Dr Joanna McMillan on Brain Health, Food and The Importance of Social Connection

Dr Joanna McMillan on Brain Health, Food and The Importance of Social Connection

Is there a day that goes by without an influencer waxing poetic about their chosen eating plan? Be it keto, paleo, vegan ... It can be hard to keep up, and even harder to determine what's right...

Thankfully, we have qualified experts to rely upon when the noise gets too much. One of our favourites is Dr Joanna McMillan, a qualified nutritionist, author and health presenter whose latest book – Brain Food – focuses on food that is beneficial for brain health. Could there be a more important focus? Joanna says, “Much attention has been given to the factors that influence heart health, gut health and liver health. Yet we really don’t talk about how food and lifestyle choices affect brain health.” We all know that what we choose to eat and drink influences how we feel, but it may come as a surprise that these same decisions impact the health of our brains as we age (yes, we mean dementia). By eating well, we give our brains the fuel they require to perform at their best, while also increasing our likelihood of ageing well. In Brain Food, Joanna explains which nutrients our brain needs, and how our creativity and ability to think and reason (not to mention our moods) can all be influenced by food. We spoke to Joanna about her background, the importance of brain health, and how we can make it a priority in our already busy lives. BRAIN FOOD by Dr Joanna McMillan (Bauer Books) rrp: $35 Available at www.magshop.com.au and all good bookstores

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background...

I grew up in Scotland in the country. My parents had a big veggie garden, we lived next door to a dairy farm and many of my extended family were farmers… and my mum was an awesome cook and so I was lucky to have fresh food and delicious family dinners. That was a good start to understanding the role of good food in family life. As a teenager, I became more interested in health and fitness and so eventually trained as a fitness instructor and then a dietitian. I moved to Australia in 1999 and undertook my PhD in nutrition science at Uni of Sydney. That led me into media work and my business took off from there. I run my own business and that has been terrific in allowing me the flexibility I need to also be a mum to my two boys. I live in Sydney with my husband, two kids and our dog Spartacus.

What sparked your specific interest in brain health?

I’ve always found the brain fascinating and think it has been largely ignored in terms of health. We have tended to think of the brain as this rather intangible mystical part of us. Yet the latest research is strong to show us that we do indeed have a major impact on both our brain performance today and the health of our brain into the future. That prompted me to write the book with the goal of providing clear, uncomplicated advice and lots of delicious inspiring recipes to make it easier for people to eat well.

Can you tell us about some of the most common age-related illnesses?

The brain is affected by ageing just as other parts of the body are. It doesn’t work quite so well, neuronal connections can be disrupted and this leads to symptoms such as memory loss and so on. Some of this we term as normal age-related cognitive decline, but more seriously it can lead to dementia and diseases such as Alzheimer’s. While in the past we thought this was just a luck of the draw, we now know that although there are genetic components to these diseases, our diet and lifestyle play a key role in raising or lowering our risk.

Can good eating and lifestyle habits make a noted impact on these illnesses?

Absolutely. For the most part, the kind of diet that is good for the heart is also good for the brain. But there are also specific dietary and lifestyle factors that have an influence.

What steps can we take to maintain a healthy brain?

In the book I outline 6 key steps to maintaining a healthy brain: following a healthy diet, being active and getting regular exercise, stimulating your brain via education, learning and challenging your brain, having an active social life, getting enough sleep and managing stress levels.

As busy mothers, what are some of the quickest and easiest - but biggest impact - lifestyle changes we can make to positively impact our brain health?

Being prepared for eating well by stocking the kitchen with the right foods. When the kids are hungry and you have to get a family meal together quickly, it’s all too easy to send out for takeout if you don’t have the right stuff to hand. Ignore the diet trends that just make things harder – what’s good for the brain is real food, including loads of plant foods, and keeping away as much as possible from junk foods. I think for busy mums sleep is also key. Easier said than done if you have young kids, but it’s absolutely essential to a well-functioning brain.

What impact does stress have on our brain health?

In the short term stress stops you from thinking clearly. You know that feeling of being in such a flap you don’t know what to do? That’s the effect of the stress hormones. If that continues chronically it not only can impact on inflammation levels in the body, but it impacts on all the other factors that can influence your brain health including sleep, what you eat and how you exercise. A little stress is of course good as it can make life exciting, but working out your threshold and managing your levels is key.

Can you also tell us about the importance of maintaining social connections?

We so often overlook the importance of this, but social connections are part of being human. When we look at the longest living, healthiest people in the world – the so-called “Blue Zones” – those people all have strong social connections and spend time with family and friends often. This is absolutely key to helping us manage stress and plays a pivotal role in our mental health. That tells us it has an impact on brain function. Eating a meal around the table is a very different experience to eating on the run while you dash off to the next activity or meeting.

What does a day look like in your kitchen/around your dining table?

We almost always eat our dinner as a family around the table. It’s my best opportunity to get my pre-teen and teen talking to me! It’s a favourite part of my day. I usually cook and my boys take turns to set the table and do the washing up afterwards. I’m trying to get them to cook with me as I think it’s important that they learn how to… but confess I’m having mixed success there! My kitchen is the hub of my house and we entertain often. I love to be cooking with friends sitting opposite me at the kitchen bench chatting with a glass of wine. Food should be a pleasurable part of life and not another stress – yet sadly it has become that for many women.

Your book features so many delicious recipes that are also beneficial for our brain health. What are some of your favourites?

The herb-crusted salmon is a terrific dish when you are entertaining. It reminds me of my childhood as we ate salmon a lot in Scotland and my parents would frequently poach a whole fish and serve cold when there were lots of guests to feed. I almost think salmon is tastier cold with salad. My favourite vegetable is Brussels sprouts and so I also love the recipe with blue cheese yoghurt. It’s a vegetable that divides people and I think that’s because they are so often badly cooked and usually over-cooked! Some of the best recipes are also just the simple things like the Dressings 4 ways and the various salsas and sauces that feature throughout. You can turn a simple meal into something amazing with a delicious dressing or salsa.

How important is it for us to incorporate these same concepts with our children’s nutrition?

The recipes in the book are not just good for brain health but for the health of the whole family. Some of the recipes might be a little grown-up for younger children, but I have never been a believer in having kids meals and adult meals. I was brought up eating a family dinner and I have done the same for my own family. Mums cooking two separate meals is crazy and no wonder mealtime becomes a chore! I encourage mums to take a leap of faith and allow their kids to develop a broader palate for foods and you just might be surprised what dishes become their favourites. Only ever serve them ‘kids food’ and that’s all they will want because it’s familiar to them.

What are your current little list of loves?

What I’m loving right now … Ingredients – black rice & black beans… Along with South American style cooking. These foods are amazing sources of polyphenols and other protective plant chemicals known to be good for the brain. On TV we are currently watching together as a family David Attenborough’s Dynasties – fabulous and I may have cried more than once! Podcast – I am listening to the latest one on the GP Podcast by my colleague Dr Sam Manger (president of the Australasian society of lifestyle medicine) interviewing Dr David Katz on his new book The Truth About Food. Books – I am a Kindle fanatic and always have a book on the go. I tend to read lots of easy to read thrillers, crime books and those with moral dilemmas such as Liane Moriarty’s books. I’m reading her latest right now. Plus I’m a little obsessed with books on evolution and in particular the changes to diet throughout history. One of my favourite books is The Story of the Human Body by Daniel Lieberman (Chair of the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard). It’s absolutely fascinating.