The independent news organization of Duke University

You are what you eat

Sometimes being a complaining, no-talent ass-clown in The Chronicle is all too easy. Still, it’s disturbing—like when your uncle goes into the bathroom after the Thanksgiving buffet and—for a spell—everything is quiet, eerily quiet.

It’s hard to know what to do when the student newspaper publishes an article called “Posted food facts may be harmful,” based on the opinions of Duke’s dietician and director of dining services. Mocking stuff like this is like putting a half-dozen .45 caliber rounds into the skull of a horse with a broken leg: pathetic but necessary. One feels like he is walking into a trap—people can’t possibly be this stupid.

So we can take evolution classes and learn, quite correctly, that human beings are elaborate robots for copying genes, but we can’t know how many calories and grams of saturated fat are in Armadillo Grill queso because it might give us eating disorders? So the “logic” of our grown-up administrators goes. They will keep us happy and ignorant and safe. But unfortunately for us, there are perfectly legitimate—and even praise-worthy—reasons for wanting to know the nutritional details of the foods we’re consuming.

Though it is seldom emphasized, diet exerts considerable influence on human performance. What you eat can have large effects on mood, concentration and flexible intelligence.

Scientists who bother to study these things have been able to tease out some clear—and individually testable—relationships between different foods and certain mental states. Judith Wurtman, a neurobiology researcher at MIT, has published extensively in this area, both in scientific journals and the popular press. A notable—albeit dumbed-down—book of hers, Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food, summarizes the findings of research in the field and converts it into recommendations for optimizing mental and physical performance, which—unless you are of French ethnic origin—ought to be the whole point of eating.

Because Duke would prefer to leave you out of the Loop, her major conclusions are summarized below. She, unlike the Duke chow Ayatollahs, would rather offer up the facts and tell people how to achieve their full potential by eating responsibly, even if some of her suggestions are a little shaky empirically.

  1. Brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which are produced from amino acids in the proteins we eat, regulate human mental states. By eating certain foods in certain sequences and quantities, mood can be regulated.

  2. Dopamine and norepinephrine are chemicals responsible for “mental performance,” alertness, attention, etc. Their precursor is tyrosine, a common constituent of protein-containing foods. By eating protein before carbohydrates it is possible to increase the synthesis of these chemicals and thereby remain more alert, focused, and energetic. (Four ounces of protein is enough to produce the effect.)

  3. Serotonin is the happy, relaxing chemical—think Prozac. It is synthesized from tryptophan, whose levels are increased in the brain by eating carbohydrates alone, without protein. (1.5 ounces carbohydrate is sufficient.)

  4. In repeated experiments, mental performance is negatively correlated with the size of the meal consumed prior to testing. She recommends 400 calories per “working” breakfast and 500 to 600 calories for working dinners, avoiding excessive fat wherever possible.

  5. For most people, consuming a moderate amount of caffeine has positive effects on error correction, concentration and alertness.

So nutrition information has relevance beyond the Darwinian quest to be svelte and attractive to the opposite sex; it can also be used to enhance mental performance and in so doing become wittier, get better jobs and thereby become more attractive to the opposite sex.

But if you’re like this writer, you can stick with gallons of coffee, 49-cent Grizzly chewing tobacco and vanilla cigars. These will keep you performing around 25 percent of your full potential, no matter what.

In any event, though, we have a right to know about the properties of the foods we’re made to eat under the strictures of the Duke food plan because amino acid composition, caloric value and fat content have major relevance to brain function, mood and quality of life.

What we certainly don’t need is to be protected from the truth. Even though it may make the triple club lose its sparkle and strip the Loop chili cheese dog of its sanctity, we can get used to the news. What’s important is having the information that allows us to choose—for better or for worse.

Matt Gillum is a Trinity senior. His column appears Wednesdays.


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