This week’s conversation is with Max Lugavere, a filmmaker, health and science journalist and author of the The Genius Life and the New York Times best-seller Genius Foods: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive While Protecting Your Brain for Life.

Max appears regularly on the Dr. Oz Show, the Rachael Ray Show, and The Doctors. 

After his mother was diagnosed with a mysterious form of dementia, Max put his successful media career on hold to learn everything he could about brain health and performance.

For the better half of a decade, he consumed the most up-to-date scientific research, talked to dozens of leading scientists and clinicians around the world, and visited the country’s best neurology departments—all in the hopes of understanding his mother’s condition. 

Sometimes with the non-traditional route of education, I have my doubts, as there’s something to be said about formal training.

But Max’s purpose is clear – he knows what he’s talking about and offers some very practical strategies that you can begin implementing today.

We discuss how critical diet is for both brain health and longevity – Max shares his nutritional recommendations and some tips for preparing healthy meals regularly.

“The reason why I do what I do, is because I believe so strongly in prevention, as being the real needle mover of dementia. I’m interested in the dietary and lifestyle modalities that are going to help reduce our risk.”

In This Episode:

His childhood

Despite having a very public passion for health and wellness, I didn’t go the premedical route. As a kid and as an adolescent, I had a very unique experience in school. My grades were never great, but the teachers always loved me, which I found to be a very strange state of affairs. Because usually you would think that if your grades are not good, your teachers aren’t going to like you, but I always struggled with certain aspects of my executive function. I was a big procrastinator, I would always put off my projects and studying until the last minute, in fact I didn’t really like studying. It was rare that I actually studied for tests and exams and things like that, but despite that, I’ve always been passionately curious and I’ve always had a tendency towards being an autodidact, meaning self taught.

What were his core family principles?

Honesty, empathy, kindness and they all came from my mom. I was in many ways a momma’s boy, whatever that term means, I loved my mom and I listened to my mom and me and my mom, we had an affection that I think at least from what I witnessed with my peers growing up, it was not super common, not as common as you would expect. And my mom had very strong values, she had a strong personality. It wasn’t an overbearing personality, but she had a point of view. And she instilled it in me and my brothers and she really had a firm constitution that I think wasn’t perfect, I mean, people of her generation, they have some ideas that are maybe not as great as others. But empathy, caring for others, lending a hand, being brave, being kind, these are all attributes that I think really meant a lot in my house. For example, to be called a liar was one of the worst things that you could call somebody. If you were not telling the truth and you became a liar in my house, that was the worst thing that you could call somebody.

What initially interested him about health?

I grew up really interested in computer science and programming and things like that, but I ended up discovering fitness and health and nutrition, and as a computer programmer introvert at the time in high school, I really gravitated to fitness as a way of transcending myself at the time. There’s a very large and counterintuitive overlap between gamers and programmers and bodybuilding. Which is strange because you think of bodybuilders being jocks, and I wasn’t a jock growing up, but I had this sort of analytical brain that really liked debugging and iterating and tinkering, as you mentioned. And so when I discovered fitness and how I could kind of do the same things that I was doing with my keyboard but in my body and see it reflect better in the mirror and lead to me having greater confidence in school with my peers, that just was dopamine city for me. And so I ended up really, really loving that, and that led to me starting college as a premedical student, I was biology.

Beginning to notice changes in his mother’s demeanor

My mom would start to complain about brain fog and things like that, and I had no frame of reference to understand this. I studied psychology in school, but I didn’t know anything about dementia. My favorite course was abnormal psych, but it’s not like my mom was presenting with symptoms of schizophrenia or anything like that, it was just these sort of amorphous complaints about her cognitive function. And I had no prior family history of any kind of neurodegenerative disease, so this was just something that we had no frame of reference to interpret. My mom ended up having a neurodegenerative condition. She was prescribed drugs for both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Educating himself on dementia

I never misrepresent myself, I don’t have a PhD, I didn’t go to medical school, but I’ve been able to coauthor peer reviewed literature, I’ve participated in research studies, I’ve collaborated, I’ve become colleagues with some of the researchers that have become my mentors in the field. One of my primary mentors is an amazing guy, good friend of mine, Richard Isaacson, medical doctor, neurologist. He heads up the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell and NewYork-Presbyterian.

