6 Common Diet Don’ts That Cramp Creativity

Have you ever tried to problem-solve, sculpt or write through major hunger pangs? What about after a huge, I’m totally stuffed! meal?

When our diets suffer, creativity is one of the first things to dwindle. Here’s what’s cool: Eating well makes way for a happy, healthy brain. And it isn’t hard. Avoiding these common “don’ts,” choosing primarily healthy foods and not going too long without eating, can boost your brain function, leading to sharper creativity and improved overall health.

1. Dieting. Roughly half of Americans are dieting at any given time, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, despite the negligible success rate and broad range of complications. Eating too little wreaks havoc on our metabolism and starves our brains. Restrictive diets—including those diet “plans” and “programs” that impose strict rules—can cause foggy thinking, poor concentration, fixation on food and weight-control and memory problems.

2. Overdoing protein. One macronutrient group Americans tend not to lack is protein. Most of us consume over twice the amount we need, which is around 7 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight. Protein plays an important role in brain function by supplying amino acids—the building blocks of our brains network. They allow for excitability and relaxation, as part of a balanced diet. But going overboard has been linked with brain shrinkage and an increased risk for dementia. It also leaves little room in our diets for brain-energizing foods. And don’t be fooled by the initial weight loss stimulated by high-protein/low-carb diets. It’s typically temporary, unhealthy loss, and our brains and bodies can suffer.

3. Skimping on whole grains. Our brains rely on carbohydrates more than any other nutrient. Drop too low, and we’re likely to feel sluggish, fatigued, agitated, blah and dulled creatively. Whole grains are among the most nutritious carbohydrate sources on the planet. Many large-scale studies have linked diets rich in whole grains with positive brain function. Sadly, most Americans consumes less than one-third of the recommended three-plus servings per day. Whole grains are top sources of brain-boosting nutrients, including B-vitamins, vitamin E, selenium and magnesium. Because they provide more fiber and protein than refined grains, such as white flour, they also provide more staying power for your brain and body between meals. Nutritious examples include brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, oats, spelt, buckwheat, whole wheat and popcorn.

4. Too few healthy fats—and excessive unhealthy fats. Our bodies make all the saturated fat we need, which are also found in fried foods, fatty meats and dairy products. And trans-fats, prevalent in hard margarine and commercially-prepared cookies, crackers and other foods containing hydrogenated vegetable oil, can reduce the effects of healthy fats, which are vital for proper brain function. Like protein, most of us are not fat-deficient. But many of us lack healthy fats. For improved brain function, choose cold-water fish, such as salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel and halibut, over fatty steaks most often. Other brain-healthy fat sources include flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil.

5. Too few fruits and veggies. Fruits and vegetables aren’t just great for immune function, healthy skin and weight control. They supply rich amounts of antioxidants, water and fiber—ingredients our brains adore. (Antioxidants help reduce damage from free radicals in the brain, which can interfere with creative processes.) Aim for a variety of fruits and vegetables, and a variety of colors, for best results. Including colorful produce with all of your meals, and snacks as desired, is a great way to meet your daily needs. Particularly brain-healthy varieties include berries, plums, citrus fruits, tomatoes, artichokes, dark leafy greens, carrots and sweet potatoes.

6. Overdoing alcohol. We may feel hilarious, smart and savvy while boozing it up. Most of us know that’s largely drunkenness speaking. Studies have shown that the more alcohol we drink, the more likely we are to experience severe sleep problems, daytime grogginess and reduced cognitive function. And even moderate alcohol consumption has been linked with brain shrinkage over time. If you enjoy alcohol, aim for moderate and occasional indulgences—ideally after you’ve completed creative work. 😉

A Sample Brain-Healthy Day

Breakfast: Steel-cut oatmeal, organic or Greek yogurt, fresh fruit and ground flaxseed or walnuts

Lunch: Large veggie salad with balsamic vinaigrette, grilled salmon, 100 percent whole grain roll

Snack: Baby carrots with healthy dip and/or apple slices with almond butter

Dinner: Steamed or grilled veggies, brown rice, vegetarian chili or grilled tofu

Dessert/Snack: Dark chocolate-dipped berries with a glass of low-fat milk

Mmm… 

For more information, check out my LIVESTRONG.com article, The Diet, Exercise and Creativity Connection, featuring award-winning neurologist, Dr. Paul Bendheim.

