Our creativity is strongly dependent on our well-being, both physically and mentally. It goes without saying that we can turn on our flow of creative ideas easier if we are healthy, happy, well-rested and in a good condition.
There is now a growing body of evidence also what to eat in order to increase our wellbeing and to sharpen our mental capacities.
How the body handles the food we eat
To illustrate my point I want you first to consider a normal day for someone on a typical Western diet.
All the energy we depend on comes from three different sources; fats, proteins and carbohydrates (sugar and starch). Dietary fats and proteins are also essential for building the cells of our bodies, without which we cannot survive.
Blood sugar in the form of glucose is the primary fuel for our cells and not least the brain needs a constant fuel supply. But the carbohydrates have no other function in the body, and since we can get all our necessary fuel from fat and proteins, there is no essential need to consume carbohydrates.
But let’s now go back to what we eat and start with the breakfast. I work in an international workplace, where colleagues from different countries may have different eating habits based on background and culture. The Scandinavians may start the day with a bowl of muesli with raspberry youghurt, a cheese sandwich and a glass of orange juice, while the French or the Italians instead may have a croissant with jam and a cup of coffee.
Common to both, these breakfasts are very rich in carbohydrates. The carbohydrates are hydrolysed in the gastrointestinal tract to simple sugar molecules that are quickly absorbed by the body. However, as too high blood sugar levels are harmful, the body responds to the elevation of blood sugar after a carbohydrate-rich meal by secreting insulin from the pancreas.
The insulin effectively causes the sugar in the blood to be absorbed by the liver where it is converted into glycogen. If needed, e.g. when we are exercising, we can quickly mobilise glucose from the liver glycogen to feed our muscles and brain.
The liver, however, can only store a limited amount of glycogen, and the excess sugar, as well as all fat, from a carbohydrate-rich meal, is deposited in our fatty tissues, which have an almost endless storage capacity. Carbohydrate-rich food therefore give rise to obesity and is the primary cause of the global obesity epidemic that has emerged as one of the worst public health threats ever.
We now quickly move to mid-day. The insulin has now effectively depressed the blood sugar below the levels that our brain really enjoys, and strong signals are being sent to replenish the energy supplies.
The hunger feelings sneak up on us, and if we are sensitive, we may experience the low blood sugar levels as mental irritation, fatigue and perhaps a little headache. We therefore move to the cafeteria (or the kitchen) to quickly ge a new energy kick from lunch.
Also the lunch is often stacked with carbohydrates in the form of potatoes, pasta, rice and maybe a piece of bread, and the low blood-sugar levels may also prompt us to have a chocolate biscuit to the coffee after the food. Potatoes, bread, pasta and rice are rich in starch that very quickly breaks down to glucose, and the difference between eating sugar and starch is therefore minimal.
In the afternoon, the pattern is repeated. The insulin has pushed the energy surplus from the lunch to the liver as glycogen and the excess to fat, and we are now starting to feel tired and craving for some sweets. A cup of coffee and a slice of cake wouldn’t be bad. And so it goes on until the last snack at night before we go to bed.
With a carbohydrate-rich diet, we are thus exposed to constant fluctuations in our blood sugar and insulin levels, and recurring periods of fatigue and hunger over the day. The more carbohydrates in the diet, the greater the fluctuations and the higher the risk is for obesity and diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
It goes without saying that a diet rich in carbohydrates is neither good for your creativity nor health.
So what’s the alternative?
If too much carbohydrates is the problem, then the solution seems quite obvious. By drastically reducing carbohydrate intake and instead replacing the energy requirement with fat we have gained a lot.
This would also make sense looking back at our genetic history, as we as a species have only ingested agriculture-derived carbohydrates for the last 12 000 years, a blink of an eye when it comes to evolution.
With a low-carbohydrate, high fat (LCHF) diet, we get very stable and non-fluctuating blood sugar and insulin levels throughout the day. The sugar cravings disappear and the higher fat content in the diet also means that we need to put in less calories to feel full and the saturation is maintained longer.
As a physician trained in the 1980s, I was taught that too much fat in the diet increased the risks of obesity and cardiovascular disease. And worst of all were the unsaturated fats from animal sources (meat and butter). Furthermore, the high cholesterol content in eggs would increased the risks of cardiovascular disease even more. This “knowledge” was almost like a natural mantra that I carried with me for years, avoiding fatty foods and instead filled my plates with rice, pasta and potatoes, according to the “plate model” that we were taught already in the home-economics classes at school.
However, this was not scientifically correct. A large number of new, well-designed epidemiological studies have effectively punctuated these myths. A fat-rich, low-carbohydrate diet instead protects against both type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (and epilepsy), and has also proven to be more effective than other tested diets to make obese people lose weight.
When the LCHF diet was becoming more broadly popular in Sweden some years ago, a popular misconception arose that one had to switch to an egg-and-bacon diet . But LCHF can be a lot more varied than that.
The diet is based on meat, fish, dairy products and vegetables grown above ground (see image for this post). Furthermore , avoid, in addition to carbohydrates, also all “light products” and processed foods as much as possible. Today there are many really good LCHF cookbooks with a very varied diet.
LCHF and creativity
In addition to getting rid of the blood sugar fluctuations that make us tired and irritated, LCHF has one more advantage to our creativity.
With a very low carbohydrate intake, the body reaches, after about 2 weeks, a state known as ketosis. The word comes from the small fuel molecules, or ketones, which are now produced in the liver from the fat deposits in our body. The ketones are as efficiently fuel as glucose for our brain, and are produced by demand throughout the day without the influence of insulin.
Many people also experience an increased mental alertness in this condition, and some have switched to a diet with very low carbohydrates, the keto diet, only to be in this state of mental sharpness.
A keto diet also provides an added bonus as increased physical endurance. After a few hours of hard physical effort, the glycogen levels in the liver are exhausted and must be replenished with new carbohydrates. In ketosis, however, the ketones are both readily available and can always be derived directly from the fat deposits. Your body has been transformed from a sugar-burning to a fat-burning machine.
My own experience
I have now been eating a strict LCHF diet for a while. I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I feel full, and without any efforts or conscious thoughts, it’s often no more than one or two meals a day. I still enjoy a glass of good wine from time to time (but not beer).
So how did this affect me. The first month I lost 4 kilos of weight, but more important to me than the weight is my general well-being. Earlier-day periods with fatigue, irritability and hunger before lunch and dinner and periods of sugar-cravings in between have disappeared. I also feel more focused, alert and energetic. This blog, for example, was launched after I started with LCHF.
But why has the medical profession been so slow to change the old outdated recommendations. To a large extent, I think this is due to our genetically inborne tendency to stick to our old entrenched thinking patterns (see my previous blog post on this issue). Admitting that diet advice has been incorrect for decades may also not be easy for those having spent a lot of time and effort to promote it. But the turn of the tide is on its way, and e.g. the National Board of Health and Welfare in Sweden is now supporting the use of LCHF both for patients with type-2 diabetes and as an effective mean for weight loss in obesity.
However, there are also strong financial interests to maintain the status quo when it come to the population eating habits. The food industry earns significantly more revenue from highly processed, sugar rich foods than from natural, raw, unprocessed ecological food, although the latter is both more nutrient and often as easy to cook.
If you are interested in the details, you can read more, including drilling down in the latest medical review, at Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt’s content-rich site Diet Doctor. Andreas has also generously let me lend the vignette image to this post from his site.
Another strong advocate for healthy, and thus creativity-promoting food, is the immunologist and “lifestyle expert”, Sanna Ehdin, who wrote a lot about this on her site: Dr. Sanna Ehdin (in Swedish).