Brain Protective Foods: Do They Really Help?

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet for brain health. Avoiding Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia isn’t as simple as, “Eat this and you’re guaranteed to never have dementia.”

But diet does play a role in supporting brain health.

“Alzheimer’s probably starts somewhere in our 30s and 40s,” said Sharon Brangman, chairwoman of geriatric medicine, director of the geriatric medicine fellowship program and director of the Upstate Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease at SUNY Upstate Medical University. “What you eat has a direct impact as to how you age when you’re older.”

She advised staying away from alcohol — it’s toxic for brain cells — and saturated fat, like butter, fried foods and whole fat cheese.

“Be careful about the amt of sweets you eat,” Brangman added. “We see an association between diabetes and dementia. Minimize foods like white potatoes, white bread, white sugar, white pasta. Your body changes those to sugar. There’s increasing research looking at insulin resistance in the brain and how that might play a role in memory loss as you get older. Diets high in sugar are one way to get insulin resistance.”

Eating right can be tricky at times. Supplements can help ensure sufficient nutrient intake for overall good health. However, taking excessive amounts of supplements is not necessary.

“A recent study suggested a daily multiple vitamin may help but there is not much proof that supplements for ‘brain health’ are helpful,” Brangman said. “Maybe take one multivitamin a day. Especially for older people, it should not have iron in it. The only ones who should take a multi with iron are younger women who are still menstruating.”

Ideally, most of the nutrients should come from dietary sources rather than supplementation. Brangman recommends a heart-healthy diet as it’s also good for brain health.

The American Heart Association’s heart healthy eating plan offers benefits for supporting brain and heart health. The organization’s website said that diet promotes, “a wide variety of fruits and vegetables; whole grains and products made up mostly of whole grains; healthy sources of protein (mostly plants such as legumes and nuts; fish and seafood; low-fat or nonfat dairy; and, if you eat meat and poultry, ensuring it is lean and unprocessed); liquid non-tropical vegetable oils; minimally processed foods; minimized intake of added sugars; foods prepared with little or no salt; limited or preferably no alcohol intake.”

A “whole food” is one with little or no refining or processing. It should also contain no artificial additives or preservatives.

Ideally, the fruit should be a whole piece, such as a peach but not a canned peach. But a peach canned in natural juices is a better choice than in heavy syrup. And any produce is a better choice than items like chips or candy. Snack on baby carrots, celery stalks or broccoli spears with hummus dip.

Whole grains are complex carbohydrates. Whole grain bread (not just “wheat bread” that’s dyed with caramel food coloring to look darker), popcorn, oatmeal, and whole grain crackers such as Triscuit are a few examples. But watch out for added salt, flavoring agents and sugar. Making your own foods, such as air popped popcorn instead of bagged popcorn can help you control what’s in your food.

Brangman also mentioned the Mediterranean diet as supporting heart and brain health.

“That’s what the Alzheimer’s Association is pushing,” said Mary Koenig, administrator of The Heritage Memory Life Community at Loretto and board member of The Alzheimer’s Association of CNY. “It doesn’t include fatty foods, but more high-fiber, fruits and vegetables, lean on meat and more fish-based.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, olive oil and seasoning with herbs and spices. The Mayo Clinic further stated, “The main steps to follow the diet include: each day, eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains and plant-based fats; each week, have fish, poultry, beans, legumes and eggs; enjoy moderate portions of dairy products, limit how much red meat you eat; limit how many foods with added sugar you eat.”

“Obviously, there needs to be more research and no one is saying that if you eat all these things you won’t get Alzheimer’s or dementia,” Koenig said. “It’s complicated or else we’d have more treatments and a cure.”

Eating right should also be teamed with staying mentally and physically active, getting sufficient sleep and finding healthful ways to mitigate the effects of stress.