Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

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Mediterranean Diet and the Brain?

The Med Diet is more than likely the most researched diet. For a study on brain function and other health aspects:


For more on the Med diet, CLICK HERE.


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The Brain and Sweeteners?

The headlines screamed “diet soda” but the studies also included some disturbing results from sugary drinks, too. There is an inexpensive, widely available, low calorie alternative – it is called water. In other words, the advice often given is “don’t drink your calories”.

There is no doubt that these studies require further research to establish reproducible results  and to further elucidate on what is happening to the brain in the presence of natural and/or artificial sweeteners.


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Mediterranean Diets and Cognition

English: Olives in olive oil.

English: Olives in olive oil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Can your diet affect your brain health?  A recent  Spanish study suggests that a Mediterranean Diet can have positive benefits.

Dementia has been a concern for quite some time now as our population ages.  Dementia is caused by degeneration or loss of nerve cells in the brain such as in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s and diseases that affect blood vessels, such as stroke, often called vascular dementia.

Research from the University of Navarra reports that a Mediterranean diet consisting of extra virgin olive oil, moderate amounts of fish and seafood, a moderate intake or red wine as well as lots of  fruits, vegetables and nuts seemed to improve the brains of older people at risk for vascular dementia when compared to a low fat diet.

The trial consisted of 522 men and women between the ages of 55 and 80 without cardiovascular disease but they were considered at higher risk for vascular disease because of pre-existing conditions such as diabetes type 2, being a smoker, having high blood pressure, and/or having a family history of cardiovascular disease early in life.

The participants were assigned to one of three diet groups.  In one group, they followed a Mediterranean diet with added olive oil; the second group followed a Mediterranean diet with added nuts; the third group (the controls) were only given advice on following a low fat diet.

The results?  After a followup period of 6 .5 years, the two groups following the Mediterranean diets had brain function scores significantly higher than the control group on the low fat diet. Brain function tests included assessment of memory, attention, language, spacial and abstract thinking.

The authors concluded:  “An intervention with Med Diets enhanced with either extra virgin olive oil or nuts appears to improve cognition compared with a low-fat diet.”  This study was published in the May issue (2013) of the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

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Is Fish Food for the Brain?

English: PET scan of a human brain with Alzhei...

English: PET scan of a human brain with Alzheimer’s disease (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Silent”  brain damage may be contributing to a form of dementia or stroke.   What happens is that the brain suffers from “silent brain infarcts” when small areas of brain tissue die from an insufficient supply of blood.  This subtle form of brain damage is linked to dementia or stroke. Most of the time there are no symptoms and can only be detected by an MRI.

A study used data from 3,660 patients in the Cardiovascular Health study of people 65 and older who underwent at least one brain scan of which 2,313 participants had two scans five years apart.  They all completed food frequency questionnaires.

The results indicated that those who ate the most tuna and other non-fried fish had a 26% reduced risk of silent infarcts compared to those eating the least, less than one serving  a month.  For each additional servings of tuna or other baked/broiled fish the risk of infarct fell by 7%.  Those eating at least three servings of fish per week also scored 10.6% better on a test of white matter in the brain.  No protective effect was seen from fried fish like fish sticks made from pollack or cod.  The authors speculated that the higher omega-3 content of the protective fish such as tuna was involved as pollack or cod is typically low in omega-3 fatty acids.

EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic and docosohexaenoic acids), respectively, are two omega-3  fatty acids that have been shown in precious studies to be linked to lower risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The authors concluded:  “Our findings suggest that the prevention of subclinical infarcts and white matter anomalies may be one mechanism by which fish or omega-3 fatty acid consumption may decrease the development of these debilitating conditions”.  This study was published in the journal Neurology, August 5, 2008.

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Is This Our Brain on Carbohydrates?

English: PET scan of a human brain with Alzhei...

English: PET scan of a human brain with Alzheimer’s disease (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Gallays silver stain in a brain tissu...

English: Gallays silver stain in a brain tissue specimen displaying a neuritic plaque in the center (black, Gallyas stain) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you heard of the latest anti-grain book titled Grain Brain: The surprising truth about wheat, carbs, and sugar; your brain’s silent killers,  written by a neurologist, Dr. David Perlmutter?  This is the second major book attacking grains in a couple of years.  The first one is Wheat Belly, written by Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist..  Check out my previous post on Wheat Belly here.

A great article published in The Atlantic written by James Hamblin, MD, senior editor of the Atlantic provides us with a comprehensive critique about Grain Brain..  The article is a long one – 15 printed pages, so I’ve attempted to sort out some of the most important highlights for you.

Dr. Perlmmutter has also produced a companion PBS special, Brain Change. He is a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and holds a medical doctorate from the University of Miami School of Medicine.  His practice is endorsed by Mehmet Oz who reports he has sent many patients to Dr. Perlmutter with “wonderful results”.