How would he describe dementia?

It’s a neurocognitive disorder where your memory function, your executive function, I would basically describe it the way D. F. Swaab, who’s another neuroscientist who I’ve never met him but I love his work, he basically would describe it as an accelerated form of brain aging. There are foibles that we associate with just aging, forgetting where your keys are, and that tends to happen more and more frequently as we get older. But this is a pathologic acceleration of that process, it’s just a more extreme form of it. There’s widespread neuronal loss, so your brain cells actually begin to die. And dementia, it looks differently for every person. Once you’ve seen one case of dementia, you’ve seen one case of dementia. It’s the reason why I do what I do professionally, why I’ve decided to step up and I wrote my first book is because I believe so strongly in prevention as being the real needle mover on this condition.

What role does diet play in preventing dementia?

It’s important for procuring cardiovascular health. Having good cardiovascular function is incredibly important for brain health. There was just a study published over the past year, it was called the SPRINT-MIND trial, which found that for patients with high blood pressure that were being treated to reduce their systolic blood pressure to an even more aggressive degree than what would be standard of care, they were able to dramatically reduce risk for the development of mild cognitive impairment, which is essentially predementia. You have prediabetes and that will often convert to type two diabetes, mild cognitive impairment is sort of like a prodrome to full blown cognitive impairment due to dementia.

Why he supports intermittent fasting

If your lipids are out of whack, you want to make sure to get that under control (for preventing type-2 diabetes). Intermittent fasting I think can help fix lipids to a point. I don’t get hung up over the hours, sometimes I’ll do 12 hours, sometimes I’ll do 14, sometimes I’ll do 16. But your average person is eating for 16 hours every day. They’re eating from the minute they wake up until the minute they go to bed, and so not only is that, first of all, eating more meals throughout the day is associated with having a higher body mass index. So it’s just the more times we eat throughout the day, the more overweight we tend to be, there are exceptions to this of course. But think about this notion of decision fatigue, which is a psychology concept, right? The more meals you have throughout the day, the more opportunities you have, the more frustrating it could be to try to get every one right and the more opportunities you have to mess it up, and to not eat your best. So, for me and I think for others, I don’t know if this has yet been studied, but intuitively, if you’re able to just eat fewer meals, then it’s going to be easier for you to control your appetite, to make better decisions.

His approach to longevity

People want to feel good, they want to be healthy, and they want to have good bodies . That can’t be discounted, people want to look good, and if you look at any of the world’s hunter gatherers or even throughout the world’s blue zones, people look robust up until old age. And they’re not sitting around counting calories or obsessing over macros, carbs or fat or protein or anything like that, they’re eating predominantly whole foods. And so that’s the recommendation that I make that I think is a little bit different than most. I don’t obsess over carbs or fat, I think as long as you are sticking primarily to minimally processed foods, it’s kind of arbitrary but, real food, to me, doesn’t have an ingredients list. They are the ingredients. And I definitely partake in the trappings of the modern world, I occasionally eat processed foods, there’s no guilt or shame in it.

What’s his meal preparation process look like?

What I recommend and how I actually cook, I cook Mediterranean style, which is very simple. So, in my house, I don’t have a ton of fancy, expensive ingredients, I have the basics. I have salt, pepper, garlic powder, hot pepper flakes, things like that. I’ve got a great extra virgin olive oil. So I call them genius foods, I think if you can base your diet around these specific foods, you’re going to do really well. And in terms of the nutritional component things, it’s grass fed beef, it’s wild fatty fish, it’s dark leafy greens, it’s coffee and tea if you like coffee and tea. Nuts, dark chocolate, dark chocolate is actually great. Cocoa is a fruit, cacao is a fruit, it doesn’t mean that dark chocolate is the equivalent of eating a fruit salad, but very good for cardiovascular health which as we mentioned is very important for brain health. Also a wonderful source of magnesium. Extra virgin olive oil is the primary fat that I use, so you really want to be cognizant of the fats that you’re consuming, because the brain is made of fat. So fat soluble antioxidants, wherever you can find vitamin E, wherever you can find plant compounds like lutein and zeaxanthin which are found wherever you’re going to see colorful veggies or produce, fruits or veggies. These are all going to help the brain, basically they’re going to act like a sword and shield for the brain against aging, against the aging process.

