Food is our most powerful medicine. We talk about it all the time on The Moment. It can be curative, yet is so much more powerful at working preventatively. It seems to us that many people don’t understand this relationship between food and health just yet, but one little cafe on the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones is making an example out of the healing power of food. Honeybrains began as a conversation between Founder Dr. Alon Seifan and his siblings about this relationship between food and health. It evolved into a lovely Greenwich village spot for us to take healthful lunch breaks and shop for local honey among a crowd of conscious consumers enjoying good, real food.
As a neurologist, Dr. Seifan had been particularly interested in brain health, because a healthy brain will also lead to body health. Together, the three of them examined new recipes and brain healthy ingredients with all people (not just the health nuts) in mind. The result was a food collective, dubbed Honeybrains. Dr. Seifan shares the beginnings of Honeybrains, the foods we should be eating at every meal, and how this food collective is changing the way people are looking at healthy food.
The Moment: Can you tell us a little bit about Honeybrains?
Dr. Seifan: Honeybrains is a fast-casual cafe in downtown Manhattan. Honeybrains features a full menu including breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as fresh-pressed juices, select supplements, and a coffee bar featuring select raw honeys from around the globe. All of the recipes on the menu, and also the juices, are made from five food groups (Fruits, Veggies, Whole Grains, Legumes and Healthy Fats), and are generously garnished with Herbs, Spices, Fermented Foods and Raw Sweeteners from Nature. This combination of food categories was carefully selected from the scientific research relating nutrition to brain health. Basically, anyone can eat both delicious and healthful food, just by combining these categories. To create our menu, we prioritized ingredients in these categories that are particularly healthful and collaborated with talented culinary artists to create balanced, delicious foods.
The Moment: How was the idea for Honeybrains formed?
Dr. Seifan: During my medical school and Neurology residency training, I was learning so much information about brain health. I was surprised by how much research has linked food to brain health. I was discovering knowledge that I felt was literally “low hanging fruit.”` For example, several Mediterranean diet studies showed that eating good foods can lower risk for heart disease. I read another study that showed that pears may be particularly beneficial for lowering risk of stroke. I learned that snoring could be bad for the brain. I learned that treating things like blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol are not only important for the body, but also very important for the brain. Then, during my fellowship training in Behavioral Neurology & Neuropsychiatry to specialize in dementia, I became horrified by the devastation that diseases like Alzheimer’s can do to families. I was shocked that the risk for these diseases actually begins in midlife or sooner, and some of it can be modified with food! I began to get a sense that more people should know these fun and important facts. This began a discussion with my brother Tomer and my sister Galit. We talked about how not only food, but also social connection, learning new things and having a good mood are proven to be good for us. So we realized that a café with a stimulating and stress-free environment would be an ideal setting to share with people this idea that neuroscience is fun, and accessible through good foods and more.
The Moment: Where did the name come from?
Dr. Seifan: Honeybrains is really about food, neuroscience and people. So we needed a name that represented the fact that, at our core, Honeybrains is about healthy brains, was also fun, and delicious. Honeybrains just kind of popped into my head. One of the most fun facts I had learned while becoming a doctor was that raw honey is better for us than sugar. Raw honey has more color, and is gentler on our blood sugar, and better for our gut bacteria, than processed sweeteners. I tried honey in a cappuccino one time, and I haven’t gone back since! Honeys can have such different flavors, and are delicious in coffee! Honey also represents someone we love. Having friends and family and other connections literally makes us live longer. People can trust that everything was made with love at Honeybrains. Everything they eat or drink or experience is good for the body and brain and community. So Honeybrains it was!
The Moment: Can you talk a bit about your L.I.F.E. Process?
Dr. Seifan: LIFE stands for what we actually do on a day to day, week to week and month to month basis at Honeybrains in order to create our menu and other products. It is an acronym; it can stand for Love, Ingredients, Flavor, Education. It can stand for the process of lovingly making a new recipe, but also for the process of continuous self-improvement. It refers to this constant cycle of learning, making new things, experiencing them, and learning something new as a result. In terms of making a dish, our Neurology and Nutrition Experts work full-time in their respective fields. They are constantly discovering new neuroscience and nutrition science, which is “fed” to our chefs or juice makers to consider. We want to try to reflect neuroscience, but we don’t claim to know the answer. We are aware that neuroscience is consistently expanding. So we work each day to keep up with it. That’s why it ends in E, Education.
The Moment: What about the 5 key food groups? What are they and how do we benefit from each of them?
