Podcast Season 1

S1 Episode 36: Brain-Healthy Eating

“Today Show” nutritionist Joy Bauer has easy, affordable, and delicious tips for making brain-healthy food choices. Boost your memory, strengthen your focus, and improve your blood flow by following Joy’s simple advice. Plus, the surprising benefits of coffee, and the 3 golden rules of snacking.  

Dr. Stieg: I’m really happy to have Joy Bauer with me today to talk about the important relationship between nutrition and brain health. Joy started her career at Mount Sinai medical center as a clinical nutritionist for the neurosurgical team and nutrition director for the pediatric cardiology department. She’s the author of numerous books and a household name as a frequent NBC Today show contributor, on healthy Eating. Joy, thank you so much for visiting with us today.

Joy Bauer: Wow. Well thanks for having me and what a nice introduction. I appreciate that. 

Dr. Stieg: It’s pretty clear that your popularity in part is due to your passion and also the fact that you deliver information and realistic steps about food as nature’s medicine. Lots of people talk about nutrition and healthy eating. I think for most people, they know what they should be eating and should be avoiding, but you really provide practical ideas. Your motto couldn’t say it better. Life is hard. Food should be easy. Is it really that easy? Is it affordable? How do you make it affordable? Is it filling, you know, after my meal I want to feel like I’ve chowed something down and how much work do I have to put into it? I don’t go to the grocery store to read labels and that’s kind of where it is. So how do you make it easy for me?

Joy Bauer: That’s a big question and it’s a great question. You can make it easy like tossing out very manageable and bite size tips and action related steps. So one of the first things I think everybody can do to make your meals more filling and affordable and healthier is to just incorporate a produce item into each and every meal. And it’s very, very simple. It could be frozen, it could be fresh. So for example, in the morning if you’re having scrambled eggs, look in your refrigerator and see whatever leftover vegetables you have. You could throw in chop tomatoes, you could throw in last night’s green beans. It doesn’t matter what it is, but just get something in those scrambled eggs. 

Dr. Stieg: Eggs are ok?

Joy Bauer: Eggs are fine. What I, what I like to say though, if anybody has elevated cholesterol, which is directly related to brain health, I would say one whole egg and two to three egg whites just to sort of reduce the saturated fat and the cholesterol a little bit. And by the way, you also will dramatically reduce the calories. And a lot of people are looking to lose some weight. But I love eggs personally and professionally. So that would be one example. Now if you’re having a bowl of cereal or oatmeal, you could certainly put berries on there. So there’s a lot of ways to incorporate that produce into your breakfast for lunch and big voluminous, delicious salad, five different vegetables. Get color into that salad. 

Dr. Stieg: What about all the carbs in the oatmeal? You don’t worry about that?

Joy Bauer: I don’t worry about that because it’s about the portion. So if you stick with half a cup of dry oatmeal, you’re totally fine. You can poof it up. You know, you talk about when you wanting to be filled with berries and some nuts and some seeds and maybe have a Greek yogurt on the side. So again, it’s all about portions. I am not afraid of carbs. You just want to choose the better carbs that have you know, the good stuff within and just watch the portions. And then with lunch, you know, you talk about carbs, sandwiches, they’re okay as well, but you want it on whole grain bread. And if we’re looking to boost up the produce, you want to layer it with not just an anemic iceberg lettuce, you want to get peppers in there and cucumbers and onions and whatever else you can get. Maybe spinach leaves, spinach leaves, have all that great iron, which again is going to help your brain health and your energy as well. So it’s about produce with each and every meal. And that’s one tip that is so simple. It’s so manageable, it’s so accessible and it’s not expensive.

Dr. Stieg: One of the major focuses of this show is brain health. And since you’re here I wanted to talk obviously about brain healthy foods. Can you give the listeners some ideas about specific brain healthy foods and why they’re healthy?

