People are always asking for tips on how to get a fit and healthy body but what about a fit and healthy brain? It’s left us wondering – what should we be eating to keep our brains healthy? For Dementia Action Week, Dr Lisa Mosconi answers our questions
One person is diagnosed with dementia every three minutes in the UK. Dementia Awareness Week has been renamed as Dementia Action Week. It’s time for us to act on making changes as well as raising awareness and helping to raise funds for people living with dementia.
If you think you’ve heard a lot of about dementia and Alzheimer’s, that’s because they are now the leading cause of death in the UK with an estimated 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, far more than ever before. That number is expected to grow significantly over the next several decade and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the global number of dementia deaths will increase by a shocking 40 per cent by 2030. The good news is there is plenty being done on research into how these devastating illnesses can be prevented.
Dr Lisa Mosconi, is a neuroscientist and Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. Dr Mosconi claims we can help protect our brains from Alzheimer’s and dementia by making healthier food and lifestyle choices. In her new book Brain Food: How to Eat Smart and Sharpen your Mind, she says that while genetics can play a significant role in causing dementia, the risk of the disease for most of the population is influenced most by lifestyle factors – which includes a person’s diet. ‘A new generation of studies has begun to identify which nutrients are particularly helpful in enabling our brains to to their maximum capacity, as well as protecting them as we age,’ says Mosconi. These are some of the key proven ways she suggests we can keep our brains well as we get older.
Keep your ‘sugar gates’ in mind
The brain relies solely on glucose (sugar) and needs 62 grams of glucose a day (that’s about 250 calories) to function. Dr Mosconi writes, ‘Carbs are not the enemy and essential for a healthy brain’. Before you decide on pizza and ice cream for dinner though, Mosconi reveals that our brains ‘sugar gates’ open when in need of glucose but close again once enough has been provided. Any extra glucose in the bloodstream will be confronted with a closed gate causing high blood sugar and weight gain.
So what sugar should we be eating? The good news – our amazingly clever brain can convert fructose, found in fruit and honey, and lactose, found in milk, into glucose. Mosconi suggests that fruits like ‘kiwi, grapes, raisins and dates, as well as, honey and maple syrup’ are far better natural sources of providing glucose. The bad news – sweets, cookies and cake contain many other sugars but very little glucose. We need to reduce our sugar intake to the correct type and amount our brains need, to avoid health risks and keep our brains healthy, Mosconi asserts.
Know your nutrient synergies
It’s not only about particular nutrients but how they interact. Make sure your diet features a large variety of different foods and nutrients such as, PUFAs, omega-3 and B vitamins to fully support your brain.
This recipe from Mosconi’s book that provides maximum nutrient synergies for the brain:
Grilled salmon in ginger garlic marinade
Ingredients (serves 2)
- 4 tablespoons unrefined canola oil
- one 1-inch piece fresh ginger, grated
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- juice if 1/2 lemon
- 1 tablespoon organic maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons tamari (organic)
- 6 ounces wild Alaskan salmon fillet, patted dry
- sea salt and cayenne pepper
- To make the marinade- combine 3 tablespoons of the oil, the ginger, garlic, lemon juice, maple syrup and tamari in a zip-lock plastic bag. Shake well. Add the fish to the bag, reseal and shake again until its well coated. Place the bag in the fridge for three to four hours.
- Preheat the grill or grill pan to high heat. Remove the fish from the bag and discard marinade. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Brush the grill with the remaining oil. When the oil is sizzling, place the fish on the grill and cook until lightly charred, about 4 minutes per side.
make sure your diet features a large variety of different foods and nutrients
Focus on a plant based diet
‘Plant-based foods are what our brains first nourished themselves with, our early ancestors were raw vegans,’ Mosconi states. Plant food contains all the vitamins, minerals, good carbs, good fats, lean protein we need, so try adding as much fresh fruit and veg to your meals as possible.