Dr. Seifan: The five food groups were chosen because they are a common theme across all of the studies that have been proven to improve heart or brain health. They are fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and healthy fats. Not only are the food groups and healthy garnishings found across modern studies, but also they are found in ancient diets of people who live in Blue Zones, which are areas in the world where people live very long and well. For example, the DASH diet (proven to treat hypertension), Mediterranean diet (proven to lower risk for heart disease) and the MIND diet (a combination of the two), all recommend regular intake of the five food groups. They don’t particularly list the food groups in this way, but we found it a delicious and simple way to reflect what science says we should be eating.
The food groups benefit us because they are good for our circulation, our metabolism and our nutrient balance. Eating ten servings of fruits and vegetables (about a handful) per day can lower levels of inflammation in the blood. Our brains rely on a very healthy circulation because they are constantly using energy. For this same reason, the brain needs a very efficient metabolism. The efficiency of our brain’s metabolism, in fact, depends upon that of our body’s. There is a very strong link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Regarding nutrient balance, the five food groups and healthy garnishings give us color, fiber, vitamins B and D, minerals magnesium and iron, and Omega 3 healthy fats. I found color to be an interesting and under-rated “nutrient”. Color pigments inside plants have many biological functions in humans and are very important for the brain and eyes.
The Moment: How does our relationship with food strengthen our relationship with our health compared to Western medicine?
Dr. Seifan: Honeybrains celebrates the fact that a joyful relationship with food, rather than avoidant one, is a fun way to live. Until recently, we have been educated about what foods to avoid. We have heard of the egg-white omelet. The turkey burger. But in fact, science shows that educating people about good foods, rather than about bad foods, is in fact more effective. When we gravitate to foods within the five food groups, and we use the healthful garnishings, we actually don’t crave any “bad foods”. It helps us re-establish a joyful relationship with food. It eliminates a lot of the debate and uncertainty about whether and what to eat. We already know what is good for us, so why not focus on getting enough of that?
The Moment: How do they play off of each other? Does one inform the other?
Dr. Seifan: I think that people’s relationship with food and health is personal, and everybody is probably different.
The Moment: Health research teaches us something new every day. What changes are you anticipating making to Honeybrains to incorporate new research?
Dr. Seifan: The Honeybrains menu changes on a seasonal basis. When we update the menu, our chefs reconsider our evolving list of scientifically proven ingredients. The wellness nook is a fun little corner of the store where we feature health technologies and supplements. These are also going to change as science expands. Most importantly, we hope people can trust that we are constantly doing a lot of work in the background to keep up with neuroscience, so our customers can sit back and enjoy themselves.
The Moment: Number one thing people are doing or eating without accepting or realizing the severity of the consequences?
Dr. Seifan: So many things we are doing right now, in modern culture, are bad for our brains, so it is hard for me to choose just one. Eating processed sugar, avoiding the doctor, sitting at desks, overloading on media, is all detrimental to brain longevity. These all can be boiled down into one idea: the more modern we become, the more important, for our brains, it is that we stay “human”. If people want a big brain, they have to use it. We have to read long articles, write things that are original, memorize how to get places, etc. We have to connect with people in real life, and do hard work, without interruption, in order to become better people. This is all being made harder to do just simply by our environment.
The Moment: Part of Honeybrains’ mission is to give back. What are some of the organizations you support?
Dr. Seifan: We support organizations including Caring Kind, the Weill Cornell Medicine Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, the Elephant and Bees Project, The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and others.
The Moment: Do any of these organizations have a personal connection to you or Honeybrains mission?
Dr. Seifan: I was lucky enough to help to co-found the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell with my longtime mentor, Dr. Richard Isaacson, who is the author of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Diet. The clinic treats healthy people with a family history of Alzheimer’s Disease who want to lower their risk. I am currently the Miami representative of Maria Shriver’s Move for Mind’s movement. Move for Minds is a collaboration with Equinox fitness club to raise awareness and funds for the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement.
The Moment: Favorite recipe pairing on the menu?
Dr. Seifan: To me, there is nothing better than a hot coffee with our “Eggs in Sunday Sauce”. The Eggs are poached in a generous bowl of tomato sauce, covered in purple and green microgreens, flavored with basil and complemented by seeded sourdough. I am unfortunately living in Miami Beach, far from Honeybrains, and I literally crave that breakfast!!
The Moment: Easy brain boosting super ingredients to add to any meal?
Dr. Seifan: Any herb, spice, or fermented food, is good for us. Foods like walnuts, berries, concord grapes, watercress, apples/pears, cruciferous veggies and citrus have research behind them. Spices like turmeric and saffron do too. Fermented foods including kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, blue cheeses and vinegars are delicious and healthful ways to change the dimension of a meal.
Special thanks to Dr. Alon Seifan!
Photo courtesy of Honeybrains