Too many times in recent years have I seen friends go on super healthy diets, quit smoking, give up harmful habits, and begin exercising only after they’ve been diagnosed with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or some other dreaded disease. Better late than never, I suppose.
But it begs the question, Why do we wait to be sick before we start practicing a healthy lifestyle? This was on my mind as I read the new book by Harvard-trained neurologist Richard S. Isaacson MD and Columbia University nutrition expert Christopher N. Ochner PhD. In The Alzheimer’s Diet: A Step-by-Step Nutritional Approach for Memory Loss Prevention & Treatment, these two leading Alzheimer’s nutrition researchers present hard evidence that consuming a brain-healthy diet—while avoiding foods that have been shown to be damaging to the brain—can improve brain function, boost memory, and prevent age-related memory loss.
They’ve also compiled recent findings from top clinical studies around the world showing that nutritional interventions actually slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and improve memory function in people who have the pre-Alzheimer’s condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
This latter finding is significant, say Drs. Isaacson and Ochner, because there are so many new drugs being developed and medical breakthroughs happening in the field of Alzheimer’s treatment that any strategy that can buy a patient even a couple of years could potentially prove life-saving. As for patients with full-blown Alzheimer’s, any improvement in memory function adds to the quality of their life and that of their caregiver.
This reader-friendly book starts off with some basics about Alzheimer’s disease and explains, in layperson’s language, how certain unhealthy food and lifestyle choices can damage the brain. The second section of the book lays out the components of the Alzheimer’s Diet, along with science-based explanations of why they work. Section three puts the information into an actionable plan, complete with a nine-week daily menu plan, recipes, shopping and eating-out strategies, tracking worksheets, and even tips for staying motivated when faced with parties, peer pressure, and other common challenges.
What is the Alzheimer’s Diet? It starts with proportioning our “macronutrients” so that 25% of our total daily calories come from heart-healthy fat (olive and other nut/seed oils, certain nuts and seeds, seafood that’s rich in omega 3, and avocados); 30-45% from complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables and whole foods that are low on the glycemic index); and 25-35% from high-quality lean protein.
To oversimplify it, the Alzheimer’s Diet is a Mediterranean-style low-carb diet that emphasizes lean protein and lots of vegetables. It also emphasizes foods that are rich in certain vitamins and beneficial compounds, such as omega 3–rich seafood, antioxidant-rich berries, and unsweetened dark cocoa; anti-inflammation foods such as turmeric, onions, and mushrooms; and coffee. That’s right—coffee, one to three cups a day, has been shown in clinical studies to benefit the part of the brain involved in memory. Hooray!
The diet deemphasizes grain-based carbohydrates (with a few exceptions, such as quinoa). It recommends that we eliminate processed foods, fat-laden foods, and simple carbs such as refined flour and baked goods. The diet discourages foods that are high glycemic or sugar laden. If you aren’t yet convinced that sugar is a harmful food, you will be by the time you finish this book.
Drs. Isaacson and Ochner also recommend a 12- to 14-hour nightly fast, which creates a condition known as dietary ketosis. That means allowing at least 12 hours without anything but water between your last meal at night and your first one in the morning. This is, in part, because the fasting body can’t find carbs to burn for fuel, so the body resorts to burning a substance called ketone bodies, which is very protective for the brain—and particularly for people with AD or MCI.
The Alzheimer’s Diet is extremely healthful, though, whether you have issues with brain and memory function or not. It will result in weight loss and replenishment of beneficial vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, a formula that helps to fend off other diet-related conditions like obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
The book’s end chapters, written for caregivers and health professionals, get into the nitty-gritty aspects of effective dietary modifications for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
What I appreciated about The Alzheimer’s Diet was its upbeat, user-friendly approach to brain-healthy eating. The authors provide the science behind each recommendation, citing studies and explaining the biochemistry behind how substances in our food interact with our body to help or hinder important brain processes. It has just the right amount of science to be useful, but not so much that we feel overwhelmed.
In the emerging field of Alzheimer’s nutrition, scientists can now point to evidence that certain foods harm the brain, and other foods help the brain. If making healthier food choices can keep my mind nimble, clear, and sharp into old age, then starting now is, well, a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned! Why wait?