These days, almost everybody knows someone who has struggled with dementia. While perhaps it used to be the second cousin of Aunt Betty’s great-grandma twice removed, now you rarely meet anyone who hasn’t been touched firsthand.
Back to Basics?
With Alzheimer’s and other dementias more rampant than ever, the obvious question is, why? Certainly, people are living longer, but what else is at play? Let’s think about our diets for a minute, and how they have have evolved over time. Today, as a society, we’re eating more sugar, more processed foods, and more saturated fats than ever.
It begins when our children are young, doesn’t it? Before they hit kindergarten, we’re offering rewards of trips to their favorite fast food restaurant or promises of a sugary treat if they’ll take one more bite of dinner. The pace of life has gone from hectic to supersonic, and sitting down to three nutritional meals (or even one) each day is little more than a faint memory of “the good old days.” As we stray further and further from well-balanced diets consisting of “real” foods rather than processed imitations, what effect does that have on our bodies? And how do decades of poor eating habits reflect on brain health?
The Alzheimer’s Diet
The Alzheimer’s Diet, a 2012 book written by Richard Isaacson, MD, and Christopher Ochner, Ph.D., strongly suggests that by changing what we eat, we can significantly reduce our dementia risk and improve overall brain health. In fact, they even believe that proper diet can slow progression of these diseases.
The book stresses the brain boosting power of protein, and recommends maximizing high-quality lean proteins such as egg whites, wild salmon, lake trout, albacore tuna, white-meat chicken and turkey (skin removed), and lean hormone-free beef. Dairy products? Stick to low- and non-fat options.
With regard to fruits and vegetables, the authors suggest berries, with strawberries and blueberries getting especially high marks. They also advise loading your plate with vegetables and being extra generous when reaching for dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, chard, and collard greens.
Moderation vs. Avoidance
The Alzheimer’s Diet recommends moderation when it comes to mono- and polyunsaturated fats as well as complex carbohydrates. Examples include extra-virgin olive oil, peanuts, avocados, nuts (walnuts, pecans), seeds (chia seeds, flaxseeds), and whole grains. Add these items here and there for variety, but don’t go overboard.
Saturated fats, fried foods, and simple carbohydrates like white bread, cane sugar, and corn syrup should be greatly minimized if not avoided altogether. Also, watch out for things sold under the guise of good health, such as muffins and dried fruits; these are often loaded with sugar.
Researchers have also touted the traditional Mediterranean diet as one that improves brain health, and with dementia less prevalent in that part of the world, one has to wonder if they’re onto something. This diet limits red meat, sugar, and processed carbohydrates, allows moderate consumption of fish, eggs, and low-fat dairy, and suggests lentils and legumes, extra-virgin olive oil, and a bounty of fruits and vegetables (the darker, the better).
At the end of the day, perhaps the award for best common sense approach is striving for a well-balanced diet. Whether or not you choose to follow a formal plan, it certainly can’t hurt to maximize the good and minimize the bad. As cliché as it sounds, our bodies are miraculous machines fueled by what we put in them. Perhaps there is no better example to illustrate the expression “garbage in, garbage out.”
In addition to the foods mentioned above, other brain-friendly choices include black and green tea, turmeric, unsweetened dark cocoa powder, and even red wine (in moderation).
Have you modified your diet to try and stave off dementia? Share your thoughts and tips in the Comments section below.