Now I’m hungry. What about you? What brain-healthy “don’t” do you steer clear of? Which could use some work? Any questions for me? I’d love to support you toward your goals. 

Leave a comment

57 Comments

  1. Great post, August. My biggest issue tho, is carbs. I’ve been told we only need 100 grams/day to maintain, which is nothing. But I’ve noticed that if I go over 70 or so, I’ll gain. It’s as though my body won’t let me have any, and it’s very frustrating. I try to eat whole grains, but I’m definitely not eating 3 per day – makes me gain weight!

    Reply
    • Sounds like you’ve been on the low-carb diet train, Stacy. 100 grams is very low and risky. Remember, weight loss doesn’t equal positive health. Weight lost via low-carb diets tends to be largely water and lean tissue. (In my experience, people look a lot less healthy, too; body proportions tend not to improve.) It’s even worse if you enter ketosis—the goal of severely low-carb diets.

      Your body needs time to adjust to appropriate amounts of carbohydrates, and it will. I’d suggest increasing them gradually while reducing your protein and fat intake (if you’ve kept either/both high). The benefits of a carb-appropriate diet are remarkable, and I’d love for you to have them. Of course, it’s totally up to you. 🙂

      Reply
      • Thanks. It’s just tough to accept that when I lost 65 pounds on one and had it drilled into me that it was safe. I’ve been trying to adjust all summer. I haven’t completely cut out carbs this time around – I’m still having some fruit and Greek yogurt. Sigh. It’s such a hard thing to do.

    • I feel for you, Stacy… Keep those baby steps up and do your best to think ‘healthy,’ not ‘shrinkage.’ 😉 You’ll get there if you keep at it. And ‘there’ is a super empowering place.

      Reply
  2. Wonderful post August and I love all the tips and suggestions. That’s usually where I need the most help – suggestions of easy-to-find stuff that constitutes stuff from each category. And LOVED the day-long meal idea…GENIUS!!!

    I am already doing greek yogurt with berries every morning and can add almonds. I am not crazy about the steel-cut oatmeal – any other whole grain suggestions for breakfast that I could use? Are there any “good” whole grain cereals I could have dry or with a little bit of 1% milk? The rest is totally doable.

    Love it! Thanks so much for all your help getting us all on track to healthy living!

    Reply
    • Aw, happy to hear that, Natalie! There are lots of other whole grain breakfast options. Any 100 percent whole grain cereal will do, such as Kashi-brand. And whole grain granola would be killer with that yogurt combo. If you like egg dishes, try adding some quinoa or serving them as wraps in whole grain tortillas. Delish! 😉

      Reply
      • Ohhhh whole grain granola!!! That sounds perfect as does the Kashi cereal!!

        I do like eggs but they can be…iffy with me so I save them for weekends when I am home. Just in case…LOL!!!

        Thanks for the uberlicious suggestions…YOU are the BEST!

  3. My biggest issue is carbs, too. My husband loves Iranian food, which is LOTS of white rice, and I love it too–but it loves my hips. I’ve found that I can eat my weight in fresh veggies, fruits, nuts, no need to skimp on oils or even protein–but if I go beyond one serving of carbs a day, I pay for it.

    I also have a helacious time stopping work in the middle of a good run to eat. I know several small meals/snacks work best for me throughout the day. But I constantly miss those times and end up eating too much at once. Probably need to get me an egg timer. *sigh*

    Reply
    • We do get carbss from fruits, vegetables and other foods, such as yogurt, so I’m happy to hear you’re not skimping fully. 🙂 And nuts are great on-the-go snacks to keep the blood sugar, energy and appetite in control.

