Put down the fork. Step away from the buffet table.
UC Davis nutrition expert Liz Applegate wants us to think about exactly what we’re shoveling down our throats. Not just to lose weight but to protect our brains.
“Brain food is real and it really does matter,” said Applegate, an author, professor and director of sports nutrition at UC Davis. She’s an advocate of the MIND diet, a combination of two long-studied diets that have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
We talked with her recently about so-called “brain foods,” their impact on 20-somethings and baby boomers, why it’s hard to stick to a healthful diet, as well as her favorite breakfast foods. Here are some excerpts:
Q: Are there really “brain foods” that help fend off Alzheimer’s or dementia?
A: Diet absolutely does play a role. The brain is like any other organ that is susceptible to (foods) that can protect against oxidation damage. … Think of oxidation like a fire getting started. These (good) foods act like little tiny fire extinguishers that help put out those fires that otherwise would cause damage leading to loss of brain function. …
For me, the research is very compelling. There is a 53 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s if you follow the MIND diet (see box). It’s eating a diet that provides an array of antioxidant compounds (such as berries) and omega-3 fats (from fish) and avoiding certain foods that may accelerate cognitive decline, like fried foods. Fried foods appear to accelerate oxidative damage and promote inflammation.
Q: The MIND diet is lots of leafy greens, vegetables, nuts and berries, but limits on red meat, butter, cheese, sweets and fried food. How does that translate into reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s?
A: We know that people with Alzheimer’s and dementia have very similar characteristics to people with Type 2 diabetes. In fact, some researchers want to call Alzheimer’s the “Type 3” diabetes. Over years and years, if your body is insulin resistant, those high blood sugar levels cause damage to linings of blood vessels and make them more prone to gunk building up …(such as) the amyloid or plaque that we see in brain or heart disease. …
This is pulling from the research studies what particular foods show the best correlation with decrease in dementia risk. … We’re not telling people to do anything wacky. Following this diet is a very conservative approach. But the evidence is very compelling. This type of eating can slow the inevitable cognitive decline of aging. … We don’t know how to fix Alzheimer’s. The only thing we can do is modify the risks.
Q: Is this true for 20-somethings as much as aging baby boomers?
A: I think people of all ages can eat more healthily to stave off cognitive decline. People in any age group may be eating highly refined sugars or not many berries. Or their seafood intake isn’t much. …
Dinner might be fast food or a prepared entree that’s high in fat, low in fiber and not a single, green leafy vegetable. I see this kind of thing a lot, in all ages. … It’s never too late to make changes. Hopefully people in their 20s and 30s will sit up and take notice. Ask yourself: What would you like the quality of life to be as you age? … This would be a great New Year’s pledge: I want to take care of my brain.
Q: Sweets, cheese: How do we live without ‘em?
A: If people have only a few servings a week of sweets, it seems to be OK. But I experience people who have a couple sweet items per day. A person has toaster waffles, with syrup on top for breakfast with coffee and an egg. That’s low in fiber, no fruit.
Lunch could be a sandwich, grab a couple of cookies. Later they have a sweetened ice tea. They might have an alcoholic beverage or two mixed drinks at night. … I don’t like being a sugar Nazi, but you just have to be aware of what you’re eating. … With cheese, that’s a tough one. It doesn’t seem to be good for brain health. Saturated fat tends to be more inflammatory. Hard cheeses are better than soft. … But stay tuned. We still have a lot to learn. Maybe other research will show that having more than 1 ounce a week of cheese is OK for us.
Q: You’re a nutritionist; what’s your typical breakfast and dinner?
A: I’m glad you asked. For breakfast, I usually flip-flop between kale, onion and two to three eggs scrambled or low-sugar granola with nuts and dried fruit, like blueberries or (golden) raisins. I'll have it with a cup of plain kefir (cultured milk) and a piece of fruit … a banana, citrus, a mandarin orange.
For dinner, I usually have lean protein or fish a couple times a week, a baked potato, vegetables like cauliflower or Brussels sprouts and a big green salad: leafy greens, carrots, red cabbage, radishes … lots of color. I’m not big on refined carbohydrates, like sourdough bread with a meal.
Q: Breaking bad habits and switching to a healthier diet isn’t always easy. Any New Year’s get-started tips?
A: At the first of the year, everyone goes too crazy, (vowing) to follow this diet plan or that diet plan. I encourage people to take just one step at a time, baby steps. Pick one thing to work on: I’m going to eat berries twice a week. Make a berry smoothie on Tuesday and Friday or put berries on your oatmeal. Just chip away at eating more healthfully.
WHAT’S THE MIND DIET?
It’s essentially a combination of two healthful food plans: the Mediterranean diet (lots of vegetables, lean meat and olive oil) and DASH diet (similar with reduced salt to prevent hypertension). Officially, MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, based on research showing it can dramatically reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Origins: For years, the Mediterranean and DASH diets have been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. The MIND diet, developed in 2015 by Chicago-based Rush University Medical Center researchers, goes further and identifies 10 good and five bad food categories that appear to affect cognitive decline. In a four-year study of 960 seniors, those who rigorously followed the MIND diet lowered their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by up to 53 percent. Even those who consumed it only “moderately well” lowered their risk by 35 percent.
In January 2016, U.S. News & World Report ranked the MIND diet as the No. 1 easiest-to-follow diet and the No. 2 “best diet overall,” based on its evaluation of 38 well-known eating plans.
Bad foods: Red meat, butter/margarine, cheese, pastries/sweets, fried/fast food.