To mark Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, let’s take a look at the connection and recommendations regarding healthy eating and maintaining a healthy mind.
There are over 800,000 Canadians living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Likely, someone you know is affected by the disease.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder that destroys brain cells and causes thinking ability and memory to deteriorate. According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, Alzheimer’s is NOT a normal part of aging.
The National Institute on Aging reminds us that while “there is no definitive evidence yet about what can prevent Alzheimer’s or age-related cognitive decline,” there is evidence that a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s diseases and other dementias.
The Alzheimer Society indicates that 50% of Alzheimer’s may be the result of modifiable risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, depression, cognitive inactivity and physical inactivity. A study published by the National Institute on Aging in September 2015 showed “Being obese or overweight in middle age has been linked to increased risk of dementia.”
“We know that diet is an important predictor of how well our brain ages and that people who have better quality diets have greater preservation of their brain function with aging,” says Dr. Greenwood, senior scientist at Toronto’s Baycrest Rotman Research Institute. She continues with a comment about the importance of genetics versus healthy lifestyles “Poor eating habits and a lack of physical and intellectual stimulation are stronger drivers for dementia than genetics alone.”
To me, the message is clear…
Healthy eating is critical for a healthy mind.
But what, according to experts in the field, constitutes healthy eating?
What Is Healthy Eating for a Healthy Mind?
Here are the recommendations I gleaned and compiled based on the sources listed below.
1. Eat More Fruits and Vegetables of All Colors
- Fruits and veggies offer a wide array of vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, complex carbohydrates, and fibre that can lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes, digestive problems, cancer and stroke and help promote overall well-being.
- Eating a large variety and meeting daily recommendations (8-10 servings/day/adult) is more important than finding the perfect “superfood”.
- Choose different colors to get the widest range of nutrients.
- Dark greens, vivid reds, bright purples & blues, sunny oranges & yellows and even whites, tans & browns all have a place in healthy eating.
- A great source of long-lasting energy as well as anti-oxidants and a variety of nutrients and vitamins that processed foods don’t have.
- More filling and satisfying than simple carbohydrates or processed foods.
- Help reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart diseases, obesity and obesity related diseases.
- Help stabilize blood sugar levels, important in managing diabetes.
- Less processed grains and foods provide more nutrients, more fibre and more long lasting energy.
- Fibre helps our digestive system and helps control cholesterol.
- Include nuts, seeds, whole grains, oatmeal, starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, corn, winter squash, potatoes), beans, lentils, broccoli, apples, bananas, leafy greens and peas.
3. Choose Lean Protein Sources
- Protein is the building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.
- Choose fish, poultry, low-fat dairy products and lean meat.
- Try non-animal protein sources include:
- beans (kidney, black, white, pinto, etc.)
- peas (split peas, chickpeas, black-eyed peas) – even green peas
- lentils (red, brown, green)
- grains (quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, buckwheat, wheatberries and oatmeal)
- nuts, nut butters (peanut butter and almond butter) and seeds (pumpkin, flaxseed, hemp, sesame and sunflower)
- dark leafy green veggies (spinach, swiss chard, kale, broccoli and stinging nettle)
- soy and soy products like tofu, tempeh and fortified soy beverages
- Fat provides energy, helps absorb fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and provides flavor, we just need less than most of us consume.
- Choose lean meats and healthier fats (poly- and mono-unsaturated fats) to help reduce cholesterol which helps reduce risk of heart disease and atherosclerosis. (eg. avocado)
- Avoid solid fats – those solid at room temp or that you can see on meat (saturated and trans fats).
- Opt for Omega-3 fatty acids – those found in nuts & seeds (walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flax seed, hemp, chia), plant-based oils (olive, canola, soybean & flaxseed oil), fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines, halibut, whitefish), Omega-3 fortified foods (eggs, dairy, breads) .
- Herbs and spices offer great flavor and provide important anti-oxidants, vitamins and nutrients. Their numerous health benefits have been used for centuries across the world and new research is proving their importance.
