Power Foods & Natural Nootropics
for Optimized Thinking, Focus & Memory
“Your ability to learn, focus, conceptualize, remember, and even shrug off stress is directly related to the food you put on your plate.”
This book can change the way you think. Literally.
If you struggle with focus and memory lapses, mental fog, or stress—or if you simply want to optimize your mental performance and protect your brain health—Smart Plants is a must read. Written by New York Times bestselling author and natural-food chef Julie Morris, whose name has become synonymous with “superfoods” and “wellness,” this groundbreaking book reveals the dietary secrets to better brain performance.
Combining scientific research with the wisdom of ancient remedies, Smart Plants showcases an exciting array of cognition-enhancing plants—from everyday foods to natural nootropics (edibles that can improve memory, learning, and problem solving). Morris’s 65 mouthwatering, beautifully illustrated recipes make it easy to incorporate these powerful foods into your daily diet. Feed your brain with such palate-pleasing dishes as Berry-Almond Amaranth Porridge, French Lentils with Roasted Radishes, Fig & Hazelnut Wild Rice Salad, Garlicky Butter Bean Soup with Kale, Matcha Custard with Wild Berries, and more!
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“I’m sorry to tell you this, detective, but the forensic lab called and they won’t have any answers until Friday. We need to find another way.”
“I’m sorry to tell you this, detective, but the forensic lab called and they won’t have any of the results until Friday. We need to find another way.”
Was that it?
As I parked my car on a side street off Santa Monica Boulevard, I picked up the crumpled script on the passenger seat and read the highlighted section:
Jocelyn: I’m sorry to tell you this, detective, but the forensic lab called and they won’t have any of the results until Friday. It’s not looking good. We need to find another way.
It’s not looking good. It’s not looking good. Got it now?
“It’s not looking good is right,” I said out loud to myself as I readjusted my dress, which had become awkwardly pasted to my body after sitting in traffic for more than an hour.
Even from a very young age, I had always enjoyed acting. In fact, you may recognize me from my incredible first-grade school performance (as I am told . . . by my mom) as Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Or perhaps you know me from some of my finer work: as a background actor in an antialcohol video shown at driving schools in the late 1990s. Yes, unfortunately my commercial success never seemed to match my enthusiasm for the craft, but when you appreciate acting as much as I do and also happen to have grown up in Los Angeles, you get to a point where you decide to at least dip your toe into the water of what’s simply known in LA as The Industry.
And that’s where I was in 2003. At 22 years old, I had scraped the top ceiling of my credit card limit to take twice-a-week acting classes downtown, procure a whole set of headshots to include all my different “looks,” and sign with a zealous manager who could just as easily fight off a bear as charm a snake, whichever was required at the time. To put the ramen on the table while I went to college, I had a part-time job at an upscale toy store at The Grove, a celebrity- studded Los Angeles shopping enclave, working as a costumed character. The store had cast me as “Princess Pretty,” a mortifying title that made me feel almost as itchy as the costume itself, and it was my job to walk around the two-story environment with my trellised pink cone hat and Febreze-scented gown and interact with children in the store as they planned new outfits for their dolls or begged their parents for the mini electric “child” Ferrari in the front window, which cost more than most real cars on the freeway.
I considered this job a slow path to actual insanity. Nevertheless, it was perfect for my fledging career as an actor, because it just so happened that most of the other costumed characters who walked the floor with me were actual (and would-be) thespians as well, and if you had a sudden midday audition during your shift, it wasn’t a big deal to just take off.
The thing is, when I wasn’t commiserating with my buddy the Toy Soldier about the unexpected perils of costumed character work, I was actually getting some auditions. Most of them were for fairly small gigs, like the counter girl handing a family their order in a fast-food restaurant commercial, or having a quick one-liner guest spot on a TV show. These opportunities were a bit like playing the casting lottery, because, basically, if you had a freckle in the wrong spot, you weren’t getting the part.
