By Dr. Richard Isaacson and Dr. Christopher Ochner
Doctors have been recommending dietary changes to their patients with such conditions as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure for years. Soon, they may be doing the same for patients suffering from poor memory function.
That’s because a host of new clinical studies have found that specific nutritional interventions can significantly improve memory function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
But you don’t have to have Alzheimer’s to benefit from the new findings. Eating a brain-healthy diet can also help those of us who, as we age, notice that our mind and memory just aren’t as sharp as they used to be.
Here are five memory-boosting dietary recommendations, based on the latest scientific research and clinical experience treating patients with AD and MCI.
Fast 12 hours at night
If you take advantage of “early bird specials”—having supper at the diner between 4 and 6 p.m.—you’ve unwittingly stumbled upon a brain health secret: the 12-hour nightly fast. If you routinely wake up at 6 a.m., try to eat your last meal by 6 p.m. the night before. There is scientific evidence that substances called ketone bodies, which are produced when there are no carbohydrates to burn for fuel, may have a protective effect on brain cells. This means no late-night snacking between dinner and breakfast.
Proportion your fat-carb-protein intake
Every day, make sure you aim for 25 percent of your total calories from brain-healthy good fat, which includes olive oil, avocados, certain nuts, natural peanut butter, certain seeds and certain fish. Limit your intake of bad fats (most fast foods, anything hydrogenated, dried coconut, butter, animal fats, milk chocolate/ white chocolate and cheese). Consume 30-45 percent of your daily calories from complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables and whole foods that are low on the glycemic index), and wean yourself off high glycemic carbs (sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, processed cereals and grains, anything baked, whole milk and cream, ice cream and sorbet, crackers, salty snacks such as chips and pretzels and anything made with white flour). Finally, get the other 25-35 percent of your calories from high-quality lean protein.
Boost your brain nutrients
Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) are essential for memory function and brain health. Most of us don’t get enough from dietary sources (such as fish), so consider high-quality, pure fish oil supplements that contain a minimum of 250 mg of DHA in each capsule, and aim for 1,000-1,500 mg of DHA daily if approved by the treating physician. Antioxidant-rich foods are also great for mental function. Some of the best are berries, kale, 100 percent pure unsweetened cocoa powder, mushrooms, onions, beans, seeds, sardines, herring, trout, and Alaskan wild salmon. Finally, ensure adequate intake of folic acid, B6, B12, and vitamin D in particular. If you’re not eating vitamin-rich foods on a regular basis, it’s good to supplement as needed in pill or liquid form.
Eat whole foods, Mediterranean-style
A brain-healthy Mediterranean-style diet includes fruits and vegetables, lean protein (fish, chicken, and turkey), low-fat yogurt and cheeses and grains, nuts, and seeds. Stay away from red meat and processed foods. Get in the habit of eating whole foods. What are whole foods? They’re foods that have only one ingredient — for example, strawberries, broccoli, or barley. If you must have a convenience (manufactured) food on occasion, find those packaged, canned, and frozen items with the fewest ingredients, especially ingredients that you readily recognize and understand.
Enjoy coffee and pure cocoa
Caffeinated coffee, 1-3 cups early in the day, may be beneficial over time to your brain. Studies done in Europe over several years demonstrate that men who drank coffee regularly for many years showed less of a decline on memory tests than those who did not drink coffee. More good news: An exciting new study released in August 2012 showed that patients with mild cognitive impairment who had regular intake of the strong antioxidants found in pure dark cocoa powder had improvement in memory function.