The Real Life Diet of a Harvard and MIT Scientist Who Says the Right Diet Can Make You Smarter

The Real Life Diet of a Harvard and MIT Scientist Who Says the Right Diet Can Make You Smarter

He starts his day with a “powerhouse bowl of brain-boosting nutrients” that promote cognitive function, mood stability, and overall brain health.” Now, you can, too.

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Michael Houtz; Getty Images

cognitive enhancement devices.” While these things are all well and good, experts say that none of them will make quite as much of a difference in your brain power as what you eat every day.

“Your diet plays a huge role in your brain health,” says Jeffery Karp, PhD, a biomedical engineer at Harvard and MIT who has an upcoming book called LIT: Life Ignition Tools: Use Nature’s Playbook to Energize Your Brain, Spark Ideas, and Ignite Action. “In fact, it has been said to have an enormous impact on your cognitive processes, your mood, and your vulnerability to neurological diseases.”

Knowing this, it makes sense that he hacks his own diet for optimal brain health. When you’re conducting biomedical research at two of the top institutions in the world, you want your brain to be firing on all cylinders, eh? Lucky for us, his eating plan follows.

GQ: Let’s start at the beginning. What do you eat for breakfast to boost your cognitive performance throughout the day?

Dr. Karp: I start the day with a powerhouse bowl of brain-boosting nutrients that promote cognitive function, mood stability, and overall brain health. My breakfast is meticulously crafted to fuel both the body and brain with nutrients that enhance cognitive function, protect against oxidative stress, and support brain cell health. I think it’s the perfect blend of taste and nutrition, specifically tailored for an optimal start of the day with a focus on brain well-being. And I typically wait two to two-and-a-half hours after waking before eating breakfast to maximize my gratitude and appreciation for it.

What’s in this “powerhouse bowl of brain-boosting nutrients”?

Dry rolled oats: A source of complex carbohydrates, oats provide a steady release of energy to the brain, which is important for maintaining focus and cognitive performance throughout the morning. They are also rich in B vitamins, which are essential for brain health.

Walnuts and macadamia nuts: Walnuts have high alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) content, a type of omega-3 fatty acid known for supporting brain health. Macadamia nuts offer monounsaturated fats that can support brain cell structure and health.

Baru nuts: These nuts offer a good mix of protein, antioxidants, and minerals like magnesium and zinc, which are vital for cognitive functions and neurotransmitter regulation.

Golden milk powder (that includes turmeric and black pepper): Turmeric contains curcumin, a compound with potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, potentially beneficial for brain cells by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress. And the piperine in black pepper enhances curcumin absorption, amplifying its benefits.

Seaweed flakes: Seaweed is a great source of iodine, a nutrient essential for brain development and cognitive function. It also contains unique bioactive compounds that may have neuroprotective properties.

Hemp seeds: These seeds are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and gamma-linolenic acid, which can contribute to the reduction of inflammation in the brain and support overall brain health.

Blueberries: Often called “brain berries,” blueberries are packed with antioxidants, particularly flavonoids, which can delay brain aging and improve memory.

Catalina Crunch cereal: I include three tablespoons of this, which is known for its low-carb, high-fiber, and high-protein content. It can support brain health by stabilizing blood sugar levels, promoting gut health through prebiotic fibers, and potentially enhancing cognitive function and mood stability due to its nutrient-dense ingredients.

Fortified oat milk: Oat milk can support brain health through its carbohydrates for energy. When fortified, it includes essential nutrients like B vitamins, vitamin D, and calcium, which contribute to cognitive function and mental well-being.

Hypothetically, if someone hates oatmeal (editor’s note: it’s me—I hate oatmeal), is there another brain-boosting breakfast option you’d recommend to improve focus and productivity?

Eggs served on wholegrain toast offer a robust source of protein and choline, an essential nutrient involved in the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter crucial for regulating mood and memory. The wholegrain toast adds beneficial fiber, aiding in sustaining consistent energy levels throughout the day.

Thank you for that. Back to you. What do your eating habits look like through lunch and dinner?

I generally eat low-FODMAP foods to help manage symptoms like bloating and abdominal pain that can occur in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other gastrointestinal disorders (I have Celiac disease and avoid gluten). This diet involves avoiding certain fermentable carbohydrates found in foods like onions, garlic, wheat, and certain fruits. Following a low FODMAP diet can help identify trigger foods and alleviate digestive discomfort.

Drinking more water seems to make everything better—does that include brain health?

Yes, adequate hydration is crucial for brain health as it supports optimal brain function, including concentration, cognition, and mood regulation.

I knew it! How do you make sure you get enough hydration every day?

