October 17, 2019

How the food we eat affects our brains and bodies

As a neurologist, I am frequently asked by my patients, “What can I do to prevent dementia?” Since there is currently no pill to prevent or cure dementia, I advise them to focus on 4 essential lifestyle factors to maintain optimal brain function. An easy way to remember them is with the letters E-A-S-Z:

  1. EAT healthy food.
  2. ACTIVATE your body and your brain.
  3. Manage STRESS through mindfulness.
  4. Get plenty of restful sleep (Z’s).

Let’s talk more about the first factor: eating healthy food.

Healthy eating is essential for memory, mood, and focus — the brain uses more than 20% of our caloric needs. Research studies have found that processes that happen inside of our bodies that lead to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia begin years before noticeable symptoms begin to appear. These processes include chronic inflammation of brain cells and blood vessels when our bodies break down unhealthy foods.

Unfortunately, many foods commonly consumed in the American diet contain processed grains, high levels of refined sugars, salt, processed oils and fats, chemical additives, and preservatives, many of which are harmful to both our brain and body.

The effects of sugar and processed foods

Sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, fruit juice, sports drinks, and specialty coffee beverages, often contain high fructose corn syrup, a type of sugar with a high glycemic index. This means that the sugar is rapidly absorbed by the gut, causing the body to produce a surge of insulin, a hormone that allows our body’s cells to either use or store sugar. Most of the sugars we consume are not used immediately by the body as fuel, but instead are stored as glycogen or converted into body fat. Repeated consumption of excessive sugars can contribute to obesity and, over time, the body may lose its ability to produce enough insulin, leading to diabetes.

In addition, excess sugar in the bloodstream interacts with proteins to form harmful compounds known as AGEs, or advanced glycation end products, that contribute to inflammation of blood vessels and other body tissues. Over time, chronic inflammation leads to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and degenerative brain diseases. AGEs are also consumed in our diet when we eat fried foods, meats cooked at high temperature, and dairy products.

Processed (factory-milled) grains, which include pasta, white rice, and unbleached flour (used to make cookies, crackers, pretzels, and other snack foods) are stripped of fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients during manufacturing, leaving behind simple carbohydrates or starches. Starches are absorbed in the gut very rapidly, just like sugars, and when consumed repeatedly, can lead to similar chronic inflammation and weight-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

Foods for a healthy brain and body

Limiting refined sugar and processed foods in your daily diet and focusing on fresh, whole plant-based foods can help slow or prevent inflammation and cognitive decline and maximize brain function.

Whole plant foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, and legumes provide complex carbohydrates and are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which nourish our brain and other organs. Plants also produce what are known as phytochemicals, which give fruits and vegetables their rainbow of colors and provide natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. When we consume plant-based foods, we benefit from the protective effects of these natural phytochemicals.

The fiber present in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains slows the intestinal absorption of sugar, creating less of an insulin surge and a lower risk of developing diabetes and inflammation. Natural plant fiber also helps us feel full faster and satisfied for longer, which prevents us from overeating. Another important advantage of plant fiber is that it feeds our gut microbiome — the millions of microbacteria that live in our lower intestine. A healthy, diverse microbiome helps our immune system fight infections and some cancers — and may help our brain to influence mood and cognitive activity.

The Mediterranean diet and brain health

The Mediterranean diet is one of the planet’s healthiest plant-based options. Research has shown that it can help reduce cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, including dementia.

Key ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine include plant-sourced oils such as olive, avocado, sunflower, or canola oil; fresh fruits and vegetables; nuts and seeds; protein-rich legumes; fiber-rich whole grains, nuts, and seeds; and modest amounts of seafood (omega-3-rich fish, shrimp, scallops), lean meats (poultry, pork, or beef), and dairy products (aged cheeses, yogurt, and low-fat milk). The Mediterranean diet also includes a little taste of wine (maximum one glass per day for women, one to 2 glasses per day for men).

Studies show that even modest adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with improvements in executive function and memory, and a lower rate of cognitive decline, independent of the improvements noted in cerebrovascular risk factors, diabetes, and stroke.

Achieving a healthier brain and reducing your risk of developing dementia can be as straightforward as adopting a healthier lifestyle, including healthier food choices.

Contributor: David Lipps, MD