Avocados are a brain essential, she says. Almonds, brazil nuts and chia seeds are also a must when it comes to feeding your brain with healthy necessities. Just make sure you don’t snack on large quantities of nuts, eight to ten nuts is enough to provide your brain with enough healthy fats.
Get selectively organic
Although we would all enjoy the luxury of visiting a farmers’ market everyday, most of us live too far away or simply just don’t have time. Organic food can be expensive but Mosconi has some tips that can help you save money while still shopping organic. where you need to.
Mosconi’s ‘dirty dozen’ represents the foods most contaminated with pesticides and chemicals that should be bought organic if you can afford it. These are apples, celery, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, blueberries, bell peppers.
However, the ‘clean 15’ produce can be eaten in their non-organic form and they are onions, avacado, sweet corn, pineapple, mango, sweet peas, aubergine, cauliflower, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe. So stock up and rely on these cheaper foods to help you eat more fresh fruit and veggies.
To reduce costs further, avoid buying prewashed or ready to eat fruits and vegetables. Also try to buy produce that’s in season – you can always freeze it for later months when the food is not in season. Also, choose wild fish over farmed to help avoid ingesting pollutants and pesticides.
Don’t skip breakfast
We’ve all heard the saying that ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ – it really is. Your brain needs a source of sustainable energy in the morning, such as fresh fruit, whole grains or lean protein. This will help set you up for the day, stop you snacking and choosing unhealthy food options for the rest of the day.
Skip the snacks and takeaways instead
Everyone loves a take away now and then which is fine, but making a habit of them is damaging for your brain and your body. Takeaways contain refined oils, sugars, fats and cheap ingredients causing you to ingest more hormones and pesticides. Use real, healthy ingredients to maximize your brain health and help prevent age related brain disease.
Decide on dark chocolate
Chocolate is considered a super food when consumed in its purest form. So, like most of us, if you find yourself craving something sweet after dinner, choose to snack on dark chocolate. High quality dark chocolate with at least 65 per cent cocoa is lower in sugar and rich in antioxidants.
Reach for the red
Red wine protects our brains thanks to a high content of the antioxidant compound resveratrol. Resveratrol is also said to help with longevity. Women should drink one small glass of wine a day for brain health, she suggests. If wine isn’t your thing, organic pomegranate juice is also rich in antioxidants. Grape juice and prune juice are also good options.
Try intermittent (overnight) fasting
We’ve all heard of the highly successful 5:2 diet, eating a normal balanced diet for five days but restricting to a maximum of 600 calories for two days. Although fasting sounds scary, if you fast overnight you’ll be surprised how easy it can be. Give yourself a 12-16 hour break from food between your dinner and breakfast or lunch – thankfully for at least six to eight hours of this you will be asleep.
Interestingly, by reducing your overall calorie consumption you can boost cognitive capacity and help yourself to live longer, new research suggests. You’re brain cells strengthen themselves when they are hungry, so skip that midnight snack and try intermittent fasting to improve your overall brain health.
Steal from the world’s best diets
‘Blue zones‘ are five regions that have the highest concentration of centenarians (people who live to over 100) in the world. Although geographical distance and culture may be different, the people lead similar lifestyles. They are physically active, have low stress levels from living a slow pace life, take regular naps and have strong social and family connections.
Where food is concerned, again there are similarities. Their diets are largely plant-based with small portions and have a moderate calorie intake. They typically start their day with a large breakfast, followed by lunch and a smaller dinner. And, the consume meat rarely, up to five times a month – highly unlike most western countries who consume meat every day with almost every meal. Let’s take a look at the world’s most brain healthy diets.
The Mediterranean diet
Full of wild greens like dandelions, legumes, beans and potato, it also features plenty of healthy fats found in fish and olive oil and on occasion, cheese and red wine. Olive oil is an especially important part of the diet and has a high antioxidant content. Be sure to eat a wide range of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, whole grains and fish. This food will provide your brain with essential nutrients.