Joy Bauer: Definitely. So when we talk about brain health, there’s short term and then there’s a longer term. So when the short term you know immediate focus and feeling like you have the wherewithal to concentrate, that’s more of a blood sugar thing and you want to make sure that your blood sugars are stabilized and that’s going to be a combination of food that has protein and fiber and healthy fat. So those three things are great because they’re going to level your blood sugars. So just to throw out a few magic foods, again this is for the short term that’s going to be things like lentils and starchy beans like black beans and kidney beans and chickpeas. It could be nuts and seeds, it could be a Greek yogurt with some fruit cause the Greek yogurt has a lot of protein which will wake up your brain cells and the fruit’s going to offer a little bit of fiber. So that’s going to equate to a nice level blood sugar and also eat something like sliced apple with some peanut butter for the longer term. And I love all the research that we have right now. And this shows that you can help to slow down cognitive decline and you could boost your memory, possibly reduce the risk for things like dementia and Alzheimer’s. There are a lot of exciting foods, so the first I have to say is berries and we have great research that shows they can have a profound long-term effect on your brain health for the positive. And it could be the frozen when it’s off season and way less expensive or it can be the fresh and there’s the most research is on blueberries, but I just think it’s because there’s the majority of research is on blueberries, whether it could be cherries or strawberries or blackberries because it’s all about the color.

Joy Bauer: That vibrant color signals that they’re loaded with anthocyanins. Unsweetened cocoa powder is packed with flavanols and those are those antioxidants that we know help to keep our arteries healthy and happy and elastic. And if you have great blood flow throughout your body, you’re getting great blood flow to the brain and you can do easy things with cocoa powder. I put a little bit of my coffee in the morning, I put some in my oatmeal. You can mix it into yogurt, into smoothies. It’s very, very versatile. And again, it’s not expensive and you’re probably waiting for me to say fatty fish is that right? 

Dr. Stieg:  Wouldn’t be a conversation without it. 

Joy Bauer: We love, especially salmon. Sardines are great as well, but I think they’re a little bit polarizing. But wild salmon is brimming with Omega 3 fats and even though the research is a little bit mixed on Omega 3 fats directly with brain health, we know that it tames inflammation and we also know that it lowers triglycerides, which again is going to only a healthy heart is a healthy brain, so that’s going to help as well. So I tell people to try to get, you know, at least two to three fish meals per week. And if you can’t afford expensive wild salmon filets get the canned. You can get canned wild salmon with the skin without the skin and you can make salmon cakes or I like to mix the salmon with some chickpeas and a little

Dr. Stieg: So you don’t worry about the canned part of it?

Joy Bauer: No.

Dr. Stieg:  And farm raised versus organic and fresh. Is that an issue in your mind?

Joy Bauer: Wild. So I would go, if you go for wild and Alaskan salmon is automatically wild, you know that it’s very, very low in toxins, if any. So that’s the key word when it comes to salmon for sure. But again, I like to mix it with a little bit of red wine vinegar and extra Virgin olive oil. I cut up some red onions in there and some drained canned chickpeas and you have a brain salad that’s a brain salad.

Dr. Stieg: When I was reading your book, Food Cures, I was impressed in the end, the chapter on memory, you talked about coffee. Now most people will trash coffee that you know dehydrates you, sucks the water out of your muscle and out of your brain. And you emphasize the fact that it helps you focus and it helps your memory and you can answer that question and then kind of maybe touch upon the concept of moderation in all areas. A little bit of something or moderate use is probably not so bad for you.

Joy Bauer: Every day I bless the positive research on coffee. I really do because I am a big coffee girl. You know, we’re really finding that the combination of the caffeine and the antioxidants that are in a cup of brewed coffee can actually be protective to the brain. There are certain people that are sensitive to coffee, you know they have sleeping issues or they have GI issues. Sometimes there are people that get jittery or super headachy from it. And then there were some people who have very high blood pressure and so certainly they need to stay off of coffee. But for the rest of the population, we’re finding that about two cups a day is actually beneficial for you. And that’s, you know, before I talked about putting a little bit of cocoa powder into your cup of coffee and then you’re getting a double hit of brain goodness, so to speak. So I’m all for coffee.

