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Mind Body and Soul: The Diet of Leonardo Da Vinci : Secrets for Eating Your Way to Genius

By: Heather Shanks

 Imagine a colleague who effortlessly draws up the perfect storyboard for a critical ad campaign, then gives a flawless profit and loss presentation at a press conference. After that, he heads off to teach a course on the latest in string theory.  To top off the day, he leads a book club discussion on the nuances of Thoreau, all while exuding charm, fitness and impeccable taste. Could such a person be real? Yes, indeed. Change a few details and that colleague would be the eminent Leonardo da Vinci, renowned Renaissance artist, scientist, sculptor and mathematician. Impressive by any standards, his giant mind produced a legacy that captivates us even today.


The real question is, can we all be so inclined toward the sort of enigmatic ability and creative genius that Da Vinci seemed to possess in spades? In his book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: 7 Steps to Genius Every Day, author Micheal J. Gelb gives us insight into the personal habits of the man, the myth, the legend, driven by his fascination with the mind-body connection. Da Vinci knew that the mind cannot function in isolation, and that the foundation for a strong mind is a healthy body.  Breakthroughs in neuroscience affirm Da Vinci”s timeless wisdom; what you eat has a profound influence on brain function in areas such as memory, learning, creativity and problem-solving. While genius can”t be packaged, by making small changes to our daily routine, we may be able to use these habits as a template to stir up our own inner genius.

Habit 1:  Eat in Moderation

A period known for extravagance, the Renaissance also placed significant value on balance.  Many great minds of that time, including Da Vinci, sought balance in knowledge, in work and play, even in eating.  Overeating and undereating each create a state of imbalance in the body which can be avoided by moderation. 

Why it Still Makes Sense

Research is solid on the damaging long-term effects of overeating on the body and the mind.  Less familiar, though, are its effects on day-to-day performance.  Eating too much in one sitting causes increased blood flow to the stomach, in turn reducing blood flow and, therefore, oxygen and nutrients to the brain. A reduction in the brain’s oxygen supply results in mental nuisances such as fatigue and fuzzy thinking.  

How to Do it Today

Listening to your body’s feedback is key to finding balance at mealtime.  Instead of rushing through your meal, eat slowly and chew each bite carefully.  Giving your food time to reach your stomach allows your body to register satiety.  Make sure that you don”t eat beyond your hunger level, which will leave you uncomfortable and sluggish. 

Habit 2: Enjoy the Experience

How many times this week have you ‘dined’ either in the car or at your desk between meetings?  Do you remember whether you even liked the food?  If not, a lesson from Leonardo is in order.  He reveled in the experience of feeding his body, and he used that experience to give his mind a delightful respite from concentrated thought, resulting in bursts of inspiration and creativity.

Why it Still Makes Sense

Experiential dining stimulates your creative side and gives your mind aesthetic pleasure.  The sight of a perfectly red tomato against a stark white plate, the sound of the crisp crunch of the carrot, the aroma of sautéed garlic and olive oil; each is a feast for your palate and your mind.  Not only will the food stimulate your senses, but Eating the Moment author and psychologist Pavel Somov says that eating mindfully also reduces stress. 

How to Do it Today

Eat in front of a real table instead of a television.  Set the table with attractive dishes.  Add fresh flowers, a candle and your favorite music.  If you have company, laugh often and enjoy your conversation.  If you are alone, relish the solitude.  Experience the meal with all of your senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and feel.

Habit 3:  Eat Fresh, Natural Foods 

Da Vinci recognized the close association between nature and humanity.  What you eat does, in some sense, become a part of who you are.  Although Leonardo was a vegetarian, you can incorporate this principle without giving up the foods you love.  The key is to concentrate on eating fresh foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.

Why it Still Makes Sense

Your energy levels and zest for life are tied closely to the quality of the foods you eat.  The Society for Neuroscience recently released a report showing that brain pleasure centers become progressively less responsive in rats fed a diet of high-fat, high-calorie food.  Consistently eating nutritionally-empty foods not only promotes disease, it also steals your ability to experience enjoyment. 


How to Do it Today

Next time you shop for food, take a few minutes to examine the ingredient list on each item.  If the product has a long, unfamiliar ingredient list, put it back!  Chemicals and foreign additives in food force your body to work harder for fewer nutrients.  Instead, choose cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, shown to aid in preventing cancer, or vitamin C rich mangoes to boost your immune system.

Habit 4: Minimize Sugars

Balance in the diet brings calm to the mind. Relying on his own true and untainted experience to guide his work, Da Vinci strove to keep his mind clear and unaffected. Short term sugar highs resulting in mid-afternoon energy slumps would have stood in the way of the Maestro”s genius.

Why it Still Makes Sense

We all need some sugar intake to function properly.  Too much sugar, however, stands in the way of optimal brain function.  Scientists at Georgia State”s Neuroscience Institute and Department of Psychology have discovered a link between consumption of fructose and diminished memory function. 


How to Do it Today

Keep your meals simple and unprocessed.  A good rule of thumb is to fill the bulk of your plate with veggies and fruits, then add some lean protein.  Use breads, pastas and desserts as add-ons rather than the main course.  Experts also recommend that you avoid large amounts of pasta, white bread and sugary snacks before any important mental tasks.

Habit 5: Drink Water

Leonardo’s journals illustrate his fascination with accurately representing water and waves.  He recognized water’s elemental connection to life on earth. 

Why it Still Makes Sense

Science bears this out.  Next to air, water is the critical element for proper brain utility.  A 2003 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition demonstrated that mild dehydration impairs cognitive function.  Solid mental acuity relies on consistent and adequate fluid intake.       

How to Do it Today

As you go about your day, keep a bottle of water with you.  Water is best absorbed when consumed slowly, so sip it throughout the day.  Tackle two Da Vinci Diet habits at once by adding some lemon slices or lime wedges for flavor and sensory stimulation!

Genius isn’t reserved for the Da Vinci’s of the world.  By incorporating Leonardo’s research-backed health habits, you can harness the power of connectedness and use your body to feed your mind.  Make a commitment to yourself to use the Maestro’s timeless wisdom, so the next time you need to dig deep for a creative idea or an impressive solution, you’ll be prepared.

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