Changing what you eat may help decrease your risk of Alzheimer's, says new report
It's estimated that 5.2 million people in the U.S. currently have Alzheimer's disease, and there is no cure -- but what if we told you that what you're putting on your plate could be increasing your risk of dementia, as well as a host of other neurological problems? That's the concept behind the bestseller Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar -- Your Brain's Silent Killers, by neurologist David Perlmutter, M.D.
Perlmutter points to a growing body of research that shows higher-than-normal fasting blood sugar levels may be toxic to your brain, even at readings previously thought to be safe: A study published in October in the journal Neurology shows that having an elevated fasting blood sugar is associated with a shrinkage of the brain's memory center, even in individuals who don't have type 2 diabetes. Other research published in August in the New England Journal of Medicinefinds, similarly, that high fasting blood sugar levels are linked to a higher risk of becoming demented, whether you have a reading that qualifies you as diabetic or not.
"Pretty scary stuff on the one hand," says Perlmutter, "but on the other hand, it's empowering because you don't have to go down that road." Here's why: Just as your diet can increase your odds of Alzheimer's, it may also help decrease it if you follow certain guidelines. "What Grain Brain is bringing to the public's attention is that preventive medicine really applies to the brain," says Perlmutter. "No one's ever talked about that, and now it's time to bring the idea of diet and lifestyle choices to brain health."
To reap the benefits of a brain-friendly diet, Perlmutter suggests eliminating gluten altogether (which he says can be harmful to your brain even if you don't have Celiac disease) and limiting your carb consumption to 60-80 grams per day -- max. These recommendations are pretty strict (to put it in perspective, the USDA's recommended daily allowance for carbs is 130 grams for adults), and many experts disagree with Perlmutter's assertion that gluten is toxic and that complex carbohydrate intake should be so severely limited. But even if going that low-carb is unrealistic for you, there are still some do-able dietary changes you can make to promote healthy brain functioning:
Start Eating More Fat
Yup, you read that right. "In 1992, we were told [by the USDA], 'You've got to go low-fat, no-fat -- that's what's best for your heart,'" says Perlmutter. "Within 10 years, the rate of diabetes in America went up threefold, and diabetes doubles your Alzheimer's risk." In fact, in a 2012 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Research, participants in the top quartile of fat consumption (more than 35 percent of their calories came from fat) showed a 35 percent decreased risk of developing mild cognitive impairment or dementia (as compared to the bottom quartile, who consumed fewer than 17 percent of their calories from fat). Granted, as you likely know, not all fats are created equal: "Your brain is 60-70 percent fat," says Perlmutter. "That fat has to come from somewhere, and to build a better brain you need good fats, not damaged or modified fats." He suggests loading up on healthy monounsaturated fats from sources like olive oil and avocados.
Watch Out for Hidden Sources of Carbs
You may not be willing or able to ditch gluten and limit yourself to 60-80 grams of carbohydrates a day (which, as we mentioned previously, many nutritionists don't necessarily recommend). But it is worth noting that the same Journal of Alzheimer's Research study found participants in the highest quartile of carb consumption (more than 58 percent of their calories came from carbs) showed almost double the risk of developing MCI or dementia when compared to the bottom quartile (fewer than 47 percent of their calories came from carbs). And while it's certainly smart to watch your intake of bread and pasta, you may not even realize some of the big sources of carbs in your diet. A cup of orange juice, for example, contains more than 33 grams of carbs -- and can set you up for even more carb cravings later, thanks to the blood sugar spike then crash it brings on. "The sugar [in an actual orange] is released more slowly in a measured way," says Perlmutter.
Eating whole fruits is better than drinking fruit juices (especially ones with added sweeteners), but eating too many fruits can dramatically increase your carb intake, too (one large apple, for example, has about 31 grams of carbs). Root vegetables also tend to have higher carb counts than veggies grown above ground. The takeaway? While you certainly don't have to avoid good-for-you foods like quinoa, bananas, or spaghetti squash, it's important to remember that they can add to your overall carb intake -- so serving size, as always, is key.
When In Doubt, Choose Foods That Aren't Processed
It may be a no-brainer (pardon the pun), but it's also one of the best things you can do for your noggin, says Perlmutter. "Our most well respected peer-reviewed medical literature today is clearly indicating that blood sugar is a cornerstone pivotal player in terms of determining whether you become demented or not," he says. And since so many foods that come in a bag or a box have been linked to an increased fasting blood sugar, choosing more whole foods and fewer packaged ones is crucial to keeping your brain healthy. "If you live to be age 85, your risk for becoming an Alzheimer's patient is 50/50 -- the flip of a coin," says Perlmutter. "Let's change that today and improve your odds dramatically by simply making these lifestyle changes."