Shane Kempton: The high-performance mind part 1- We are what we eat

We've all heard the saying "we are what we eat" but just how true is it? Shane Kempton says it's very true. Here, he explains the way our brain operates and why what we fuel it with has a direct correlation with our ability to perform at our best or trudge through the day with a bad case of brain fog.

Hands up if you have ever experienced ‘three-thirty-itis’ or mid-afternoon brain fog?

You know that feeling where your thinking power has diminished, and you are circling the vending machine or fridge like a predator, hunting and ‘craving’ a chocolate bar.

It would be a safe bet that most people have been there – maybe even daily.

Yes, you get a sugar rush for 10 to 15 minutes after you have launched in and devoured that chocolate bar, yet shortly after you come crashing down, back to that low energy level and foggy state.

Why does this happen, and why do we keep riding the brain fog roller coaster?

If you are done with getting on and off that energy depleting ride every day, keep reading.

What’s happening between your ears has a lot to do with what is going on in your gut, or more specifically, what you are putting into your gut.

The saying, “we are what we eat”, almost covers it.

I’d like to add, what we eat impacts how we think.

Now, before you give up reading, rest assured, this is not going to be a blog about eating kale and giving up chocolate.

Rather, I want to share the latest in evidence-based neuroscience on how the mind works and how we can apply this to high performance.

Our brain is only two per cent of our body weight, yet it consumes up to 25 per cent of our daily energy.

Neuroscientist Paul D Maclean formulated a simple model called the Triune Brain, which illustrates the evolution of three core areas of our brain, what each part does, and where our energy goes.

Using his simplistic view of the brain and my layman language, I’ll explain brain fog the way I do with my coaching clients. 

The Reptilian Brain

This is one of the oldest parts of our brain and controls the vital systems which keep us alive, such as temperature control and all our electrical signals.

This part of our brain is essential for life and understandably gets ‘first dibs’ and priority pick of nutrients from the food we eat to keep it functioning.

In simple terms, if the Reptilian Brain doesn’t get fed, it’s literally ‘lights out’ for us.

The Limbic System

Among other survival behaviours, the Limbic brain controls our fight-flight-freeze instinct.

I like biohacker Dave Asprey’s description of this part of our brain.

He likens it to a Labrador dog. Why?

Like a big goofy dog, this part of the brain wants to run away when it’s scared, eat everything it sees and hump everything it likes.

As this part of the brain is responsible for our survival, it gets second pick of the fuel and nutrients we eat.

The Neocortex

This is the newest part of our brain.

It’s capable of logical and analytical thinking, problem-solving, planning, creating, visualising and willpower.

This is our supercomputer and what makes us distinctly human.

However, like the youngest sibling in a big family, our Neocortex is the last to eat.

It gets the scraps and left-over nutrients that our Reptilian Brain and Limbic System didn’t need or use. 

The right fuel

Bringing this together, the more processing thinking our Neocortex does, the more energy it demands.

If we haven’t eaten and fuelled up correctly, and we have a big day of processing information, critical thinking, creating and/or using our willpower, brain fog kicks in by mid-afternoon because the Reptilian Brain and Limbic System are prioritising the remaining fuel.

Without enough fuel, our Neocortex is running out of processing energy. It won’t function correctly, so our Limbic System kicks in, and like a Labrador that hasn’t been fed for a few hours, panics and goes into survival mode (Fight, Flight, Freeze).

It says, “Oh my god, we are starving, Neo needs energy, we need fuel fast, and sugar is the best quick fix, go eat that chocolate bar”. 

Compounding this situation is when you have set yourself a goal to eat healthily, and on this same day, you used a lot of your willpower not to eat the sausage rolls and birthday cake at morning tea.

But now, as you you have no energy left in your Neocortex for willpower, you may have had good intentions to eat one Tim-Tam for a bit of mid-afternoon energy, but that next thing you know, half a package has disappeared.

Now you feel guilty too. What a downward spiral!

Not all fat is bad

This can be avoided by feeding our brain the best, high-performance fuel that lasts the entire day. 

Consider this, nearly 60 per cent of the human brain is fat, and 30 per cent of the brain’s grey matter is made up of Omega-3s, an essential fatty acid (EFA).

We’ve learned in recent years that EFAs are among the most crucial molecules that determine your brain’s ability to perform, including memory, creating new neural pathways and maintaining optimal health.

Clinical research has proved that a poor intake of fatty acids impairs brain performance and can cause diseases.

Yet, many of us have been brought up on a low-fat diet.

The problem is that our bodies cannot produce EFAs and must source them from the food we eat.

When we remove or limit EFAs from our diet, the priority pecking order kicks in and our Neocortex gets a limited supply, which will probably run out on most days around mid-afternoon.

Enter brain fog.

We are what we eat

We are what we eat and what we eat impacts how we think.

When you get this right, not only can you avoid brain fog, but you also gain energy from eating less food.

The nice side effect is that you achieve your natural and healthy body fat and weight.

If you would like to know what I eat and when I eat for all-day energy and high performance, reach out to me via email or social channels, and I can step you through a proven program.

If you are regularly experiencing brain fog, review what you eat and consider speaking to a dietitian or your GP. 

In part 2 of ‘The High-Performance Mind’ series, I will share how elite soldiers, professional athletes and the top performers in business and real estate prepare and enhance their minds for optimal performance.

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Shane Kempton

Shane Kempton is the CEO of Harcourts WA and the network high performance coach.