What if you could reduce the risk of having Alzheimer’s or dementia in your later years? What if your diet included food that prevents Alzheimer’s even if you have a history of it in your family?
What if a poor diet is the real culprit behind cognitive decline?
Dr. Lisa Mosconi, neuroscientist and author of “Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power”, claims that the time to worry about Alzheimer’s and dementia isn’t when the symptoms arise in old age. Rather, the time to take action is right now. The younger you are, the better.
The book is divided into three steps:
- Understanding what your brain needs to optimally perform
- How to put this newfound knowledge into practice
- Determining where your neuro-nutrition level currently stands with an 80 question quiz to gauge your current eating habits (solutions provided after)
Alzheimer’s and dementia: a growing problem
The number of people living with Alzheimer’s in the United States is currently at 5.3 million and is expected to rise as high as 15 million by 2050. That’s the entire population of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago combined.
Drugs developed and tested in clinical trials haven’t shown much promise as far as treating these diseases. Nearly 99 percent of Alzheimer’s cases arise not because of our DNA, but because of our lifestyle choices.
Even more frustrating, our brains lack pain sensors to tell us when something is going wrong.
Well, that sounds pretty awful. But, then we get to the good news.
Step One: What is your brain and what does it need?
Dr. Mosconi discusses what the brain actually is: Its structure, how the blood-brain barrier works, what a healthy brain should look like, a brief of history of its development from the dawn of mankind, and what the brain has traditionally needed for optimal cognitive function.
We can control our diets. Our DNA isn’t necessarily destiny (only 1 percent of Alzheimer’s cases are caused by genetic mutations in DNA), and that means we have a lot of say in just how well our brains function.
That is, if we choose the right “brain food” to fuel it!
Step One Continued: The Essentials of “Brain Food”
The book takes the next few chapters to delve into the diet essentials: Water, fat, protein, carbs, sugars, vitamins, and minerals. Dr. Mosconi describes what they are, how they factor into our diets, and the recommended sources for each.
I really like the charts provided to know what great sources there are for each of these diet essentials. They give you an idea of each source’s effectiveness and better yet, new items to consider for your next shopping trip.
Here’s one from the discussion about anti-inflammatory Omega-3 and pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids (in that order):
I’d like to highlight my key takeaways from each of these chapters.
Water: Makes up most of the brain, gets severely neglected
I’m amazed by this statistic on water: Did you know drinking your recommended intake of water (generally 8 to 10 cups a day) can boost your brain’s performance by almost 30 percent? And that a vast majority of adults don’t even drink four cups a day? That’s a large number of us missing out on a huge brain power boost. Not to mention it’s one of the easiest of the foods that prevent Alzheimer’s to consume!
What kind of water? Not tap water, seltzers, sodas, or energy drinks. Filtered water is best, whether from an installed tap at your sink or spring water. Coconut water and aloe vera juice are great for replacing electrolytes without the sugar and reducing inflammation, respectfully.
Fat: Not actually the majority of your brain, also differs from the rest of the body’s fat
While the Keto diet has surged into popularity in recent years, the fat from our diets doesn’t actually get used by the brain. Our brain consists of “structural fat”, which is not utilized as energy, while the rest of our body consists of adipose or “storage fat.”
Which makes sense given that if the brain used fat as energy, it would just eat itself.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential to our diet. The former are anti-flammatory while latter are pro-inflammatory. A balance is necessary for a healthy immune system.
The recommended balance is a ratio of two-to-one (twice the Omega-6s to Omega-3s).
The average American, however, consumes twenty to thirty times more Omega-6s than Omega-3s. That’s a lot of inflammation!
Protein: Building blocks for mood regulation
Protein is one of the main building blocks for muscle and rightfully gets a lot of attention from anyone looking to improve their physical health.
But, getting the right amino acids from protein has shown to improve overall mood and function.
Tryptophan (which you might know as the amino acid in turkey that makes you sleepy) isn’t made in the body naturally and needs to be sourced from our diet. Turkey doesn’t even crack the top ten and chia seeds claim the top spot with the highest concentration per ounce.
Carbs: Not all of them are created equally
The brain relies primarily on glucose for energy. When your glucose and glyocgen (stored glucose for future) stores are used up, your body starts burning adipose fat which produces ketone bodies.
Dr. Mosconi generally isn’t in favor of the ketogenic diet (which she goes over briefly), but does highlight the pros and cons. She does cite studies that have demonstrated its positive aspects, but generally advises caution against adopting the diet. Her main argument is that glucose is the primary and preferred source of fuel for the brain, which only utilizes ketone bodies from fat for fuel when the supply of glucose is low.
Also, “glucose” doesn’t mean eat to your heart’s content in sugary snacks. Those usually aren’t good sources. Instead, turnips, apricots, grapes, onions, whole-wheat bread, and honey are much better sources.
Vitamins and Minerals: Better to get them from your diet than supplements
There’s a lot covered in this chapter, but a few things stick out.
Insufficient levels of vitamins B6 and B12 can lead to increased risk of dementia.
Alzheimer’s is associated with a shortage of Acetylcholine, primarily sourced from Choline, a B vitamin. Eggs and caviar are top sources of Choline.
Rounding out Step One: The Blue Zones
Dr. Mosconi rounds out the first chapter with a summary of “good/bad” diet habits, how the microbiome in our gut works, and “Blue Zone” diets found around the world.
The Blue Zones produce the highest concentration of 100+ year old people in specific communities due to a diet rich in unprocessed whole foods, daily lives full of movement, and emphasis on community (particularly while eating).
While their menus and locations differ, they all include leafy greens, fruits with powerful antioxidants, complex carbs (like sweet potatoes), and fresh fish.
Step Two: Food that Prevents Alzheimer’s
This step discusses putting this newfound knowledge into action. In general, Dr. Mosconi favors fresh produce/fruits, unprocessed meat sourced organically, and avoiding sugary snacks.
An ideal brain boosting diet is primarily plant-based with some meat options provided they meet the criteria (she is a big fan of wild caught fish like salmon).
Quality of food trumps quantity and while organic food can be expensive, there are options.
A preview of the Produce Project’s January 3rd box (Source: Instagram)
Sustainable family-farms provide CSA subscriptions for meat like Coon Rock Farm and Locals Seafood provides a service for fresh seafood at the Farmer’s Market in Raleigh.
Step Three: Where are you and where do you go from here
The final step gives the reader an 80 question assessment to measure how “brain conscious” their diet is. Based on the results, you get certain recommendations for improvement.
To finish out the book, there’s a number of recipes included in the final section with suggestions for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
Final Thoughts on Brain Food
I found this book to be insightful in terms of how our diets can support or hinder brain performance. In fact, we’ve previously written about “Brain-Boosting Foods That Fight Dementia.” However, this article focused more on how certain foods like pumpkin seeds, coconut oil, or dark chocolate are good for performance.
The charts are helpful for knowing what foods to source what you need in your diet. It seems like it would be handy to reference for a shopping list.
The Blue Zone section was a good focal point for her arguments. Here are these diverse communities in varying locations that differ in what they eat, but apply the same winning-principles for overall health: Fresh food without a lot of additives or sugar, exercise, and community-oriented culture.
At times, the information can be overwhelming, but it’s definitely useful as a reference guide for someone trying to get a handle on their diet.
The most important thing, I think, is that the reader understands they have power in improving brain health and that a family history of a disease like Alzheimer’s doesn’t mean they will inevitably deal with it personally down the line.
You can get your copy of “Brain Food” through Dr. Mosconi’s website.
What do you think of this Recommended Reading? Are there topics you’d like to see explored related to senior care? Let us know below in the comments!