Max Lugavere Explores the Link Between Brain Health and Food in ‘Genius Foods’

Your brain reaps just as much good as your body – if not more – from your diet… or so posits Max Lugavere in his new book, “Genius Foods.” It’s a theory that has come from no small amount of research on the part of the filmmaker-turned-science journalist and New York Times best-selling author, and it holds water.

“Will your genetic conductor be a Leonard Bernstein? Or a 5th grade student pounding the ivories for the first time? It may depend largely on your dietary choices.”

While Lugavere has surely become a leading voice in health, this wasn’t always the path he intended to take. His foray into the world of brain health began after his mother was diagnosed was dementia.

“When my mom’s health began to fail her, I immediately wanted answers,” he explains. “As a human being, I felt entitled to them. My training as a journalist had set me up for the investigation, my media credentials lent me access, and my experience with my mom gave me a real-world look at how the medical system treats complex cases. I also have had a lifelong passion for nutrition and health science, so when the topic became personal, I dropped everything and dove in.”

The resulting book is well-researched and informative, and it’s just personal enough to make it decidedly approachable.

The Genius Foods: Parsing Science into Feasible Steps for Health

Lugavere’s book’s title is a reference to a collection of foods that he posits are some of the most powerful for brain health. These “genius foods,” –  things like broccoli, extra-virgin olive oil, and blueberries – serve as a structure for the book, supporting the premises he introduces in chapters linked to terms that might seem a little more abstract like fructose, statins, and ketones. In this way, Lugavere creates a structure that reflects his voice: at once passionate and informed but also approachable.

Indeed, what makes this book stand out from others on the shelf is Lugavere’s gift of distilling information into manageable bites that seem, at once, completely new and entirely common sensical.

“We hold the position,” he explains, “that the less time a food product or medicine or supplement has been around, the higher the burden of proof for it to be included in what we consider a healthful diet and lifestyle. We call this ‘Guilty until Proven Innocent.’”

With help and support from Dr. Paul Grewal, MD, Lugavere never leads his reader to doubt his authority. But he also manages to break things down into pieces that people can understand, relying even, at times, to his encyclopedic cinematic knowledge to get his point across:

“The bulk of trans fats consumed by humans are the result of industrial manufacturing,” he writes. “These man-made trans fats are not just bad, they’re Darth Vader-meets-Ramsay Bolton bad.”

It is not easy to walk the line between being entertaining and authoritative, but Lugavere does so masterfully.

The Link Between Brain Health and Food

Lugavere takes his reader through his own discovery of the importance of food when it comes to brain health, notably exploring the recent developments in the understanding of brain development in adults.

“For as long as modern medicine had existed,” he writes, “doctors believed that the anatomy of the brain was fixed at maturity. The potential to change—whether for a person born with a learning disability, a victim of brain injury, a dementia sufferer, or simply someone looking to improve how their brain worked—was considered an impossibility.”

This, Lugavere explains, is no longer the case. Adults can generate new brain cells, and the secrets to ensuring lifelong health come from taking care of this essential organ. This can be done in a variety of ways from exercise to stress management, and while Lugavere touches on all of these, his clear goal in “Genius Foods” is to focus on the specific link between brain health and diet.

“Will your genetic conductor be a Leonard Bernstein? Or a 5th grade student pounding the ivories for the first time? It may depend largely on your dietary choices,” writes Lugavere. “What you eat will determine whether you’ll be able to modulate inflammation, ‘train’ a prize-winning immune system, and produce powerful brain-boosting compounds—all with the help of a few underappreciated nutrients (and lifestyle techniques) that have become seemingly lost to the modern world.”

Lugavere is not shy about debunking health myths throughout the book. He notably delves into the difference between popular health science when his mother was growing up and current conclusions, examining the detriment of low-fat diets – formerly painted as “healthy” – on the brain.

“Unfortunately,” he writes, “the totality of my mother’s—and in all likelihood, your family’s—concept of ‘diet’ at the time was the end result of misguided nutrition science, biased government policy, and business doing what it does best—cost-cutting, lobbying, and marketing. And it was total bullshit.”

Lugavere even highlights his own book’s possible ephemeral nature.

“Remember: nutrition is a constantly evolving science—one where there are seldom black-and-white truths,” he writes. “In life, and especially on the Internet, people tend to be religious about their nutrition beliefs. But science is meant to be dispassionate—a method of asking questions and seeking answers, even if those answers are not what you want to hear. I ask that you seek your own truth. Challenge your assumptions regularly, be unafraid of authority, and question everything—even what you read in books (including this one).”

But in framing his work in this way, Lugavere manages to lend further credence to his authority as an author, a son, and an expert on the ways that food and brain health are intertwined. Whether a reader is interested in exploring the intricacies of brain health or simply looking for a list of foods to boost his or her own cerebral power, “Genius Foods” delivers.

Are you interested in discovering more about Genius Foods and Max Lugavere? Click Here to watch Laura Klein, co-founder of Organic Authority, interview NY Times best-selling author Max Lugavere bust some of the biggest health and food myths today.

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Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.