“The Brain thrives on a fat-rich, low-carbohydrate diet” writes Dr. Perlmutter.
Well known neurologist Dr. Vincent Fortanascet and Dr. David Perlmutter through years of patient care and treatments have outlined a list of foods that are good for the brain. These include a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, lean protein from grass fed animals, a variety of nuts, fruits and vegetables and reduced intake of sugar and carbohydrates.
“The more you know about the food-brain connection, the more empowered you will be to make dietary decisions that benefit your brain. Since the brain thrives on a fat-rich, low-carbohydrate diet”, says Dr. David Perlmutter let us begin with the importance of fats in your diet.
Brain Boosting Fats
Fats are complex molecules composed of fatty acids and glycerol and provide essential building blocks for the cells. Of the solid matter in the brain, 60 percent is fat. Most of the fats within the brain are polyunsaturated, meaning their structure contains few or no double bonds, making the molecules supple and flexible thereby enabling easy flow of nutrition.
A number of studies suggest that eating “good fats” keep the brain healthy—and that other types of fats can be harmful to cognitive health.
Dr. Vincent Fortanasce and Dr. David Perlmutter suggest that for a brain boosting diet 40 percent of daily calorie intake should come from fats that are good for the body.
The good fats include:
Unsaturated fats are made up of Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs).
Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs)
Mostly found in oils from plants, monounsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature, but they may begin to solidify if chilled. Monounsaturated fats are missing a pair of hydrogen atom in their composition, allowing gaps that enable nutrients to flow into the cells.
They are the most desirable type of fat because they increase the production of neurotransmitter acetylcholine which is essential for learning and memory.
Foods rich in monounsaturated fats include:
- olive oil made up of 77% monounsaturated oil
- sesame oil
- sunflower oil
- Avocado oil
- Nuts oil (almonds, macadamia, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews)
Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)
Liquid at room temperature, polyunsaturated fats are missing two or more hydrogen pairs on their fatty acid chains allowing easy flow of nutrients into the cell. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are PUFAs and both are essential to your health, but when omega-6 is consumed in excess, it becomes problematic. Overconsumption of omega-6 in a diet can produce inflammatory response leading to chronic illnesses.
Studies suggest that the optimal ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 should be between 1:2 or 1:1. It is estimated that most Americans eat a dietary ratio of 20:1. The main cause of this imbalance is the excessive consumption of commercially prepared fried foods, fast foods, packaged foods and snacks, all of which are made with Omega-6 oils.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in:
- Soybean oil
- Corn oil
- Safflower oil
- Peanut oil
- Cottonseed oil and
- Sunflower oil
Omega-3 fatty acids made of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are the most desirable fats for the brain. Unfortunately omega-3s are lacking in most diets. Ideally, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio should be 1:1. This balance can easily be maintained by limiting the intake of omega-6 oils found in commercially prepared fast and processed foods and replaced with omega-3 rich fish, flaxseed, nuts, beans, lentils, and extra virgin olive oil.
Plant based omega-3 fatty acids are found in:
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- Wheat Germ
- Chia seeds
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Sprouts, lentils, seeds, beans and legumes
- Cruciferous vegetables ( cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, broccoli, cabbage)
- Grape leaves
- Basil and Oregano leaves
The body converts these plant based Omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) into DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA plays a central role in brain health and in DHA’s ability to turn on the brains “growth hormone” called BDNF. Both DHA and EPA are known to lower inflammation and reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
DHA and EPA can also be consumed directly by eating a diet rich in cold water fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, trout, tuna, shell fish, fish oil capsules and algae.
Brain Boosting Proteins
Proteins are compounds made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, which are arranged as strands of amino acid.
The quality of protein depends on the level at which it provides the essential amino acids needed for the body to function, maintain and grow.
Animal proteins, such as eggs, cheese, milk, meat, and fish, are considered complete proteins because they provide sufficient amounts of the essential amino acids. Plant proteins, such as grain, corn, nuts, vegetables and fruits, are incomplete proteins because many plant proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins can, however, be combined to provide all the essential amino acids.