I make a habit of generally drinking water with electrolytes or hot water consistently throughout the day, aiming for at least eight, eight-ounce glasses. I often drink Cacao, which is abundant in flavonoids that may enhance cognitive functions by improving blood flow to the brain and reducing inflammation. Its antioxidants are believed to protect against oxidative stress, and the stimulation of neurotransmitters may elevate mood. I also make it a point to incorporate water-rich foods into my diet—I usually eat an orange a day.

Everyone seems to be obsessed with the idea that Omega-fatty acids are the best of the best nutrient for brain health—is that warranted?

Yes! Omega-3 fatty acids truly deserve their spotlight in the realm of brain health, thanks to their significant role in enhancing cognitive functions and emotional well-being. They support brain health by building cell membranes, enhancing communication between brain cells, and reducing inflammation, which collectively contributes to improved memory and mood, and protects against cognitive decline.

Additionally, Omega-6 fatty acids, which are present in nuts and seeds and are essential for brain development and health, must be consumed in balance with Omega-3s to support overall well-being. Excessive consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids relative to Omega-3s has been associated with inflammation and various health issues, so balance is important.

Omega-9 fatty acids—which you can find in olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds—though not essential, can contribute to cognitive function and cardiovascular health when included in a diet rich in diverse fatty acids.

What other foods top the list of being “the best” for brain health?

Foods loaded with antioxidants, including berries and leafy green vegetables, safeguard the brain against oxidative stress, thereby improving brain efficiency and promoting healthy aging. Additionally, whole grains and vitamin E-rich foods, such as nuts and seeds, are important for vascular health, which is essential for optimal brain function.

Are there specific foods that can help people improve specific brain functions, like concentration and memory?

Certain foods have a significant effect on memory and concentration, primarily due to their rich nutrient profiles. Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins found in foods like fatty fish, berries, and leafy greens aid in boosting brain function, enhancing memory, and staving off cognitive deterioration.

I’m afraid to ask… but what’s the deal with coffee?

Foods that enhance focus, such as those with caffeine and L-theanine—which are present in coffee and green tea—enhance alertness and attention by influencing neurotransmitter dynamics. I usually only drink coffee once or twice a week.

This is terrible, but not unexpected, news. What’s the alternative?

Opting for green tea as an alternative to coffee is generally a good idea. Green tea is rich in caffeine, known to boost alertness and concentration, and also contains L-theanine, which supports a state of calm alertness, possibly enhancing focus while reducing feelings of anxiety.

What else do you avoid in your diet?

I minimize sugar intake—although I do enjoy a piece of chocolate a couple of times a week—and I only eat red meat once or twice a year.

Do…I need to do that too?

To support brain health, it’s advisable to limit intake of processed and high-sugar foods (like sugary beverages, candy, cupcakes—all things we stuff ourselves with as children and habituate as comfort foods!), as they can impair cognitive function and memory. Consumption of alcohol and red meats has also been linked to negative impacts on brain health. Foods high in saturated and trans fats should also be minimized, as they can lead to decreased brain health over time.

Does when you eat make a difference in all of this?

There’s a profound link between your dietary habits and your brain’s health. The science is really just in its infancy for this—and there appears to be a “no one-case fits all”—so people need to experiment to find what works best for them. Having said this, patterns are emerging. Consuming meals at regular, consistent times helps regulate the body’s internal clock, stabilizing blood sugar levels and ensuring a steady supply of energy to the brain, which is crucial for maintaining cognitive functions and focus.

So, where does intermittent fasting come into play?

Intermittent fasting, which involves cycling between periods of eating and fasting, has been shown to benefit brain health. This practice may enhance brain function by reducing oxidative stress, improving brain cell growth, and decreasing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. However, the optimal intervals for eating can vary depending on individual health conditions, lifestyle, and dietary needs. Generally, fasting for 14 or more hours a day is recommended (so, for example, finish dinner by 6 p.m. and have breakfast at 8 a.m.), but it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the best eating schedule for your specific health goals and needs.

Any other secrets we need to know about how to hack our diets to get smarter?

I’ve been experimenting with adaptogens—which are natural substances that typically come from an herb, root, or mushroom. I’ve been exploring lion’s mane, chaga, reishi, and maca for their potential benefits for enhancing resilience to stress and supporting overall well-being. Incorporating these adaptogens into my routine has been part of my journey to optimize mental clarity, energy levels, and overall health.


Kerri Waldron

My name is Kerri Waldron and I am an avid healthy lifestyle participant who lives by proper nutrition and keeping active. One of the things I love best is to get to where I am going by walking every chance I get. If you want to feel great with renewed energy, you have to practice good nutrition and stay active.

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