Brain food: Studies are starting to zero in on the why and how of the diet-brain connection

We’ve all heard that fish is brain food, right?

Although you might think that’s just an old wives’ tale, the evidence is mounting that not only is fish good for us, it’s an important element in a brain-friendly diet that’s associated with reduced risks of Alzheimer’s disease and later onset of Parkinson’s — the MIND diet.

The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet was developed by Martha Clare Morris, an American nutritional epidemiologist who was working on the brain-diet connection. In 2015, Morris discovered that high adherence to the MIND diet, which is rich in fish, veggies and legumes, was associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s — roughly 50 per cent lower after an average of four-and-a-half years on the diet. Since then, an association between MIND and a later onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms has been established.

Most recently, researchers at the University of British Columbia have established a correlation between both Mediterranean and MIND diets and the onset of Parkinson’s symptoms — by as much as 17 years for women. Men also benefitted, but only by eight years, which is still pretty dramatic.

“We were really surprised by how much of a difference there was,” said Dr. Silke Appel-Cresswell, associate professor and neurologist at UBC’s faculty of medicine. “I can’t say that this is definitely the cause. For that, you would really need a big study, but our results are very much in line with other studies that have shown this diet to be associated with either higher age of onset or a lower rate of Parkinson’s diagnosis, so it fits a pattern.”

The two diets UBC researchers looked at are related, but not identical. MIND is a hybrid diet that draws from two other diets: the Mediterranean diet and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).

Dr. Silke Appel-Cresswell, associate professor and neurologist at UBC's faculty of medicine.

The Mediterranean diet likely needs no introduction. The latter, DASH, is less well known though, despite the fact that it’s highly regarded, since it’s grounded in some of the most solid nutritional research ever conducted. Back in the 1990s, the U.S. National Institutes of Health funded a massive research project to tackle the country’s blood pressure problem and one of the biggest things that came out of that was an evidence-backed diet that called for less salt, less sugar, less red meat and, instead, more fibre, veggies and, of course, plenty of fish.

The MIND diet’s family tree here may sound a little complicated, but the diet itself is fairly simple from a user’s point of view. There’s a list of foods we’re supposed to eat regularly that includes many of the usual suspects, such as berries, nuts, veggies (especially leafy greens), whole grains, beans, fish and poultry. Cooking with olive oil and enjoying a glass of wine with dinner are on the good list. (Phew!) Butter’s out (or at least severely restricted) and we’re not supposed to eat more than one serving of red meat, fried food, sweets or cheese per week.

There’s more to it than that, but the general idea is clear: eat more plants, white meat over red, and treat cheese, butter and sweets as only occasional indulgences.

Except for that bit about cheese, this doesn’t sound all that hard to implement — to me, at least. And, I might even be encouraged to nearly eliminate cheese, given that there’s not only data that suggests a good diet can help our brains, there’s also research that indicates the reverse is likely true. A bad diet could be detrimental to our brains if it works the same way in humans as it did with the mice that researcher Rebecca MacPherson observed at Brock University. She found that poor diet is connected with Alzheimer’s in middle-aged mice.

Studies like these are also starting to zero in on the why and the how of the diet-brain connection.

“Inflammation is definitely a factor of neurodegenerative diseases,” said MacPherson, associate professor in Brock’s department of health sciences. “And several other diseases, including obesity, insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease, all of which increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Although it’s still unclear how all of these conditions are related, the good news is that it looks like we can reduce our risks, possibly by significant levels, through diet and exercise. And that news is finally getting out there, beyond the cliché that fish is brain food.

Said MacPherson: “I think that awareness that neurodegenerative diseases, such as late onset Alzheimer’s, has many modifiable risk factors is growing.”

Making dietary changes in real life is another story. We mostly know what we should and shouldn’t be eating, but we fail for a range of reasons, both individual and structural. Appel-Cresswell, though, said all of the studies, including hers about Parkinson’s disease, demonstrate the need to address these problems.

“I think it is an investment that we, as a society, really need to make because it can save so much money in the health care system afterwards,” she said. “Even if we delay somebody from getting those disorders and becoming dependent on care for a few years, that would save tremendous amounts of money, so I think it’s really high time.”

She adds that there’s no medical treatment that can slow, prevent, reverse or cure Parkinson’s so she hopes other people will be as surprised and inspired as she was by the impressive promise of diets like MIND.

“For me, as a researcher, once I saw the data, I thought, ‘I can’t not eat healthily,’” she said. “It might only be an average, but once you see it you can’t ignore it.”

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