Power Foods for the Brain
By Neal D. Barnard, MD
Grand Central Life & Style (2013)
Reviewed by Joan Salge Blake, MS, RDN, LDN
Bernard describes the "power foods" that can protect the brain, optimize its function and reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease. In his three-step program, Barnard reveals the foods you should include in your diet, the ones you need to avoid and the exercises and supplements that can help make a difference with your memory. His advice calls for a plant-based diet that does not contain any meat, dairy or fish.
Synopsis of the Diet Plan
Bernard advocates consuming antioxidants, such as vitamin E, from food only, which research does support. Antioxidants may play a role in memory and cognitive health by neutralizing free radicals and protecting the brain from oxidative stress. He also cites the potential role of folate, B12 and B6 from food sources in lowering homocysteine levels in the body. Elevated homocysteine in the blood may also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
This plan recommends reducing intake of saturated fats, trans fatty acids and dietary cholesterol, as well as eating more "good fats," such as the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, to increase DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in the body.
Nutritional Pros and Cons
While a well-planned vegan diet can be healthy, some of the advice is questionable. Since the book's diet prescription eliminates animal foods, it suggests foods fortified with vitamin B12 and/or a supplement are necessary, with a vitamin D supplement. However, the book does not mention calcium, which individuals following this diet may lack.
While the advice is science-based, unfortunately, the book also recommends people do not consume fish. The logic is that the fat in fish adds 9 calories per gram, "which is why fatty fish can easily add to your waistline." As registered dietitian nutritionists, we know that it is not one food or food group but rather the total calories in a diet that is the culprit in weight gain.
Research also suggests that fish can be a healthy addition to the diet. In fact, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans specifically recommend Americans consume about 8 ounces of fish weekly, especially fatty fish-containing DHA, as it is associated with reduced cardiac deaths among individuals. While Alzheimer's disease is the sixth-leading cause of death among Americans, heart disease is the number-one killer.
While fighting Alzheimer's disease is clearly a major concern of our aging population, the research on the specific diet that reduces your risk is not well documented at this time, but rather, it is evolving. Some research suggests a plant-based, balanced diet — such as the Mediterranean diet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and MyPlate — may be associated with a lower risk of dementia, cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease but the jury is still out.
I hesitate to recommend this book and its vegan-based diet prescription to optimize brain function and reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease, as evidence does not yet support either claim. If a person chooses to consume a vegan diet, it should be done with the guidance of a registered dietitian nutritionist to make sure that all nutrient needs are met.