This spring Wunder is organizing an internal campaign – High five for wellbeing – that also includes a series of health-related webinars which are specially tailored for IT professionals and are available for everyone also outside Wunder. The first part was dedicated to the sleep topic and if you missed it, you can read the key takeaways from the Sleep webinar written by my colleague Mikael. The second part was focusing on eating and how we can fuel our brain most effectively since that’s the tool we’re using on our work every day. The speaker of the event was Olli Sovijärvi, a Medical Doctor and one of the authors of Biohacker’s Handbook. The book is a guide to hacking or optimizing one’s body and the environment we live in, to get the most out of our mental and physical reserves.
I like preparing and eating good food and I know that what I eat has a big impact on how I feel, so this topic really interested me. I know there are things to improve in the way I eat (adding more fresh veggies and fish, for example), but after the webinar, it was also nice to realize that I’ve been doing many things correctly. I have also been struggling with recovering from hard workouts, for which I got good tips too. Here are my take-aways from that super interesting webinar.
Blood glucose regulation
Eating or drinking foods with high amounts of carbohydrates (sugars, white flours, etc) causes rapid fluctuation in blood sugar levels. Blood glucose level rises rapidly after the meal, which gives a lot of energy and also a mental reward that’s very addicting. The downside is that as fast as the glucose level goes up, it will also come down very fast, to a level that makes us hungry again and start craving for more. Adding some protein and good fats to every meal helps us balance the blood glucose level, as they keep us satisfied for a longer time. Even more, they help stabilize the blood sugar and insulin swings.
Turns out, there are a couple of more ways to prevent or ease blood glucose swings. Vinegar’s acetic acid causes the stomach to empty slower, which means the rise in blood glucose will happen over a longer period of time. A simple solution would be to mix a drink from a glass of water and a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar and have it before a carb-heavy meal. This sounds like something I’ll definitely keep in mind. I might not start drinking vinegar water, but I’ll most certainly appreciate a good olive oil and vinegar-based vinaigrette on salad even more than before.
And if you’re having a sweet bun with your coffee, pick the one with cinnamon. Cinnamon has an effect on blood glucose levels by increasing insulin sensitivity, making insulin more efficient at moving glucose into cells. Or even better, change the bun made from white flour into something that was made from barley or oats. The beta-glucans in those grains are very healthy and help decrease the glucose level.
Diets and weight loss plans come and go, and as there are dozens of options and providers to choose from, it’s hard to keep track and choose the best one. Intermittent fasting has been trending strongly in recent years, and especially health and fitness enthusiasts are using it to lose weight and improve their wellbeing.
Intermittent fasting is not so much a diet but rather an eating pattern, as it doesn’t restrict what you eat, but when you eat. There are multiple ways of doing intermittent fasting, but the most popular is by limiting the daily eating window to somewhere between 6 to 10 hours. During that period one would have 2 to 4 meals and avoid eating anything for the rest of the day.
Intermittent fasting can have many benefits to the body, mind, and also to our daily routines. Blood glucose and insulin levels stay more stable, meaning there will be fewer blood sugar crashes and cravings for unhealthy snacks. Limiting the eating window with more stable blood glucose means that one will probably eat less than before. As our body is forced to learn to use its own energy reserves, we burn fat in our own system. It also helps us to burn the fat from the food better, meaning that our body won’t be storing it so much. All in all, intermittent fasting can have a great effect on losing weight.
Besides losing fat and staying on stable levels of glucose and insulin, we can get many hormonal benefits from intermittent fasting. These include increased cell and DNA repair, increased growth of new nerve cells, and reduction in markers of inflammation, which can cause many chronic diseases. Limiting the daily eating times may also help organize our days easier, as we don’t have to plan and prepare so many meals as maybe on some other diets.
While I was listening to the webinar I realized that basically, I am already doing this! I haven’t been eating anything after dinner, so by doing just that I’m already getting 12 to 14 hours of fasting daily. I figured that by postponing my breakfast time by an hour or two, leaving out the afternoon snack, and having dinner a bit earlier, I can extend the fasting even more. I’m definitely going to try that!
We IT workers do the daily heavy lifting with our brain, rather than our body and muscles. This means that the amount of energy we need to digest may not be the same as for someone doing manual labor or moving a lot. But besides the number of calories, also the contents of our food is different. If we want to keep our brain functioning the whole day, we need to give it food too!
The brain needs glucose, but because our body is able to create it as needed, it’s not necessary to provide it with food. What we can do instead, is eat enough good quality fats. The brain is 60% fat and half of that is omega-3 fatty acids. In order to build nerve and brain cells, which we need to remember and learn new things, we need omega-3.
Here’s a shortlist of the top brain foods:
- Eggs (with yolk)
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, herring, etc)
- Dark leafy greens, wild greens, and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc)
- Blueberries and bilberries
- Nuts (especially macadamia nuts have a lot of good fats)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Dark and raw chocolate
Supplements that can help keep us focused are coffee (combined with L-theanine), turmeric (curcumin), MCT oil, and C8 Caprylic acid (coconut oil is a good source for that). Electrolytes have many good effects on our body, especially during fasting, but they also affect cognitive functions. The same applies to essential amino acids (EAA), which are the building blocks for proteins, hormones, and neurotransmitters. We can get them from protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, and soybeans, but some might benefit from the extra boost they give for muscle growth and overall mood, taken as supplements.
One supplement that has been used by athletes already for decades is creatine monohydrate. A lesser-known effect of using creatine is increased brain energy production. That can have a big effect on our working memory. Two pro-tips were mentioned in the Wunderers’ own aftermath discussion after the webinar, concerning creatine:
- Don’t take it with coffee, as caffeine can reduce creatine’s effect by up to 40%
- If you are genetically prone to balding, you might want to use creatine only periodically. Its effect on testosterone and other hormones can speed up the balding process.
Learning new routines
Last but not least, big changes like giving up sugary foods and drinks and extra snacks between meals happen slowly. To break the old habit successfully, we need to do it gradually. We need to change the routine and that happens over a longer period of time, not overnight. Try replacing the unhealthy bits with something more healthy one by one, and you might be surprised that you don’t get the cravings and wild blood sugar fluctuations anymore.
Try changing the environment, to let good things replace the bad. Get good stuff in the fridge and kitchen cabinets, and maybe you start finding them on your plate more often too.
P.S. By the way, if you wish to hear these and other healthy eating tips from Olli himself, the EAT webinar recording is available. Check out the other Wunder Wellbeing Webinars and ensure your seat for the following ones as well.
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