We can deny it until the mad cows come home, but we start deteriorating even before middle age. It’s not going to get better and we’re not going to start remembering where our keys are. The good news is that a healthy diet, akin to the famous Mediterranean one, can significantly protect our memory performance, say Canadian scientists who helpfully published a Brain Health Food Guide to help adults over 50 preserve their thinking and memory skills.
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While about it: Dietary patterns similar to the Brain Health Food Guide are associated with a 36 percent decrease in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the scientists add.
No, there is no such thing as a superfood for superlative memory. The brain diet is less about specifics and more about generally eating healthy, focusing on classes of foods, explains the team from Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.
Legumes are key. Green beans don’t count in that category, though they do count as a vegetable, so they’re good. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts are good too.
And: Eat fish, beans, beans, beans and nuts several times a week, and choose healthy fats from olive oil, nuts and fish. Did we say beans? Add the legumes to everything but your vanilla shake.
Eat lots of berries, and yes, strawberries do count in that context, Dr. Carol Greenwood reassures Haaretz. That is fortunate because Israel doesn’t really have many other berry types. (Mulberries are endemic but never did catch on here culinarily.)
While the recommendations were penned for Canadians, they apply to everybody, Greenwood also reassures.
“Our work was, in part, to address the ‘holy grail’ that the Mediterranean diet has in Canada — it is absolutely a healthy diet, but does not necessarily meet the cultural needs of all individuals,” she wrote in an email interview. “Rather, we position the Mediterranean diet as one example of a brain healthy diet, but argue that there are fundamental principles which can be adopted across all cultures and ethnic groups.”
She also wanted to debunk the reams of misinformation out there about “brain food,” says Greenwood, co-author of the Brain Health Food Guide. “In Canada, there are lots of claims around supplements and individual foods, where there really is no data to support the claims.”
Go gentle into that good ice cream
It’s hard to pinpoint “brain foods.” By the same token, removing a single component from the diet — such as sugar or wheat — isn’t going to solve the problem of a deteriorating memory, Greenwood believes. “The answer will never be as easy as pointing to an individual food which is either harmful or helpful — it is the global qualities of the diet which are important. This cannot be packaged into an individual pill/supplement or individual food.”
That said, she elaborates, there is a general consensus that diets and lifestyles that lead to the development of insulin resistance and other chronic disorders, such as hypertension, will contribute to poor cognitive retention and increased dementia risk.
What causes insulin resistance? Foods in that category include highly processed offerings, especially foods with lots of refined sugars. Steak and other red meat are in this category too, she says.
“I think the important message is that we need to limit our intakes of these foods and not promote abstinence — making something a ‘forbidden fruit’ only makes people crave it more and we don’t have the evidence to argue that small quantities are harmful,” Greenwood says. “You can still enjoy a small scoop of ice cream on special occasions as long as you don’t make it a daily item or eat the entire container at once.”
Do or DASH
The Baycrest recommendations draw primarily on two randomized control trials, a Spanish one using a diet intervention based on the Mediterranean diet, and a U.S. trial using a diet intervention based on the “DASH” diet, which is a long-term approach to healthy eating designed to help prevent or treat high blood pressure.
The team set out to see where these two dietary approaches overlapped (for instance, legumes) and diverged (the Mediterranean diet places much more emphasis on fish), to form the basis of the dietary intervention.
Fats were a puzzler. “There is no consensus across the epidemiological studies as to the negative contribution of a high-fat diet per se, rather the consensus is across fat quality — hence these recommendations focus more on fat quality rather than quantity,” Greenwood explains. And finally, data across a number of different international epidemiological studies was also used to inform the recommendation, Greenwood told Haaretz.
Apropos fats, fatty fish are generally considered to be best for the brain diet because of the high content of omega fats. “In Canada, the intake of fish is so low, that getting individuals to consume any type of fish is better than consuming no fish at all. This may not be the case in Israel,” Greenwood says, and she’s right — Israelis eat a lot of fish. “For instance, in the Spanish study, it was difficult to show benefits of meeting our recommendation for fish intake simply because most individuals were already naturally consuming relatively high levels of fish in their diet before entering the study.” And so it is in Israel too.