His number 1 nutrition recommendation

Here’s what people should be doing every single day, eat a big ass salad. Every day. Researchers actually out of Rush University have found that people who do this, people who abide by this rule of eating a large salad of dark leafy greens every day, have brains that perform up to 11 years younger. And some of the most valuable compounds in these dark leafy greens are called carotenoids, so, lutein, zeaxanthin, really important. You don’t have to remember them, but they’re very important for eye health, and your eyes are actually an extension of your brain. Eyes contain neural tissue. And we’ve known for some time now that these carotenoids accumulate in the eye where they help us protect ourselves against age related macular degeneration. But we now know that these pigment compounds in dark leafy greens, lutein and zeaxanthin, actually also accumulate in the brain. And researchers out of the University of Georgia, they did a clinical trial where they took UG students and they gave them 12 milligrams per day of combined lutein and zeaxanthin, and what they found was that compared to the placebo group they were able to achieve a 20% boost in their visual processing speed, which is pretty remarkable. Even the researchers thought this, because people who are young and healthy are already thought to be at the peak of their cognitive prowess, right? So these plant compounds actually accumulate in the brain and they may actually work better and more efficiently. And they’re only absorbed when we consume them in the presence of fat. So if you’re eating that bowl of dark leafy greens and there’s no fat source, so you could either throw an egg in or I love to use extra virgin olive oil, then the absorption of those compounds is negligible. So you need a fat source whenever you’re consuming these.

What’s his standard dinner look like?

As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of Mediterranean style cooking, so I’ll roast up some Brussels sprout, some garlic powder, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil and then a nice piece of fish. The possibilities are endless and you don’t need fancy recipes or an overabundance of expensive spices or seasonings or sauces. I mean, if you go to some of the best kitchens in the world, it’s like alchemy, it’s quality over quantity of ingredients, and they take this small number of ingredients and they can make magic with it. Fresh, high quality ingredients, you really don’t need a lot.

The way his brain works

I don’t know a lot about a big number of topics, like for example I know probably less than your average person on the street about politics, about sports, about the kinds of things I think most people tend to know about. But I go very deep on just a small handful of topics. The most powerful motivator that I’ve ever had in my life to do anything has been my mom’s illness, and so to me I’m just highly motivated, highly incentivized to understand why she got sick, and to understand why she got sick, just for that alone. Just for any semblance of closure that I can get on what I experienced with her, but then also to prevent it from ever happening to myself. So I care about fitness but I’m not obsessed with macros and achieving a certain body fat percentage, I’m not as interested in that. I enjoy working out, I work out mostly for my mental health and just so that I can feel good and not have any pain or whatever. But generally I’m interested in longevity, I’m interested in brain health, and under that purview falls cardiovascular health, falls body composition, falls metabolic health, falls all that stuff. So, there’s really no bottom to the well, it’s all interesting and fascinating to me. And for those topics, I find that my brain almost works like it’s photographic, the memory that I have for studies and findings and things like that, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.

What he hopes for others

I really implore people to become more literate in terms of science. Culinary literacy, most millennials don’t have it, financial literacy, most millennials have lost touch with knowing how to manage their money and things like that. I think scientific literacy is one of those things that people should know where to find research and know how to read it and interpret it. I mean, not everybody’s going to go on to write books and things like that, but there’s this idea that science is owned by academia, it’s owned by the universities. It’s not, science is a method of asking questions and pursuing answers. And for that, I think it’s something that we’re all capable of understanding and people have problems, so many people are dealing with health problems. I’m not alone in what I experienced with my mom, and so to be able to have these tools at your disposal I think is invaluable.

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