      If you do decide to incorporate other healthy carbs, you could swap out white rice for brown, wild or even black. Whole grains are rich in protein, fiber (which boosts fullness) and a whole slew of other nutrients. Often we think it’s carbs adding pounds when in fact it’s excessive amounts of low-nutrient sources. Just some food for thought. 😉

      Reply
      • Thanks August. I know it’s the white rice, white bread, etc that cause problems. Love nuts! Today’s lunch was grilled salmon, and fresh (cooked) spinach with sesame seeds, yum. Hubby brought home some fresh cherries and blueberries, too.

  4. Glad to know I’m doing it right–for the most part! Good advice, thanks.

    Reply
  5. Great post, August! You’ve given me a lot to think about.

    My biggest issue is, I’m a really picky eater. There are a lot of foods I just don’t like, esp. vegetables. Gack. I don’t know if it’s the texture, the bitterness, or what. I like leafy salads, corn, potatoes (which I know don’t count as a veggie), and most fruits, but that’s about it for that food group. I detest beans (except for the really bad-for-you baked beans). Salsas and salads in the summer and stews, chowders, and smooth-blended tomato soups in the winter seem to be the best I can do for veggies, but I know that I’m not getting enough, and some of those come with a lot of sodium. I also need to cut back on the vino, which I have every evening. Sigh. I’m a work in progress, I guess. 😉

    Reply
  6. I’ve noticed that my least productive times of the day are the hour before lunch and the hour before dinner because I’m starting to feel hungry.

    My biggest struggle with healthy eating is the whole grains. My husband and I have tried to switch multiple times from white bread to something healthier and we just can’t get over the taste and texture. We have a similar problem with switching from white rice to brown/wild rice. (My husband is supposed to avoid oatmeal because it thickens the blood, so I’m out of luck there too.)

    Any suggestions for small ways we could start making the switch?

    Reply
    • You could start with white whole grains and whole grain foods enriched with fiber. They now make “white whole wheat” bread, which is a lot healthier (and tastes like) regular white bread. Same for pasta. As far as rice, I’d start by switching to basmati. It’s an Indian rice, and the only white whole grain. You could also try mixing brown and white grains until your taste buds adapt.

      The first time I tried whole grain pasta, I almost gagged. Now the white stuff seems like flavorless mush. 😉 In other words, our taste buds really do adjust over time. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  7. Your meals for the day here are right up my alley! I do it all but skip the rice at dinner – trying to lose weight too and carbs just stick to me. Whenever I have an urge to ‘nibble’ i grab a chobani yogurt, or mix berries and orange slices, or have a Kashi bar (love the dark chocolate almond ones!). I love fruit and veggies so that’s not a problem -its my 2 glasses of wine every night I know I could give up and lose weight from but its my treat. Thanks for reminding us about healthy and having TOO much protein.

    Reply
    • Sounds like you have some awesome habits in place, Donna. Wine is higher in carbohydrates than most starchy foods. (Priorities, though, right? ;)) Enjoyment is important.

      Reply
  8. I have an aversion to breads and most grains in general. We suspect I have celiac or something similar, so I try to get my carbs from avocados and other fruits and veggies. Great post, August! I’m glad to hear my distaste for alcohol is actually to my benefit! 🙂

    Reply
  9. I love the idea of eating healthier, but have found it can increase my grocery bill by as much as a third. 😦 I have a sulphite allergy so a number of things are out – nuts for instance. I suppose if I grew my own and ate them off the plant or tree I could eat more of them. Tomatoes are high in sulphites, grapes are out – chocolate. You just do what you can I guess.

    Reply
    • Do you have a sulphite allergy, Lisa? That’s no fun. Healthy foods can cost a pretty penny (relatively speaking) but they don’t have to. Using a crockpot and buying frozen and in/season fruits and veggies, for example, can save a bundle. I may have to hit the topic up in a post. 😉

      Reply
  10. As a borderline diabetic, I’m on the “can’t have that many carbs” train. My body can’t handle them (and I can’t eat rice at all, it makes me throw up). That’s not to say I cut them out, far from it (my body shape screams that lol), but when I eat bread in particular I gain weight. I do better with fruit (not juice, the whole fruit). Whole grains don’t make a difference, they still cause weight gain and still cause blood sugar to shoot up. I still have a tiny amount of oatmeal (blood sugar doesn’t go up as fast) or half a english muffin (goes up but just don’t care) for breakfast though. I just can’t have as much at one time as the food pyramid would suggest. I think the key is there is no one perfect way to eat, because every body is different. Which is why this stuff gets so frustrating and confusing. What works for one simply does not work for another, for all kinds of reasons. Wish they’d develop some sort of box we could step into and it would just fix the metabolism! THAT I could use.

