The lifestyle factor which has the most powerful influence on brain health is the food we eat. It’s extremely important to learn about the influence of diet on the brain for many reasons. One of those was driven home recently when I was given the book ‘Grain Brain” by a patient. Prior to this, both one of our diet counselors and myself had carefully covered the many benefits of the Trinity/VitalSigns diet plan in order to correct his cardiovascular risk factors. He struggled to make significant changes until he read “Grain Brain”, a book written by neurologist David Perlmutter. The book focuses on the many destructive effects of sugars and gluten on our brains. Being in a profession which required focus and clear thought and combing through reams of data to make wise decisions, he was impacted by the discussion of how food choices effect the brain and finally was “all in”. This drove home to me the personal nature of internal motivation for change. While the “grain brain” diet is very similar to the one we teach, with this patient we had simply not focused on the diet’s effects on brain health and had therefore failed to properly motivate him. So let’s look a some specifics of diet as it relates to the brain.
Few neuroscientists now doubt that the single component of our modern diets which cause the most damage to our brains is sugar. In very moderate amounts found in vegetables, small servings of fruits, nuts and seeds, sugar acts as an important source of energy for our brain cells. Unfortunately, almost everyone far exceeds this healthy amount leading to sugar overload and the development of what scientists call advanced glycation end products (AGES). These abnormal conglomerations of sugars and proteins are destructive to small vessels and brain cells. Also, under this sugar load, we see the development of insulin resistance in the brain leading to the build-up of even greater amounts of sugar and insulin around brain cells and the inability of cells to get the small amount of sugar they need. For this reason, many neurologists now refer to Alzheimer’s Dementia as “type III diabetes”. In “Grain Brain”, Dr. Perlmutter makes much of the role of gluten as a major cause of brain inflammation and decline. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains which gives dough it’s sticky texture. He concludes that bread gives a double whammy, even in whole grain form, with it’s large amount of starch (sugar) and gluten. I’ll comment more on gluten after having time to study the data more thoroughly.
The second major nutritional problem relates to fat but not saturated fat as has been commonly taught. Our fat problem is the consumption of too much processed fat such as trans fats found in margarines and junk foods. Trans fats actually incorporate into brain cells and compromise their function. Thankfully, many of these are being eliminated but not all! Watch for “partially hydrogenated fatty acids” on the label which is trans fat. Another major problem with fat in our diets is that we consume way too much omega 6 fatty acid found in vegetable oils and other processed foods and too little omega 3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, grass fed meats and butters and eggs from pasture fed hens. A high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 leads to inflammation which is destructive to the brain. Our typical ratio is 20:1 but many argue that is should be as low as 1:1. This abnormal mix of fats affects mood, concentration, memory and the rest of our brain functions. We also find that brain cells, which have membranes made of fat, function poorly without omega 3 fatty acids as a major component. They become stiff and do not transmit signals well. Finally it may come as a surprise that reasonable amounts of saturated fats, found in the same foods that contain omega 3’s, are also crucial for brain health. Saturated fats become problematic if tainted by hormones and antibiotics which are given to animals on feed lots. “Processed meats” often have other chemical additives which are damaging to our brains. It’s a shame that what we have done to meats due to greed, convenience or whatever motive has led to the general vilification of “red meat” which can be a very brain healthy food!
Next week I’ll discuss some specific foods that make particular contributions to brain health. Most agree that it’s more fun and motivating to talk about what we should do because of it’s wonderful benefits rather that simply focus on what we should avoid.