- High sodium levels increase the risk of high blood pressure and is linked with higher cognitive decline in healthy older adults. Most of us consume far too much salt.
- Using herbs and spices to replace salt is an excellent healthy eating strategy.
- Cook fresh foods instead of processed foods to help reduce sodium. According to Dr. Greenwood in her book MINDfull, about 75% of our sodium income comes from processed foods.
6. Watch Proportion Size
- Appropriate portion sizes are important to overall healthy eating.
- Get to know recommended serving sizes, they’re much different than serving sizes you’ll find in restaurants or that you may have gotten used to.
This list is how I interpreted and consolidated the recommendations from the following sources. I put them in my own words because that’s how I learn and make sense of things. The following links will take you to each organization’s recommendations.
- The Canadian Alzheimer’s Association
- The US National Institute on Aging
- Toronto’s Baycrest Rotman Research Institute
- MINDfull a Recipe Book by Dr. Carol Greenwood, Senior Scientist at Rotman Research Institute
It is also important to note, that all of these organizations are adamant that diet alone is not enough to protect our brain health. They all mentioned exercise, reduced stress, adequate sleep, intellectual stimulation and social/emotional well being as important to overall brain health and wellness.
What About the Super Foods?
Are you feeling a little let down at the distinct lack of “Super Foods” in the recommendations? Where’s the kale, turmeric, red wine and acai berries? They’re all good foods to eat as part of an overall healthy diet- but they’re not super foods and shouldn’t be given extra attention. In fact, there are no such things as super foods.
The organizations I researched did not prescribe a handful of specific foods that we should eat for optimum brain health. Instead, they recommended overall eating patterns and certain groups of food in combination with exercising, getting enough rest, reducing stress, being socially active, stimulating your mind and so on. They agree, there are no super foods.
Dr. Carol Greenwood says “When it comes to brain health, there is currently no evidence that any one single food within the same class is superior to other similar food.” Researchers may recommend that we eat more cruciferous vegetables – but they won’t specify that kale is better than broccoli or brussel sprouts or kohlrabi. As Dr. Greenwood points out, eating many different types of cruciferous vegetables rather than zoning in on only one type, gives you the broadest possible combination of beneficial food components. It’s also much tastier, affordable, accessible and enjoyable.
Certainly there is promising research into specific foods and components within those foods, but confirming results in human trials, determining how much of a component, in what form, at what time, at what age, at what dose, and in what combination with other foods is almost impossible. There are simply too many variables to consider.
Nikolaos Scarmeas, MD, an associate professor of neurology at Columbia University, supports the idea that overall eating patterns rather than specific foods are important. In an article for Health Magazine he stated, “We don’t eat foods or nutrients in isolation, we eat in combination with other foods so there is value in dietary patterns.”
Martha Clare Morris, Director Nutrition and Nutritional Epidemiology at Rush University in Chicago says “We can‘t go out and say, ‘Eat these things and you are protected from Alzheimer’s,’ but there is almost no downside to increasing your physical activity and consuming a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fish, healthy oils, nuts, and seeds.”
When we see certain foods making headlines, it’s exciting and holds promise for possible future discoveries – but it is not a magic bullet. It does not release us from our obligation to take care of our bodies and our minds.
“What we do know is that a healthy lifestyle—one that includes a healthy diet, physical activity, appropriate weight, and no smoking—can maintain and improve overall health and well-being. Making healthy choices can also lower the risk of certain chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, and scientists are very interested in the possibility that a healthy lifestyle might have a beneficial effect on Alzheimer’s as well.” The National Institute on Aging
Want to learn more?
I’ll be in Miami, Manitoba in February and March to share these tips and make delicious recipes incorporating these ideas. For more information check out the following:
Sign up to get articles by Getty delivered to your inbox. You’ll get recipes, practical tips and great food information like this. Getty is a Professional Home Economist, speaker and writer putting good food on tables and agendas. She is the author of Manitoba’s best-selling Prairie Fruit Cookbook, Founder of Fruit Share, a mom and veggie gardener.