    Reply
    • You hit one of the biggest problems about diets on the head, Melinda. There is no one-menu-fits-all plan. To cut through the confusion in the diet world, we look to physiology and science along with our personal needs and preferences. I wish there were more valid resources in pop culture, based on wellness instead of profit. It sounds like you’ve learned what works for you. That’s awesome. 🙂

      Reply
  11. August, thank you again for your consistent presentation of what a balanced diet is all about.:-)

    Reply
  12. Hi August – thanks for stopping by my place to vote in the Whatchamacallit Ad contest. I’m checking out your fab blog as Renee suggested and I’m so glad I did!

    I have been trying to eat healthy and exercise for the last year. I lost a lot of weight, but my old eating habits are lurking just under the surface, waiting to drag me down. There have been several times where I’ve binged on sugary snacks – it happened just yesterday. For the first time in my life, I can clearly see how this affects my body. I fell asleep in my chair, something I never do, and had what I can only describe as a sugar-hangover this morning; a sluggish, blah feeling.

    I’m hoping that with this knowledge comes power – the power to take those old junk-food habits and kick ’em in the junk, if you know what I mean.

    Reply
    • Thanks for stopping by! Happy to welcome any friend of Renee’s. 🙂

      I’m glad to hear that you’ve gone beyond simply viewing healthy eating habits as a means of weight control. Ironically, the more we fixate on weight and numbers, the less effective we tend to be weight and health-wise. Energy, creativity and overall wellness are better motivators. And as long as we eat mostly nutritious foods, moderate amounts of treats won’t hurt us. It’s all about balance and moderation.

      Reply
  13. Great post, August! I’m hypoglycemic, so I am very conscious of balancing my protein and high quality carbs. And let’s hear it for oatmeal in the morning. Yum!

    Reply
  14. August, if you can believe this, I have a problem with…pizza rolls. Isn’t that awful? I’ve managed to cut out pretty much every single unhealthy food from my diet, but you put a plate of pizza rolls near me and I’ll eat every last one of ’em! Terrible lol

    This is what a typical day for me looks like: Quinoa for breakfast (I use “I can’t believe its not butter – is that OK?), mixed nuts for snack (almonds, cashews, pistachios, & peanuts), 1st lunch: cooked green beans, sliced almonds & salmon, 2nd lunch: carrots, more greens, and wild/brown rice, sliced apples for snack. I keep Balance Bars near me in case of emergency – sometimes I have one for breakfast if I’m running late, or I will eat one after the gym.

    Dinner is a problem. Hubs cooks and he doesn’t like to cook healthy LOL We usually have turkey, white rice & corn, or substitute the turkey for pork chops dipped in shake-n-bake, or something from a box. I try to only eat small portions LOL

    Any advice on what I can change or do better?

    Reply
    • You are doing so many things well, Kate. Considering how nutritious much of your diet is, those pizza rolls won’t hurt you—unless you have an allergy or eat them by the ton. 😉

      I’d suggest adding other fruits and/or vegetables to your dinners. Use salad mixes, baby carrots or mix frozen or fresh veggies into the rice. You could also switch to basmati rice (a scrumptious white whole grain), or, better yet, brown or wild rice. If you load your dinner plates with produce and add moderate portions of meat and a complex carbohydrate (rice, potatoes, etc.), you won’t have to stress over portion control. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  15. Oops…I meant to add that I’m allergic to dairy, red meat, & acidic fruits. Yay! ;p

    Reply
    • Ah… Do the tomatoes in the pizza rolls bother you? This may sound odd, but you could try preparing a moderate amount of pizza rolls then serving them on top of salad. Each bite will be more satisfying and nutritious.

