based on solid science - into how specific foods can improve your mood, concentration, memory and learning ability, as well as reduce stress.
Food Matters: What made you realize the connection between nutrition and mental health?
While I was completing my master's degree in psychology, I was working with a group of very smart school children. They were very capable of getting great grades, but were all doing very poorly at school. They were also suffering from other psychological challenges, like anxiety and even depression. My research was based on which psychological variables could be used to motivate them and help them achieve according to their potential. I had an extra space on one of the questionnaires that I’d designed for them and I threw in the question: "What is your favorite food?" The answers astonished me, and when compared to the control group, (a group of children who were smart and doing well at school), it was even more amazing. All the children who were underachieving loved junk food, while the other group did not. This changed the course of my research, and gave me a passion that wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t asked that simple question.
Food Matters: Are people surprised and curious when they find out what your area of research is?
I’m amazed at how many times people tell me that when they eat certain foods they feel anxious, jittery or even depressed. It’s as if by realizing that this is a valid area of scientific research, they can speak out about how they actually feel. And they are very curious about which foods would help them to feel calm, more focused, and prevent them experiencing cognitive decline. Many people are also surprised that the information that I have given them isn’t provided by their doctors. Some actually get angry about not having known about it earlier. I’ve seen many reactions that used to surprise me, but now I expect them.
Food Matters: What is one of the most important insights you have learned in life at this point in your health discovery?
It was a real epiphany for me to realize that the brain, being our greediest organ, when well nourished, will allow the rest of the body to flourish too. As the primary "survival" organ, it will take nutrients first, in a sense, and then leave the rest of our body battling to stay well if there are not enough nutrients to go around. It made perfect sense to me then that by feeding the brain optimally, the rest of the body would be able to benefit too. And, if you take into account that a malnourished brain will make poor decisions all round, it is quite sobering to realize that a hungry brain will lead to a poor quality of life on many different levels.
Food Matters: What is the biggest misconception you would like to clear up concerning mental health?
This is a good question, and I’ll have to choose from a few. But the winning one is that most people are completely oblivious to the fact that what they eat every day, has a short- and long-term impact on their brain functioning, mood, memory, learning and capacity to be alert and focused. Each day, the brain requires raw materials for both functioning and structure maintenance. People take it for granted that they are getting the right nutrients for those amazingly complex and super-important tasks. But over time, the brain not only becomes less and less efficient at performing the tasks that we take for granted, it also becomes less and less capable of keeping itself structurally sound. What we eat affects our brain in a real, profound way.
A further point is that so many people are still confused about fats and oils, and this is another huge misconception that I’m passionate about clearing up. The right fats are critical for optimal health, and without them, nothing you do can make up for their absence. When people start consuming the right fats and oils, AND remove the bad ones from their diet, their health can improve so quickly and profoundly, that it sometimes seems like magic to them!
Food Matters: What are some of the most important nutrients that people need to consume for a healthy brain?
The brain, being made up of 60% fat at its dry weight, needs the right kinds of fat to operate optimally. A large percentage of this fat is made up of specialized omega-3 and -6 fats. Unfortunately, these fats are also very delicate. This means that many of these fats that people consume today are damaged. Organic nuts and seeds, and undamaged oils, as well as lots of green leafy greens, supply both omega-3 and omega-6. Most people get enough omega-6, although in a damaged form. So if you focus on omega-3 found in ground flax seeds and chia seeds, as well as undamaged essential fatty acid oil blends, you will be supplying great, undamaged fats to your brain. In addition, unrefined carbohydrates provide steady blood glucose for a greedy brain, and clean protein provides for enzyme and hormone production and the foundation for the brain messengers – the neurotransmitters.
Food Matters: What role does stress play in causing damage to the brain?
We all live in an overwhelming world, and the brain takes a huge "hit" with the stress we experience in ever-increasing amounts. Why? Our brain evolved to respond quickly and efficiently to any threat to our survival. We could run very quickly away from our threat, we could stay and fight for survival or we could stand very, very still, and hope to be bypassed. Today, we very seldom do any of those things. We sit and worry in traffic, wait for ages for resolutions to problems that we have no control over, or engage in meaningless but stressful interactions online.
Our brain cannot tell the difference between a real, physical threat and a perceived, psychological one. And so we don’t get rid of the naturally produced compounds like adrenaline that the brain uses to spur us on to physical activity, because it’s all going on in our brain and there’s nothing physical to do about it. Unfortunately, cortisol, which is produced when adrenaline has been circulating for a while, is very damaging to the brain, because it stops brain cells – neurons – from communicating effectively with each other, and disrupts the process of energy production within the cell. Over time, excess cortisol production leads to neuronal death, which is not a positive thing, as well as stopping the growth of new neurons.