In a healthy diet, about 20 to 25 percent of total daily calories should come from protein sources listed below.
- Lean meat: Meat is a good source of protein and should come from organically raised free range, non-GMO fed Free range animals produce meat that is higher in Omega 3 and lower in overall fat. Most meats are a good source of Vitamin B6 and B12 which play an important role in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system.
- Fish: Oily fish (not farm raised) is a healthy source of omega-3 and DHA. Omega-3s are as important to the brain as calcium is to bones. DHA accounts for 97 percent of the omega-3 fats in the brain. It is therefore essential to get plenty of omega-3 to maintain brain health.
- Eggs: Eggs have gained a bad reputation due to the high cholesterol myth. Research suggests that they do not increase the level of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the “bad” cholesterol. They are an excellent source of protein containing all nine essential amino acids required by the body. They are also packed with vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, B12, D, E, folate, selenium, lutein and choline. Choline and B12 work together by stimulating production of the key neurotransmitter Acetylcholine, responsible for memory, mental clarity, and the healthy formation of synaptic connections between neurons.
- Nuts and seeds: Walnuts, almonds pistachio, pumpkin, chia and flaxseeds are nutritional powerhouse and are as effective as olive oil in reducing inflammation and oxidation in the arteries. They have a high level of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) that the body metabolizes into EPA and DHA. A handful of seeds and nuts will also supply the daily requirement of magnesium, selenium and vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the brain against free radical damage.
- Low-fat dairy: Numerous epidemiological studies confirm that organic milk products which contain some saturated fats have a protective effect against many degenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s. Dairy products are a rich source of the B vitamins essential for brain health.
- Yogurt: High in protein, calcium, vitamin B-2, vitamin B-12, potassium and magnesium, Yogurt contains amino acids that are necessary to manufacture the neurotransmitter dopamine and noradrenaline. Yogurt also is a rich source of probiotics the “friendly bacteria” naturally present in the digestive system that can help boost the immune system and promote a healthy digestive tract.
- Whey protein: A by-product of yogurt, Whey assists the body in building glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the brain against free radicals.
Brain Boosting Carbohydrates
There are two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates are sugars broken down rapidly and used as energy by the body. They are found naturally in foods such as fruits, milk, and milk products. They are also found in processed and refined sugars such as candy, table sugar, syrups, juices and soft drinks.
Complex carbohydrates are starches that take longer to break down and are made up of whole-grain breads, cereals, vegetables and legumes.
For a brain health diet, Dr. Vincent Fortanasce and Dr. David Perlmutter suggest that carbohydrates intake should be limited to 30 to 35 percent of daily calorie intake and should come from complex carbohydrate with low glycemic index.
Consuming too many simple carbohydrates can causes blood glucose levels to rise disproportionately, causing type2 diabetes and other degenerative disorders. This rapid breakdown of sugar triggers the release of insulin which converts sugar into stored fat depriving the brain of much needed fuel. In the long run, this depravation can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
Here is how to select healthy carbohydrates for an optimal diet:
- Select fiber rich fruits and vegetables. Aim for whole fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. They are a better choice than fruit juices and dried fruits which are packed with natural sugar and therefore have more calories. Whole fruits and vegetables add fiber, water and bulk which help to feel full on fewer calories.
- Choose whole grains. Whole grains are a better source of fiber and nutrients. Refined grains go through a process that removes part of the grain along with the nutrients and fiber.
- Aim for low fat dairy products. Milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are a good source of calcium and protein plus many other vitamins and minerals. Avoid dairy product that have added sugar.
- Eat more beans and legumes. Legumes which include beans, peas, lentils are some of the most versatile and nutritious food available. Legumes are typically low in fat, contain no cholesterol and are high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium. They also have beneficial fats and fiber. Because of their high protein content, legumes can be a healthy substitute for meat which has more saturated fat and cholesterol.