NOI Notes on Brain Food

Bacon and egg icecream
When master chef Heston Blumethal first made bacon and egg icecream at his restaurant, The Fat Duck, in the UK it was apparently pleasant, but not really that “baconny” or “eggy”. However, when a piece of crispy fried bread was added to the plate, the bacon and egg flavours really emerged. The bread didn’t add much flavour but the bacon flavour must have been lifted by the bread providing a awareness of crispy texture [1]. There are many similar examples; oysters taste better if you hear waves, you can believe that an old potato chip is fresher if you change the crunch sound through headphones when you eat it. Those who like strong coffee will drink more if they are under strong lighting, but if you like weak coffee you will drink more under dim lighting (See Spence [1] for a fascinating review).

What this is saying of course is that our sensory perceptions rely on many senses. Those who wear glasses think that they hear better when they wear their glasses; you smell different things when you sniff red or white wine – but even experts smell red wine characteristics in white wine coloured red! [2]. What has it got to do with rehabilitation and pain?

Slippery prawns, silky tofu
It is not only smell, vision, sound, and sometimes touch (oh the sensual texture of a silky tofu!, the slippery fresh firm prawn being peeled!) which contribute to taste perception, it’s also the environment – time of day, dining companions, candle, tablecloth etc. We can actually be quite biopsychosocial when it comes to working out what constructs the brain output of taste! Taste, like pain, is not solely an input as is often taught – it is a multimodal output constructed by taste neurosignatures. (You can have taste perceptions without anything in your mouth). We can learn a lot about how the brain works by contemplating neurogastonomy – the topic of a plenary lecture by Professor Charles Spence from Oxford University at the NOI 2012 conference. It should also make us take a closer look at how pain is constructed in the brain.

The act of eating and brain health
The very act of eating not only refuels the most energy hungry organ in the body, it stimulates the mind in a number of ways. For example, eating and thinking of eating produces gut peptides such as insulin and leptin (a la Ivan Pavlov), helpful in digestion of course but which are also known to influence cognitive processes and have direct effects on plasticity [3]. It would seem that a healthy variety of sensory inputs while eating could enhance the beneficial brain effects to the point where any of the senses can stimulate healthy neurochemistry – ah…. just looking at a ripe crunchy apple makes me feel and think better. My conversation over dinner is always better with a candle lit and especially with certain people.

But food can also be used in other ways…

Feed your synapses
We are now more and more aware that the nutrients in some foods can alter brain function, specifically cognition and mood. There has been some pop-science around but good evidence is emerging. The Omega-3 fatty acids that we source in our diets (in fish especially salmon, walnuts, kiwi fruits) and don’t produce ourselves, are important cell membrane components and enhance neuroplasticity. Examples of other nutrients which have shown beneficial effects on brain function include Vitamins B, D and E, turmeric, calcium and zinc (eat your oysters!), choline (in eggs, chicken, veal and turkey) and the natural sugars produced in plants. However, excessive calorie intake may limit any benefits and saturated fats can promote cognitive decline. Beneficial cognitive effects are enhanced by exercise. If we are into education about sensitivity, then all rehab groups should be taking this information to the public. See Gómez-Pinilla (2008) for a review.

There is more..

Food and Pacing
A clever psychologist I know told me how you could use food in pacing. She told me about an elderly Greek lady with chronic upper body pain where a therapist insisted that hydrotherapy would help, despite the fact that the patient hated water. However, with a goal of cooking a meal for a special event and planning and executing all the cooking over a week, breaking down the activities, she achieved what she thought was impossible and had significant pain relief. And the cooking gets them moving more, out more (shopping) and interacting with more people. If it’s graded, your nerves will love all the physical exercise as well.

Fabulous plasticity enhancing food at the NOI conference
Food has a high profile at the NOI 2012 conference with lunchtime activities and workshops on all three days. The conference dinner will be a beauty with South Aussie specialities, enhanced by sensory input such as music and stunning acts. There will be food tastings in the exhibition hall, and a bit of trickery using food to show you how important all the senses are. Our conference is linked to the Tasting Australia Festival which is in Adelaide this year. We have a special workshop on food and pain. Ian Parmenter, well known to Australians for the cooking show ‘Consuming Passions’ discusses pain and hospital food; ‘at-the-coalface psychologist’, Maria Polymeneas talks about using food for pacing activity; Talitha Best from the University of South Australia discusses the recent evidence on nutrition and cognition and Charles Spence from Oxford University discusses multimodal integration and taste.

We think a powerful message from food is that many ‘things’ can be used to treat pain, for example, movement, art, dance, work and food. (Awesome art exhibition at the conference). Take a sidestep for a moment: we are suggesting that the most successful meal for body and brain is one that not only has the best nutrients but one that includes maximal integration of the senses for that place and time. The lessons of taste tell us that an injured worker should ideally return to work with effective multimodal integration – being able to integrate all the smells, noises, visual, touch, emotional and contextual inputs of the workplace without kicking off pain and stress responses. Let’s eat!


1. Spence, C., The multisensory perception of flavour. The Psychologist, 2010. 23: p. 3-4.
2. Morrot, G., F. Brochet, and D. Dubourdieu, The Color of Odors Brain and Language, 2001. 79: p. 309-320.
3. Gómez-Pinilla, F., Brain foods: the effect of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2008. 9: p. 568-578.

From the US and know somebody about to undergo low back surgery?
Are you a Physio? Have you seen this petition yet?

Moseley, Butler, Thacker, Louw: Teaching people about pain. 90 mins with slides.
NOI 2012 Conference Programme
IFOMPT Conference, Montreal, Sept-Oct 2012
Skiing: Legs of steel
Getting over skiing injuries


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One Response to “NOI Notes on Brain Food”

  1. Paul Clifton DAVEY Says:

    It is interesting and valid. I have automatically changed since my serious injuries occurred. My diet is more varied in terms of taste and various sensations that did not exist previously. It was a gradual, but not deliberate, change which just seemed to grow with the chronic pain and my reduced activities.,

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