Dr. Stieg: I’ve always been a little bit perplexed about the whole concept of organic and then the controversy about is it really organic? Talk a little bit about what kind of, if you’re going to eat red meat, what kinds should you eat if you’re going to eat chicken, should it be organic? vegetables? When it says organic, does that make any difference or not? And is it okay to eat frozen vegetables?

Joy Bauer: Oh, so first let’s start with frozen cause I think that a lot of people don’t realize that frozen is just as good as fresh. You’ll never beat the deliciousness of fresh produce. But if you bring them home from the store and they sit in your refrigerator day after day after they’re not so delicious, and also you’re wasting a lot of money and the nutrient value is decreasing with each day that it is actually sitting within your fridge. I mean I’m all for fresh, but just by the amount that you need and try to eat them as quickly as possible. And then, you know, replenish, so you want to be buying them sort of in real time. The beauty of frozen is that they pick them in the peak of ripeness, they’re flash frozen and you could stash them in your freezer and you can eat them at your leisure.

Joy Bauer: So you don’t have to worry about anything going bad or minimizing the vitamin content. Truth be told, they’re not as absolutely delicious as fresh produce, but there’s a great purpose for these frozen veggies and especially, you know, considering that they’re reasonably priced and that they’re great for hectic dinners. So, you know, for these last minute dinner solutions, you know, I like to, you know, make great big stews or I’ll use the frozen vegetables and I’ll nuke them in the microwave. And then I’ll quickly whip up a big egg white omelet and they’ll have them stuffed with all of this yumminess or I’ll, I’ll make my frozen vegetables and I’ll again steam them or nuke them in the microwave. And I’ll add them into pasta with some red sauce and maybe some shrimp or chicken. So they’re, they’re very, very versatile and so don’t be ever be afraid of frozen.

Joy Bauer: Everybody should have at least a couple of bags of, or sometimes they come in those bricks of frozen veggies in your freezer. 

Stieg: You just made my life easy. I’m a natural grazer cause I’m always too busy…

Bauer: Get those frozen vegetables, one of my favorite things to do is I take frozen chopped broccoli and I’ll nuke it in the microwave. I would say nuke, I don’t know why that comes out of my mouth, but I’ll microwave it and then I will add some marinara sauce and some Parmesan cheese on top and Oh my, that is a delicious action pack snack.

Joy Bauer: The second part of your question was organic versus conventional. Organic is automatically going to be pricier, right? So that’s something to consider. I would hate for somebody to feel like they can’t eat healthy foods because they could only afford conventional. Conventional healthy is always going to be better than conventional junk. You have to keep that in mind. You want to look at the USDA organic stamp on there, cause then you know it’s been certified, and it adheres to all those rules. And in terms of the meat that you asked me, what’s the best meat? I mean the best meat would be lean cuts. You’re talking about beef right, lean, lean cuts.

Dr. Stieg:  But even with chicken, people think they’re eating healthily with chicken, but if you’re eating farmed chicken, you know, they give them steroids and that as well. And that’s I think what many of us worry about.

Joy Bauer: So in that case, when it comes to like the chicken and even dairy and some of the beef, the gold standard would be organic because you know that, they’re not using any of those things when they raise them. But then of course you dive a little bit deeper and there are better cuts than others. So even with the chicken, you can’t compare the breast or the thigh with the wings. The wing has such a high skin to meat ratio that you’re pretty much eating so much saturated fat. 

Dr. Stieg: And away from the ribeye and eat the filet?

Joy Bauer: Yeah. And like prime ribs, so juicy, so delicious, so unhealthy, on the other hand, a sirloin, but a sirloin or a filet and even brisket. And there are really cool ways to make briskets so it’s fall off of the bone, like tender and moist and delicious.

Joy Bauer: I make a brisket, a barbecue brisket, and a slow cooker. Even you can do this. All I do at, in the morning before I go out to work, is I season this beautiful lean piece of brisket. I’ll put it in my slow cooker with barbecue sauce and a little whoosh. I never say this right, …

Dr. Stieg: Worcestershire sauce

Joy Bauer: Thank you for that. And then I put the top on and I set it for eight hours on low and I come home at night and my family thinks that I have slaved over the most delicious piece of meat.

