You Are What You Eat: Why Your Diet Matters to Your Brain

A growing body of scientific evidence supports the relationship between diet and long-term cognitive health. This third article in a four part series on take aways that you can benefit from today, out of the annual AAIC meeting will highlight the findings on diet and cognition. The prior two posts explored the relationship between sleep and cognition and exercise and your brain health and next week we will explore how socialization (the face to face kind not the Facebook kind) is fundamental to long term cognitive health.

You are what you eat

At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2017 last week in London, results from four large population-based studies suggested a link between healthy eating practices and better cognition when you’re older. I listened as my fellow neuroscientists and behavioral psychologists discussed how certain lifestyle and dietary choices could have a significant impact on long-term health. It seems like common sense, but most people choose to delay healthy eating until it’s too late.

It’s hard to make changes when you’re young, vibrant and healthy. We don’t want to think about how our actions and dietary choices today will impact our health 30 years down the road. And many people think that if they stay slim while eating a poor diet they will not face the health consequences of those poor nutrition choices, but they are wrong and in medicine we have a term for such people, TOFI.

In recent years, the link between diet and cognition has grown and attracted significant attention from more than clinical psychologists and neuroscientists. Different diets made their way into the media and Hollywood spotlight- Paleo, Atkins, the South Beach diet, and the recent Whole 30 diet craze– all of which offer shiny promises to improve your mind and body.

But do they really?

While these Hollywood diets go in and out of fashion, the Mediterranean Diet — comprised of eating mostly plants (vegetables, fruit, beans) – has maintained its golden reputation, backed by decades of scientific research. Studies have again and again shown that this diet protects against obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Now evidence also suggests that this diet could lessen the risk for cognitive decline and lifetime risk of dementia.

The Journal of Neurology recently published a study that confirmed the easy-to-follow Mediterranean diet can have lasting benefits for brain health. Another study of over 6000 older adults showed a 30-35% lower risk of memory impairment when sticking to a Mediterranean-based diet. CNN recently reported that people who closely adhered to a diet similar to the Mediterranean diet saw a 53% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

What exactly is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is mostly plant-based, with an emphasis on limiting saturated fat. This diet suggests a high intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fish, and unsaturated fatty acids such as olive oil and avocado. It also encourages a moderate intake of dairy, wine, and poultry. Finally, it recommends a low intake of red meats and sweets.

Usually the term ‘diet’ conjures up images of bland, boring, unsatisfying food. Part of the Mediterranean Diet’s success is that it’s focused on hearty, tasty food, so it can easily become a lifestyle change rather than a chore.

Unlike many fad diets, the Mediterranean diet does not advocate for a large restriction of carbohydrates. The guidelines instead suggest that healthy carbohydrates be consumed—those found in vegetables and whole grains. This gives another benefit to the Mediterranean diet: it’s high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that combat the oxidative processes that occur within the aging brain. Oxidative damage is a common attribute in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The main components of the Mediterranean diet (e.g. fruits, vegetables, wine, olive oil) provide high levels of antioxidants that slow and/or prevent this damage.

The evidence speaks for itself

As someone clinically trained in healthcare, I believe in hard evidence and facts. It’s hard to ignore the growing body of literature that the modern western diet may account for the rise we see in many disease conditions from Alzheimer’s to Diabetes to even (the latest studies suggest) Depression and Anxiety. I began eating a Mediterranean Diet in my late 20s and my physician tells me that at 46 I have the “numbers of a 30 year old” at my annual physical.

I know this choice may not be for everyone, but I strongly encourage each of you to consider your daily food choices and know that your actions today could affect your brain health down the road.