But my audition that warm day in Santa Monica was different. I was up for the role of the main character in a TV show pilot, which can be a bit of acting gold, because if you get cast and the pilot gets picked up by a network, you’ve got yourself a show—and a steady paycheck. As I clacked down the street in my favorite merlot-colored platforms, I tried to ready myself. Chill out, Julie, just chill. I had rehearsed the scene ad nauseam ever since getting the script a few days earlier. I knew I would be good for the part: a tall, brunette junior detective determined to claw her way up the professional ladder, but with a secret past on the wrong side of the law that could compromise everything—juicy stuff. The tailored pinstripe dress I was wearing clearly screamed young business-professional, and it was even a good hair day. There was only one small problem: I was having trouble remembering the lines.
Memorizing had never been my strong suit. Though I was a good student in school, I found test-taking extremely difficult, as the load of random facts and figures I was expected to remember never seemed to stay in my head for very long. And my memory issues trickled into the rest of my life, too: I’d often forget the names of places where I’d vacationed, people I’d met, movies I’d seen, and heaven help me if I needed to remember a phone number or an address, even if only for a minute. I never gave it much thought, as my mom is similarly “absentminded,” as she calls it, but my penchant for acting really brought this handicap to the forefront. To be an actor, you absolutely have to memorize your lines.
By the time I got called into the little office for my audition, I was, without question, 100 percent totally nervous. I’m sorry to tell you this, detective . . . I’m sorry to tell you this, detective . . . I chanted the lines over and over in my head like a personal mantra, trying to keep a close grip on my starting point. The casting director, a short woman with a friendly smile, ushered me into a private room, while an assistant fidgeted with a small video camera pointed toward me.
“Okay! Julie Morris. It’s nice to meet you.” The casting director grinned at me warmly with what looked like genuine hospitality.
“So great to meet you, too!” I said, trying to mirror her friendliness. What did she say her name was? Did she say? I’m sorry to tell you this, detective . . .
“Jason, are we all set?” she asked the assistant.
“All set,” Jason replied, having clearly done this routine a dozen times already that day. He pushed record.
I’m sorry to tell you this, detective . . .
The casting director tilted her chin upward and set her gaze squarely on me. The comforting smile was gone, and she looked much more focused as she leaned back in her chair. “Okay, Julie. Whenever you’re ready.”
I’m sorry to . . .
Now the room was silent except for the low hum of the air conditioner. I took a deep breath. I cleared my throat. I looked straight at the casting director. And then . . .
I asked for a copy of the script.
I had forgotten the lines.
More than anywhere else in our bodies, we identify the inner environment between our ears with who we truly are. A tattoo may ensure that the world can see your love of cats, flat abs may make you feel “strong” or “sexy,” and the sudden appearance of a pimple on your chin may knock your self- confidence down one notch for the day. But your mental microclimate feels like the real “you.” It makes sense: We live in our heads all the time! So, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t give my cognitive shortcomings a whole lot of thought for an embarrassingly long time, because I thought they were just part of me. My short-term memory was very poor, and that was that. For the most part, I learned to work around it in my professional life, practicing talks and presentations I needed to make weeks ahead of time to create a routine, rather than a memory; developing a few skills like image or word associations to memorize quick facts (“His name is Chad . . . like my cousin”); and, above all else, writing everything down, before it slipped away forever. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal.
Also on my list of “not a big deal” were ongoing bouts of brain fog, the frequent occurrence of noncircumstantial depression (relatively minor in its severity, but no laughing matter, either), and, worst of all, the gripping anxiety that took over my thoughts from time to time—a double-edged, paralyzing, fear-filled combination of “not being able to get it all done” and “it’s not good enough” that would roll over my chest with the weight of an army tank. But, since these conditions weren’t severe enough to impede my career or social life, I just considered them an annoying, hidden part of who I was—just “me,” right?