‘Americans are eight times more likely to get Alzheimer’s than their Indian counterpart,’ says Dr Mosconi. When thinking about Indian cuisine we think, spice. Spices used in Indian cooking are known for their brain-protective properties. The recently popular spice turmeric, but always a popular signature spice of Indian food, is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent full of antioxidants. Recent evidence now shows that it also helps protect against memory loss and dementia by keeping our neurons healthy as we age. Try this recipe from Dr Mosconi’s book which features turmeric and other spices.
Chickpeas tikka masala
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin coconut oil or organic ghee
- 1 red onion, finely diced
- 4 garlic cloves, finely minced
- pinch of sea salt
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- one 2-inch piece fresh ginger, grated
- 3 cups organic chickpeas, cooked, drained, and rinsed
- 28-ounce organic diced tomatoes
- 1 cup full-fat coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon organic concentrated tomato paste
- handful of fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and salt and stir. Saute until the onion is partly translucent and slightly browned around the edges, 3 to 4 minutes.
- Stir in the garam masala, turmeric, and ginger and cook until very fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add the chickpeas, and the tomatoes, and their juice and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk, tomato paste, and ghee or oil and return to a simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the cilantro.
The antioxidant diet
Similar to the Mediterranean diet, this is more focused on the nutritional content of plant based foods. Fruit and vegetables are full to the brim of antioxidants to help protect our brain. Brazil nuts, walnuts, olive-oil and dark-coloured beans such as raw cacao are also packed with natural antioxidants. Eat them as often as you can.
‘Glutathione the master antioxidant that everyone needs and is particular found in foods containing sulfur such as asparagus, avocado, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, onions and garlic.
The keto diet
This is similar to intermittent fasting. ‘Fasting increases the production of ketone bodies,’ says Dr Mosconi. ‘When our glucose runs low the brain turns to ketones for energy so, if you were to drastically restrict your carbohydrate intake, the body goes into a state of ‘ketosis and this forces the body to burn fat’.
If you’re not put off with the idea of fasting then this diet must sound like a pretty good idea. Just remember that ketones are not the preferred energy source for the brain – glucose is. Mosconi warns that trying the keto diet could lead to adverse effects such as constipation, flatulence, disturbed digestion and ‘keto breath’, so if you’re thinking of giving this diet a go, know the risks and make sure you pack the chewing gum..
Use traditional cookware
Mosconi doesn’t recommend using aluminium, plastics and synthetic surfaces like Teflon as these contain the compound (polytetrafluoroethylene) which can be toxic for brain health. Instead she suggests using stainless steel, glass and ceramic kitchenware.
Guard your sleep time
Take that afternoon nap – the brain needs its sleep too. Prioritizing sleep doesn’t signify a lack of productivity or laziness. In fact, lack of sleep is seriously detrimental to our brain health and can increase our risk of Alzheimer’s. Studies show that adults who slept for less than five hours a night showed higher levels of Alzheimer’s plaques in the brains than those who slept well for over seven hours. Sleeping gives the brain time to clear harmful toxins and flush away waste products. Mosconi says ‘If you want to make sure your brain has enough opportunities to clean itself, guard your sleep.’
Keep a glass of water next to the bed
Good old H2O is crucial for energy production because it carries oxygen which is needed to breathe and burn sugar for more energy and thus for brain health. Like sleep, water also removes waste products.
Our body cannot store water so we need to ensure we provide a fresh supply every day. Its recommended that we drink eight to ten cups of water a day (two litres), which can boost your brain’s performance by 30 per cent. This does not count for caffeinated drinks that dehydrate you as you drink them.
Always make sure there is a glass of water next to your bed and make it a rule to drink a glass of water first thing in the morning. This increases your ability to feel awake helping you get ready to leave the house and not miss that train to work. End your day with a cup of herbal tea to stay hydrated whilst you sleep.
If you’re struggling to drink a full two litres a day, rather than water itself, you can opt for water-rich foods such as cucumbers, lettuce, celery and strawberries which contain over 90% water content.
For a more detailed insight into what Dr Mosconi has to say about brain health read her book Brain Food: How to Eat Smart and Sharpen your Mind.