When it comes to brain health, it seems nothing is more confusing than advice about what we eat and drink.
The media’s obsessional reporting of every new finding on diet and memory (no matter how small or obscure the study) merely reflects our own anxieties about how the food on our table may literally turn the tables on our long-term vitality. Strident statements and specific instructions are increasingly made.
Yet as a recent editorial in the Neurobiology of Aging journal states, “(s)o far, no nutritional intervention has been proved to be effective in reducing the risk or severity of Alzheimer’s or any dementia.”
While some may feel that there is little risk in making such diet recommendations regardless, this is not truly the case.
Some trends may be risky -- for example the supplement ginkgo biloba can increase risk for bleeding in older adults, and is contraindicated in individuals taking blood thinning agents).
Others may be expensive, creating a potential economic burden for the user.
Finally – and most ironically — too many of us live with a dose of disconnect between how we eat and what we know is good for our brains and our general health.
Our population is increasingly overweight and consequent medical conditions that are known to impact brain health over the long-term, such as obesity and diabetes, are on the rise as a result.
If we cannot follow even the simplest diet recommendations for our overall health, how are we going to get on board with a more complex one focused solely on boosting brainpower?
As an expert in brain health, I have long advocated that we “eat smart” by following a healthy, well-rounded diet and maintaining a healthy weight rather than focusing on a specific food fad or the supplement of the moment.
The bulk of the science still falls firmly in favor of such an approach. A summary of dietary guidelines from the 2013 International Conference on Nutrition and the Brain underscores this reasoned attitude regarding brain health and diet.
The guidelines offered include limiting intake of saturated fatty acids, eating more vegetables and whole grains and including aerobic activity in one’s daily routine. These common sense suggestions are hardly revolutionary and confirm a simple strategy for those of us seeking ways to stay healthy.
Yet isn’t there something we can learn from the current trends and fashions in brain healthy eating? Let’s face it — they are hard to ignore. After all, at some point all science was once too “young” or “inconclusive” – I recall my grandfather telling me when he was a young boy olive oil was considered unhealthy (hard as it may be for us to imagine). While we do and should look to the hard science first, what if, as the evidence builds, these newer recommendations have merit?
When we consider the many “brain diets” popular today, I suggest that we can indeed find recommendations that can easily be accommodated within what the science supports, without significant risk or cost. In addition, many of these trends jive with cutting edge advice on eating for better overall health.
In that spirit, here is the Total Brain Health® take on how we can “eat smart” with an eye to some new nutritional ideas for better brain health:
Buck Tradition. If you eat the traditional American diet, it’s time to make a change. One of the most valuable things we can learn from looking at the dietary trends for both brain and body health is that we aren’t eating what the current science suggests we should. First step? Shift the balance of power on your plate by making veggies and fruits the main event with your protein of choice as the side. When grains are included, make sure they are whole grains and not of the refined variety. These simple moves will get you in line with the “greater food majority,” as everyone from the USDA to food guru Mark Bittman have been making this a priority recommendation for, well, years. In addition, it will up your chances of eating a more brain healthy diet, lowering your intake of saturated fat while upping your chances of getting more antioxidants.
Be Daring. Dare to be different — vary your diet so that you are constantly trying new foods and even new cuisines. Many of the current nutrition trends point to the pitfalls of always eating in the same familiar way. They suggest that it is the very lack of variety that may rob us of certain nutrients, increase our sensitivity to certain foods, or just simply keep us from making healthier choices. Follow more of a Mediterranean-style diet, found in many studies to potentially lower dementia risk. Eat more foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as cold-water fish (not just salmon but also sardines, mackerel, or anchovies), which seems to support better brain function over our lifetimes. If you don’t already, make non-meat based protein a regular part of your meal plans. You don’t have to stick to tofu – there are lots of ways to get that protein in, including beans, nuts and berries that substitute for grains (quinoa or buckwheat, for example). Mixing up your diet by daring to try new things can also offer you a different kind of brain boost, as the intellectual challenge of eating differently is a great way to “stretch” your mind as well.
Go Against the Grain. One of the hottest trends in brain health is the idea that eating gluten (found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and spelt) or even carbohydrates significantly increases our risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. The science here, while interesting and with some merit, remains controversial. However it should make us at least think twice about the amount of gluten in our diet, which frankly is a lot. Bagels for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner? Even if we aren’t ready to get on board the “grain brain” trend, isn’t it time we got rid of some of that gluten? Luckily if we are bucking tradition and daring to eat differently, it will be easier to do just that. Gluten-free alternatives include potato, rice, soy, and oats. You may also look to try quinoa, millet or amaranth, all ancient grains seeing resurgence due to greater interest in gluten-free eating. To get started, you can check out our Total Brain Health® Maple Grains Granola recipe, a simple yet delicious breakfast or snack alternative that uses these grains.
Savor Your Sustenance. Fostering mindfulness, or our ability to be present in the moment, has been shown in several studies to boost attention and improve intellectual performance. Making mindfulness a regular mealtime habit offers us a wonderful opportunity to practice being in the moment as we do something that we otherwise might do without further thought. Some experts suggest that we may even eat healthier and be more likely to maintain a healthy weight by practicing mindfulness as part of our mealtime routine. What does it take to eat mindfully? Simply shifting our focus and attention to the full experience of eating. To get started, check out yoga teacher Jillian Pransky’s Mindful Eating Meditation or pick up the book Savor by meditation expert Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lillian Cheung.
I hope you find these tips for integrating the latest brain healthy nutrition trends into your daily eating routine helpful. Have some advice or tips to share? Let us know, we’d love to hear what you do for yourself, your family or your clients. Happy eating to all!
Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D., is one of America's foremost memory fitness and brain health experts. Dr. Green is the founder and president of Memory Arts, LLC, a company that provides memory fitness and brain health training to organizations, corporations, and individuals. She is also an acclaimed author, respected lecturer, and sought-after spokesperson known for her engaging and personable presentation style.