Then, in the summer of 2014, something happened to change all that. It had been about 10 years since I’d come to the realization that the acting thing wasn’t exactly going to “work out” for me and found my real creative passion as a healthy chef and recipe developer. I was working on a specialized food project for a restaurateur seeking a new superfood energy drink to add to the menu. While messing around with ingredients, I pulled out an old bag of rhodiola powder, which had somehow ended up in my pile of oddball superfood testing ingredients. I vaguely remembered that rhodiola is energizing and good for athletes, so I decided to try it out in the recipe. Although the resulting drink tasted like dish soap and the addition of rhodiola was promptly rejected, I was curious to know why a rhodiola stash had found its way into my kitchen in the first place and began to do research on what made it a superfood. My search yielded an array of fascinating results, but what I found most intriguing was that beyond just being a great energy food, rhodiola is also known as a “nootropic.” “A what?” I asked at the time. I’ll save the details about incredible nootropic ingredients like rhodiola for chapter 6 (page 77), where you can discover all their secrets, too. But at the time I was so intrigued, I decided to do a little self-test. I began taking rhodiola every day, along with bacopa, another Ayurvedic herb. There is only one distinctly nonscientific word that could adequately sum up the results: WOW.
Within days I felt an increase in sustained energy. Within weeks I found it much easier to “stay in the creative flow.” And after about a month and a half, I experienced my own personal Holy Grail of brain optimization: an improvement in short-term memory. It wasn’t a huge change, mind you, but it was tangible. A brief presentation I had put off memorizing rolled off my tongue after just 24 hours of marinating, instead of the usual one-week minimum. I met a new neighbor and actually remembered her name. A friend told me about an interesting brand of protein powder and my brain neatly filed it in the “things I know” category, as if that was just how I had been doing business all along. It was exhilarating.
And the benefits kept coming. Over the course of a year, with many more plant food and herbal experimentations underway, I noticed that I was able to focus better and easily ward off distractions while I worked. I was considerably less anxious, too, and, oddly, I felt like I had a little more time in the day (probably from not spending so much time worrying). Even after a six-month period marked by several major personal and family-related challenges, the process of bouncing back to center seemed just a little more fluid. I couldn’t believe it: Here I’d been obsessed with the powerful effects that plants can have on health for well over a decade, with a full-time career based on pursuing functional foods that help to optimize the body. I’d done research on foods and created recipes that balance energy, promote heart health, improve strength, enhance beauty, and increase bone density, to name just a few of the many benefits of consuming superfoods. But I had never realized the extent to which the brain could be so malleable, not to mention so powerfully affected by something as simple as food. In fact, I had always assumed that focusing on “brain health” was reserved for individuals who suffer from severe neurodegenerative diseases or psychological imbalances (both of which I can deeply sympathize with, having witnessed their fatal effects firsthand in my own family). Now I was beginning to realize that, in addition to helping prevent and fight disease, even a relatively healthy brain could enjoy significant improvements, too, with just a few simple optimization strategies. It quickly became abundantly clear to me that so many of the challenges I had experienced in the past weren’t “me” at all—they were just signals that my brain needed some extra TLC!
If I sound exuberant, please know that you’re just picking up on my excitement about finally having the opportunity to share with you the best nuggets of what I’ve learned and experienced in the past few years. I wish I had this information and the “food tools” I now have when I was in school, struggling over tests. Or when I was hitting my head against the steering wheel of my car on the way home from yet another failed attempt at a memorized audition. Or even just a few years ago, when I found myself hyperventilating, in tears, because of work-related anxiety. But I’m glad I know what I know now.
