5.4 million Americans are affected by dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, and this number is predicted to double by the year 2030. We all want to take care of our bodies and minds, and preventing Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative cognitive conditions is something that most of us would prioritize.
New research in the field of neuroscience is showing that old dietary guidelines may actually be reponsible for this epidemic of cognitive decline. Dr. David Perlmutter, M.D. is a neurologist and author of Grain Brain, and he believes that a low carb, high fat diet is the secret to a healthy brain. Dr. Perlmutter's advice on how to maintain a healthy brain is in direct opposition to what many believe to be an ideal diet. Here are his guidelines:
Your Brain Needs Fat
Good dietary fat is a rich source of energy for the cells in our brains, which along with exercise can stimulate new brain cells and improve memory. This is not a ticket to go wild and eat all fats, however. Avoid hydrogenated and trans fats, such as cooking oils like corn oil and soy oil. Dr. Perlmutter's recommended trio of "Anti-Alzheimer's" foods includes coconut oil, avocados, and grass-fed beef.
Your Brain Needs Cholesterol
Almost 25% of the cholesterol in your body is found in your brain, where it acts as an antioxidant, plays a role in membrane function, and is used to make progesterone, estrogen, cortisol, testosterone, and vitamin D. A recent study found that the best memory function in the elderly was observed in those with the highest levels of cholesterol and that low cholesterol levels were linked to an increased risk for depression and death. 1 So many Americans have been put on low cholesterol diets by well-meaning physicians in order to benefit cardiovascular health, but avoiding butter and egg yolks may have put their brain at risk instead.
A 2012 May Clinic report published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease shows that adults eating mostly carbohydrate-rich foods ended up with an 89% increased risk of becoming demented, while those whose diets had higher levels of healthful fats actually experienced a 44% risk reduction for dementia. 2
What to Eat for a Healthier Brain
Coconut oil is one of Dr. Perlmutter's three favorite foods high in "brain-healthy fats". Coconut oil is a rich source of beta-HGA, a "super fuel" for the brain. The saturated fats in coconut oil fight inflammation in the brain and body and make our immune systems more effective at ridding our bodies of invading organisms. Dr. Perlmutter recommends adding coconut oil to your smoothies or morning cup of coffee, where the medium-chain triglycerides will also give you an added boost of energy, or using it to stir fry your favorite vegetables.
Olive Oil is a mainstay of the Mediterranean diet, lauded for its ability to protect against both heart disease and strokes. A six year long study found that people who ate more olive oil had less heart disease, cognitive impairments and less instances of developing dementia than those who ate a low-fat diet. Olive oil provides benefits to both the heart and the brain.
Vitamin D is synthesized by the body when exposed to sunlight, and stimulates more than 900 genes in human physiology - most of which reside in the brain. These genes relate to activities like inflammation reduction, strengthening nerve cells, and helping the brain rid itself of viruses. A study published in Archives of Neurology by the American Medical Association found there to be a dramatically decreased incidence of Parkinson's disease and other degenerative diseases in people with the highest levels of vitamin D. 2
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 essential fatty acid that is essential for the growth and functional development of the brain in infants, where deficiencies in DHA are linked to deficits in learning. Decreases in DHA are also associated with cognitive decline during the aging process. Dr. Perlmutter recommends a daily dose of DHA from fish oil or algae. "DHA is a valuable anti-inflammatory, and you all know how dangerous inflammation is to our brains and our bodies," says Dr. Perlmutter. DHA is found in fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel, and in supplements made from fish oil.
What to Avoid for a Healthier Brain
Eating more healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, and grass-fed beef can benefit the brain, but what foods should you avoid? Dr. Perlmutter recommends reducing carbs and gluten for a healthy brain. Remember, those hydrogenated and trans fats are off the table, too!
In 2011, Neurology published The Hisayama study, which suggested diabetes is a significant risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer's disease. A number of additional studies are echoing these findings.4 Carbohydrates are sugar-based molecules found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products, breads, pastas, and sweets that can cause spikes in blood sugars. Reducing carb intake can help reduce the likelihood of developing diabetes. Here are strategies for staying off the blood sugar rollercoaster.
Gluten sensitivity, which may affect up to 30% of the population, can have neurological manifestations and result in neurological dysfunction. Interesting enough, patients who present neurological manifestations of gluten sensitivity often have no gastrointestinal symptoms.
So, in direct opposition to the "old school" advice that a diet high in whole grains and low in fat is beneficial to us, new and exciting research is showing us that a high-fat, low-carb, and gluten-free diet may be the ticket to healthy minds and bodies for years to come.
Melissa Zimmerman, Healthy Goods