      Reply
      • Sorry I’m late getting back to you…no, the tomatoes don’t bother me. Thank you so much for the great advice and tips!! =)

  16. August – Great post. I’m a notoriously bad eater, but I’ve been doing better and getting more exercise. Now, on a similar topic – Kristin posted a picture of gorgeous cake on her WANA blog. Any chance of getting the recipe?

    Grace

    Reply
  17. I just love these posts where you help us with our eating; the posts give us a chance to see how we’re doing.

    Been meaning to tell you that I found a gluten, yeast, and starch-free bread at a California-based company, Julian Bakery. The company makes a variety of breads and many are made with chicory root rather than refined starches. For me, this is critical.

    The bread that I eat is made with millett, ground flaxseed, and buckwheat primarily. I am sure it is a taste bud adjustment but after searching for almost 2 years for a bread, my first bite was delicious. It is not cheap. However, I am working with a local store owner who allows me to order by the month, which gives me enough of a discount to receive a loaf free, essentially.

    I have been eating this bread for over a month, and I believe the extra carbs I’m getting are influencing my energy level and, perhaps, my writing productivity. Both are on the upswing. I have not put on any weight eating these extra carbs but have lost a couple pounds, actually. As you say, everyone’s physiology is unique.

    Thanks, August, for all the help you give us.

    Karen

    Reply
    • I can’t tell you how stoked I am for you, Karen—both for finding healthy bread that suits you and for experiencing the energizing benefits of nutritious carbohydrate sources. You are a total rock star. 🙂 Thanks for the wonderful support.

      Reply
  18. I was informed this week that I’m eating too many fruits/veggies and not enough protein and salt >.< I'm basically the anti-american diet. But I Looooove veggies and fruit (I also looooove a good hamburger, but they make me too full to eat often).

    Other than the not enough protein (although I do eat a lot of beans, quinoa, soy, ect), I definitely drink too much wine. I've cut back during the weeks (I no longer drink every weeknight), but I still find myself getting a bit too happy on the weekends.

    Reply
  19. I try to limit my added sugar and white carbs- The white carb restriction is easy to manage, but I have a huge sweet tooth. Once I stopped thinking of dessert as something along the lines of cookies, candy, cake, etc, and began to eat fruits, or smoothies made with greek yogurt and fruit and almond and/or soy milk, I felt so much better. I treat myself every so often with added sugar foods and enjoy it more when I do.

    What I need to work on is my body image problems. An old eating disorder/body image problem tries to rear its head if I’m not careful. I acknowledge that I do not always have a healthy view of my how I look, what my weight is, etc. and have to make sure I don’t take things to extreme.

    Reply
    • Kudos to you for staying mindful of your body image and disordered eating tendencies, Kat. As you may know, I endured much of both. Avoiding extremes and “the numbers” really goes a long way—for people with and without these issues. The link between dieting, self deprecation and weight gain is crazy-fierce.

      So happy to hear you’re eating well, treating yourself and enjoying. 🙂

      Reply
      • Our minds have wonderful ways of adapting and coping, but those same ways of adapting and coping sure can send us on “not so good” paths, too!

        Always a pleasure to read your posts, August.

  20. I just finished lunch – salad and pizza. Does one counter-balance the other?

    Good tips, especially the part about not waiting too long to eat. Regular small meals is the key for me. I get headaches if I wait too long to eat and if it’s a really long wait, I get nauseaus. I definitely know when I need to eat.

    Side note – missed you in Anaheim. Would have loved to have met you. Tameri’s pictures were fun!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    Reply
    • Ha! Actually, pizza is a pretty balanced food. And chock-full of lycopene. 😉 Glad you paired it with salad. Hope you enjoyed!

      Drats! I’m bummed I missed you in Anaheim, too. Next time for sure.

      Reply
  21. Great post August. It’s nice to have someone just lay out a list. There are so many wonderful things to choose from, especially if you work at home, right next to the kitchen. Ahem. I’m reading good things about coconut oil, after many years of public disgrace. What’s your take on it?