I’m not a neuroscientist or a physician, and the subtle changes I’ve made in my diet have most definitely not turned me into a genius or a Zen master, or anything close to them. I’m not able to access the (fully mythical) “extra 90 percent of the brain” any better than anyone else, and I still “lose” the glasses on my head at least once every few days. But a tangible improvement has taken place: There’s a little more light at the top of the stairs these days, so to speak. The brain is an insurmountably complicated environment, and we are all so very different. Yet I, along with thousands of researchers and natural medicine practitioners around the world, can confirm that if you feed your body well, not only will you protect your brain, but, in the process, you just might be able to enhance your experience of life as well.
Wouldn’t you like to know how much your amazing mind is truly capable of? That’s what this book can help you to find out.
How to Use This Book
The very fact that you’ve picked up this book likely means you’re ready for change. Perhaps you’re feeling less motivated than usual and your mind feels more sluggish than it has in the past, or maybe you have a big presentation at work that makes you wish you could do something to enhance your ability to remember information. It could be that you just feel you haven’t tapped the limits of your own potential and are curious to know how you might expand it. There’s an abundance of reasons for desiring a better-functioning brain, and I can understand why you might want to bypass the first chapters of this book and dive right into the food and recipe sections, with the lure of being able to boost the way you think and feel hanging before you like a gilded carrot. Yet I’m hoping you’ll take the time to read these chapters first, and here’s why.
The brain is enormously complex, and it could easily be argued that what we don’t understand about this fascinating organ is even greater than what we do understand. Nevertheless, having a baseline knowledge of how your brain functions, and what processes and elements support it, can help guide you in taking the next steps toward optimizing the way you think and feel. And that’s exactly what these pages are intended to do.
In part one, you’ll get a working knowledge of basic brain biology and function (Don’t worry, we won’t go too far down this rabbit hole!) and look at the ways we can improve our minds. Next, you’ll expand your knowledge of brain nutrition, and likely identify some of your own needs, as well as pick up actionable steps you can take to create a more brain-friendly diet.
A Smart Plants diet is composed of three tiers: an everyday diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense, plant-based foods* that help protect and support the overall health of your brain; nootropic ingredients that can be added to your diet as a boost, in order to catapult and increase cognition even more; and optional plant-based supplements to consider for further fine-tuning. (All these foods and food-based supplements are explained in detail so you can better understand their qualities and choose the ones that work best for you.) At the end of part one, you’ll have the tools you need to fully customize your own brain-optimization plan using some of the most potent cognition-enhancing foods on the planet.
All the recipes in part two will offer you overall neuroprotection and more balanced brain function, with the benefits highlighted in a Mind Meter at the bottom of each recipe. Most of the recipes use everyday, plant-based ingredients, and while these recipes offer great benefits on their own, you can further enhance their functionality, if you like, by adding specialty nootropic ingredients to the mix. You can find an optional, custom nootropic Brain Boost at the bottom of each recipe, too.
The last section of recipes contains a collection of “rituals”—which are essentially a full-on, functional food party, in easy-recipe form—to help supercharge your brain-building routine. These unique recipes are saturated with top-shelf nootropics and designed for anyone who is ready to take brain function to the next level.
How far down the path of brain optimization you go is entirely up to you. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the “choose your own adventure” approach to the simple yet powerful foods and recipes that can maximize every aspect of your brain’s performance. This book is here to empower you.
*Smart Plants celebrates a diet that capitalizes on the benefits of eating more powerful plants overall. You do not have to be a vegan to enjoy all the benefits of the foods described in this book.
about the author
JULIE MORRIS is a passionate wellness advocate who believes we can build a better quality of life through what we put on our plate.
Considered a pioneer in the realm of superfood and nootropic cooking, Julie explores the world’s most powerful plants through her work as a natural food chef and New York Times bestselling author. Her in-depth expertise has been quoted by such diverse publications as The Wall Street Journal, GQ, and Women’s Health Magazine, and her recipes have been featured in numerous culinary publications. In addition to her five previous bestselling books, Julie is the founder and culinary director of the superfood education center, Luminberry, and is dedicated to empowering people with the rewards of cooking with nature’s most amazing foods.
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