In his book and in interviews, Dr. Perlmutter states that carbohydrates, even the whole grain carbs, are the cause of almost every modern neurological disease – dementia, decreased libido, depression, chronic headaches, anxiety , epilepsy, ADHD and  Alzheimer’s disease.  In an interview with Dr. Hamblin: “Most grain foods whether we’re talking about quinoa, amaranth, the very popular grains of the day, the reality is that they still have a fairly high glycemic index are associated with a carbohydrate surge with a blood sugar rise that is detrimental to the brain”.  He says: “the best recommendation I can make is to completely avoid grains”.  The heart of his diet recommendation is “good fats like olive oil, avocado, wild fish, organic nuts and nutrient-dense vegetables and NO Grains!!

He promotes diets that resemble the current popular Paleo diets with 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbs.  He allows for up to 50-80 grams of carbohydrates daily which he says is contained in one serving of fruit.  NOT TRUE!!!  For example, one apple only contains around 25 grams of carbohydrate.  He may have read a nutrition label on a can of fruit with extra heavy syrup or looked at a gigantic apple.

Dr. Perlmutter, on his web site, claims support from an article published in the highly peer-reviewed journal, New England Journal of Medicine (August 8, 2010).  The conclusion from the authors is: “Our results suggest that higher glucose levels may be a risk for dementia, even among persons without diabetes”.  Another reliable source published support in the Proceedings of the Mayo Clinic reports that gluten can be related to a risk for dementia. Although these results may sound impressive, may contain some truth and thu  and should be given attention, it seems to me that it’s a stretch from those conclusions to an all-out demonetization of all carbohydrates as causative agents of neurological diseases.

I am currently reading another book called Do You Believe in Magic?  The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine  by a Pennsylvania pediatrician, Dr. Paul Offit.  His book addresses and debunks alternative medical myths that promise all kinds of cancer and other disease cures, aging miracles, etc. etc. etc. Unfortunately, none have been successful when put to the test.  His book has never reached the New York Times Best Seller list, but should be replacing Dr. Perlmutter’s tome of nonsense.  In my opinion, his book is very valuable for the medical consumer.

Dr. Hamblin consulted and interviewed Chris Kresser, an integrative medicine practitioner and author of Your Personal Paleo Code.  Kresser reports that his patients often ask him about this latest book, Grain Brain.  He tells them: “just because a low-carb diet can help treat some neurological disorders it doesn’t mean that carbs caused the disorder in the first place”  I assume he may be referring to the success with some epileptic patients using the ketogenic diet (a low carb, very high fat diet – about 80%).

Kresser also brings up some important epidemiological evidence.  Some cultures do just fine on high carbohydrate diets.  He points out that  The Hadza of Tanzania and the Kuna of Panama consume a diet high in natural sugars like fruit, starchy foods and honey and are still free from the diseases Perlmutter claims are due to high glycemic carbs.  There are also the Kitava of the Pacific Islands who eat an abundance of yams, bananas, and papaya containing high percentages of carbohydrates.  Also the Okinawans (one of the longest living populations on the planet have a diet extremely high in sweet potatoes.  Even the well-known and highly touted Mediterranean diet is very heavy on grains, primarily whole grains. “All of these cultures, Kresser notes, are fit and lean with practically non-existent rates of neurological disorders and other modern chronic disease”.

Dr. David Katz was also interviewed by Dr. Hamblin concerning Grain Brain. He is the founder director of Yale University’s Prevention Research and has published some respected works in nutrition, namely Nutrition in Clinical Practice and the author of Disease Proof: The remarkable truth about what makes us well.

His conclusion among many:  “ I also find it sad that because his book (Perlmutter) is filled with a bunch of nonsense, that’s why it’s a best seller…… because that’s how you get on the bestseller list.”   He also makes it clear that he has always respected and liked Dr. Perlmutter and acknowledges that he does some innovative work in the area of  neurodegenerative disease.

Dr. Hamblin then offers his own conclusions.  He hopes that these kinds of books do not turn off people in the areas of nutrition science, due to the fact of no one can actually know what to believe and give up on legitimate nutrition advice.  I think he offers the bottom line – that when you advocate eliminating a major macro-nutrient (in this case, carbohydrates), you need to offer a tremendous amount of research that supports your claims.  I agree – this book appears to only offer evidence that he has chosen and only that supports his premise and ignores good science.  I must admit I have not read his book, but when I do, it will be with great caution and skepticism.  So many times, these types of books are written with such self-proclaimed authority that they falsely become the current conventional wisdom.  Nothing could be further from the truth in this case.

Here is the link to the original Atlantic article, This is Your Brain on Gluten” – long but containing a lot of critical thinking that all of should be aware of when assessing these types of “diet books”

I direct you to an excellent and humorous blog post by a colleague titled “12 Steps to Writing a Best Selling Diet Book”  Please take a quick look!!   Grain Brain meets many of these criteria, unfortunately.  Please click here.

I am often disturbed by these types of books that promote nutritional cures and Dr. Perlmutter uses this term much too often.  Dr. Perlmutter’s book should not be taken too seriously, although it does provide “food for thought” – pardon the pun.  These books offer promises that while appealing are not quite “ready for prime time”.

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