Q&A with Rebecca Katz

Author and chef Rebecca Katz offers insight into her passion for feeding the mind and the body. (This Q&A originally appeared in our print issue, as part of Smart Food). 

What inspired you to bring this collection of recipes and insight to readers?

My father passed away from dementia when he was 83, after struggling with the disease for more than a decade. At that time I was researching my previous book, The Longevity Kitchen [Ten Speed Press, 2013; $29.99], and saw that the brain was not just an isolated 3-pound organ with 100 billion neurons sitting on top of our spinal cord. In fact, I learned that what affects the heart, the gut, and the liver has a direct impact on brain health. This discovery made me want to delve deeper into the connections between brain health and food and its impact on mind, mood, and memory.

As you conducted research, what are a few of the things you learned about the connection between food and brain function that were especially interesting or enlightening?

For decades scientists believed that the adult brain was incapable of adding new brain cells, or neurons, to replace those that were damaged or had died off. Recent discoveries have many of them now thinking the opposite: that new cells can be produced, notably in parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, connected with learning. Research is suggesting that it is possible to supercharge this regeneration process through food. For example, consuming omega-3 fatty acids is linked to great activity of a chemical known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). Foods like nuts, seeds, broccoli, and citrus fruit are believed to kick-start the growth of BDNF.

Also, something I discovered during the research for this book was that there are taste buds throughout the body. A story published in the journal Nature noted that there are taste buds to be found in the gut and the pancreas. While we don’t know the function of all of these below-the-throat taste buds, there have been some spectacular discoveries. Sugar, for example, received a so-called second tasting in the gut. The taste bud receptors there, when they sense sugar, set off the release of glucose into the cells. In turn, that released insulin into the bloodstream to control sugar metabolism. From a culinary and physiological viewpoint, what is important to note is that artificial sweeteners also set off this reaction in the stomach, despite their reputation for not inducing “cigarillo” reactions anywhere other than the taste buds of the mouth. So that diet soda is hitting your gut as if it were the real deal!

You offer a comprehensive glossary of foods that can boost brain health in “The Culinary Pharmacy” in this book. If you were to choose the “top five” brain-healthy ingredients from this list, what would they be?

Here are my top five.

  1. Pumpkin Seeds: They are major stress busters.
  2. Lentils: They are like microprocessors and help with learning.
  3. Cold-Water Fish (e.g., sardines, wild salmon, and anchovies): These are for the omega-3s, which are important for mood and cognitive function.
  4. All Dark, Leafy Greens And Cruciferous Vegetables: These have super antioxidant properties that keep us sharp.
  5. Dark Chocolate: It has mood enhancement properties.

 

The Healthy Mind Cookbook is available for purchase anywhere books are sold, including Amazon.