Dr. Stieg: Make sure you have your apron on before they get home?

Joy Bauer: Yeah. Right, right.

Dr. Stieg: So that kind of leads us into my next question, which is a, in many of your books like Food Curesand From Junk Food to Joy Food, you give examples of how to make maybe food that isn’t the healthiest but make it healthy. Can you give us a couple of examples besides your brisket?

Joy Bauer: I can give you a million examples. Something as easy as mashed potatoes. So instead of mashed potatoes you can do mashed cauliflower. And if you don’t want to go from one extreme to the other, sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll half my potatoes with half cauliflower. So what happens now is cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable, which reduces the risk for certain cancers, but it’s also loaded with vitamin C, which is an immune booster. And of course it’s way lower in calories and carbs and higher in fiber than the poor spuds. So we’re making something that tastes exactly like the real McCoy, yet it is so much better for you. That’s one example. 

Dr. Stieg: What about the person that needs lunch at noon and they’ve got an a business dinner at eight and they get a little bit hungry. You know, what are you, what’s your advice regarding snacks? What’s the healthy way to go about doing that? Not picking up the chips, I gather?

Joy Bauer: Right, right. So I think a lot of it has to do with preplanning and I’m all for snacks and I think that we are a nation of snackers and a lot of people aren’t even taking the time to have traditional meals anymore. They are snacking their way from, you know, breakfast all the way through past dinner. When it comes to snacking, there’s, in my book, three golden rules. The first is that a snack should be no more than 200 calories because that’s the sweet spot that it’ll fill you up, it’s satisfying, but it won’t wreck your appetite for the upcoming meal. And it also won’t cause weight gain. So no more than 200 calories. The second piece is that it needs to be made with wholesome, nutrient rich quality ingredients. And the third is it needs to make you happy. It needs to taste delicious because if you’re not a carrot eater and all you brought to work is a bag of baby carrots, like let’s face it, you’re either not going to eat it and you’re going to go to the vending machine or you’re going to eat it and you’re going to be looking for something else.

Joy Bauer: And then something else and then something else. So no more than 200 calories made with wholesome quality ingredients. And it needs to be something that you’re looking forward to.

Dr. Stieg: Can you comment a little bit when you walk into all these shops and they try to make it look healthy and I don’t really know whether it is, but like the Kind Bars and the Cliffbars, are those, they fall into that 200 calorie range. Are they good for you or are they filler?

Joy Bauer: So it’s a little bit of a loaded question because there are so many brands out there right now and some of them are amazing and some of them are much less than amazing. 

Dr. Stieg: I won’t ask you to advertise for anybody. So what do you do? Look at the label?

Joy Bauer: So I think the first thing I would say is like when you look at a label and you see like non-GMO, you know –know this know that, it doesn’t really mean much. The ingredients tell the story. So I would flip it around if it is in fact less than 200 calories for the serving, look at that ingredient list. You know, we’re way smarter than we give ourselves credit for. If the ingredients are recognizable, if there’s not like three different sugars in there, if sugar is the first or second ingredient, you know it’s going to be loaded. And by the way, if something has no sugar but it has artificial sweeteners in it or if it has Stevia and—

Dr. Stieg: Fructose is sugar

Joy Bauer: Yeah, so many things are sugar. I’m going to need to come back and we’re going to do a whole sugar thing. Again, give yourself some credit. Don’t fall from any of the hullabaloo that’s on the front of the panel. I think the people are, companies are very, very clever and strategic at, you know, sexy messaging on the front that make us think things are healthy. But we know what we’re looking for in an ingredient label. And you could also ask if you see a nutritionist or a registered dietician one-on-one, or you know, you have a relationship with your physician, see what some of their favorite brands are, cause chances are they vetted them out.

Dr. Stieg: Joy, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you here today to share your expertise and thank you for giving us insight on the smart food choices we can all make to improve our brain health.