    Reply
    • Great question. Coconut oil, in my opinion, isn’t the miracle food it’s made out to be. It does provide nutrients and flavor, but it’s also high in saturated fat—which is inflammatory. I think it’s a useful butter alternative for people avoiding or intolerant to dairy, and I’m all for variety in cooking and baking. If you like it, I say use and enjoy it in moderation.

      Reply
  22. Your sample day of meals is almost exactly what I eat everyday, unless I’m out of town. I eat the plain greek yogurt and flaxseed, flavor it with cinnamon, a touch of vanilla extract or another flavor extract. I add cocoa/plain almonds or granola and blueberries. Lunch is whole grain english muffin with natural peanut butter or whole grain tortilla wrap with leftover veggies and a scrambled egg. Dinner is 4 oz chicken or turkey and a load of veggies. Hubs adds a potato or brown rice for himself. I try to eat the grain type carbs earlier in the day and just eat the fruit/veggie carbs in the evening. In between meals I eat a fiber bar and fruit, usually berries or kiwi. When I’m out of town, eating 2 meals in restaurants, it isn’t easy to eat reasonable calories and fats, but I get pretty close. Eating so well the rest of the the time helps to offset the less than great diet out of town once every other week.
    Great post, August! This is the type of healthy eating I’ve tried to encourage for a long time.

    Reply
    • Your vibrancy and diet are a perfect match, Marcia. Can’t say I’m surprised! 😉 Thanks so much for the support, and for sharing your healthy habits.

      Reply
  23. I do like meat but I eat small portions and I’m kind of a grazer. I eat lots of fruit and nuts. 🙂

    Reply
  24. My go-to comfort food is PB and honey sandwich on soft white bread. But I haven’t had any for three weeks! We’ve been doing greek yogurt and berries for breakfast, or I go back to my standard Wheat Chex (yes, I know there’s a smidge of sugar), orange and hard boiled egg. We do carbs, but are trying not to have grains at dinner, so it’s been easier to give up the white rice. I can do brown, but I don’t enjoy it. We do have corn or sweet potato with the salad or other veg and chicken/fish/steak. My big “discovery” is quinoa – I love it! Easy to cook and it makes lunch keep me full for a l-o-n-g time. Thanks for a great post!

    Reply
  25. The fact that all anyone wants to do is diet, and then stop and stay in good shape goes to show just how lazy some people are. If you want a healthy weight get off your butt.
    If you want a healthy brain, don’t be lazy with your food either. I can’t stand how expensive some organic foods are though.
    I find that exercising makes me more creative as well. It just makes me feel better all the way around.
    I love your articles like this, thanks!

    Reply
  26. Hi August,
    You are supporting me already with this article. I started losing all of my excess weight almost two years ago. I have given myself three years because I am doing it the healthy way by changing my eating habits and my way of thinking about food, and doing some excercise that I enjoy two or three times a week. So thanks for this very encouraging article.
    By the way, I am succeeding. I have already lost four dress sizes and only need to lose two more.
    Ciao,
    Patricia

    Reply
  27. Establishing and exploring the link between diet and creativity? Pretty ingenious, young lady! You’ve truly carved a niche for yourself here at WordPress.

    Reply
  28. Brilliant advice, August. I am guilty of 3, 4 & 5. I really appreciated the hands-on sample of daily meals. I’ll try it it out.

    Reply
  29. lynettemburrows

     /  August 5, 2012

    Excellent advice, August. I’ve managed to increase my water intake over the past year. Now I am trying to add more fruits and vegetables into my diet. Unfortunately in my current day job it’s difficult to do more than grabbing a sandwich and eating on the run. I’m working on that one, too. Great post.

    Reply
  30. Kourtney Heintz

     /  August 11, 2012

    Every time I pop over to your blog, you give me perspective on some aspect of my life. You’re the ultimate mentor. 🙂 Thanks for reminding me of the need for balance and providing practical examples of how to achieve it. You’re amazing!

    Reply
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