Dietary Blacklist

Some of Americans’ favorite foods stand out as particularly harmful to brain health—especially when eaten frequently as part of a daily diet. Research suggests that avoiding these unhealthy foods is one important way to help protect your mental acuity and reduce your risk for cognitive decline.

A case in point is saturated fat, a fat that remains solid at room temperature and is most often found in animal products such as butter, cheese, whole milk, and fatty meats, among other foods. A study pub-lished online in the June 17, 2013 edition of JAMA Neurology suggests that saturated fat not only clogs cerebral blood vessels and triggers damaging inflammation, but also deprives the brain of a protein it needs to protect itself from the accumulation of toxic beta-amyloid plaque, which is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

“There’s a growing body of evidence that ingredients found in certain commonly consumed foods should be restricted or eliminated completely in order to maximize brain health,” says David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, Director of Research at MGH’s Depression Clinical and Research Program. “Saturated fat is one example of such a food. Last year researcher Olivia Okereke and her colleagues here at MGH and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston published the results of a study that found that among more than 6,000 older women, those who ate the greatest amount of saturated fat over a period of four years were 60 percent more likely to have significant mental decline than those who ate the least amount. The study participants who consumed the most monounsaturated fats (found in canola oil, olive oil, and nuts such as cashews) were 44 percent less likely to have significant mental decline.”

Foods to shun

Increasingly, researchers are finding an association between the regular consumption of certain foods and more rapid mental decline, as well as greater risk for dementia.

“In some instances consuming unhealthy foods for a number of years can cause permanent changes in the brain,” Dr. Mischoulon warns. “However, in most cases reducing or avoiding the consump-tion of unhealthy foods even in older age can help to slow, halt, or reverse negative brain effects, and lower risk for cognitive decline.”

To maximize brain health and functioning, replace less wholesome foods in your diet with healthier fare, Dr. Mischoulon advises. Eat modest amounts, and choose a nutritious diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats such as olive and canola oils. Use healthier cooking methods, such as broiling, baking, and steaming, to lower calories and reduce fats.

Restrict These Foods In Your Diet 

Shop wisely, read labels, and avoid or reduce consumption of the following ingredients for your brain’s sake:

Sugars: Sugar is a natural ingredient in fruits and many other wholesome foods, and is essential for energy production in the cells of the body and brain. However, research suggests that a diet with very high levels (more than about 6 teaspoons per day) of added sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners is bad for brain health. The average American is thought to consume about 79 pounds of added sweeteners per year in foods such as cereals, fruit juices, energy bars, pastries, cookies, cakes, candies, sodas, and jams. Even certain foods commonly thought to be nutritious, such as spaghetti sauces, bread, and crackers, often include added sugar.

Excess sugar consumption is linked to a decline in the production of brain-derived neurotrophic fac-tor, a brain chemical that facilitates the growth and interconnection of brain cells and plays a role in learn-ing and memory formation. Too much dietary sugar is linked to worse memory performance, atrophy of the hippocampus, a key brain memory region, and higher insulin levels that are thought to cause inflammation that impairs communication between brain cells and compromises immunity.

Processed Carbohydrates: Research suggests that a diet high in refined carbohydrates also elevates blood sugar in ways that harm the brain. Refined carbohydrates—such as french fries, processed cereals, and white rather than whole-grain bread, rice and pasta—offer little nutritional value and are major ingredients in many junk foods.

Refined carbohydrates have a highglycemic index, meaning that they are rapidly converted by the body into glucose, or blood sugar, and lead to a spike in blood sugar that stimulates insulin production, followed by a “sugar crash” and excessive hunger. Excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates is associated with hyperactivity and difficulty concentrating. Brain imaging has revealed that a few hours after a high-glycemic meal, activity in brain regions responsible for reward and cravings became highly ac-tive, suggesting the possibility that these foods encourage food addiction and even greater carbohydrate con-sumption.

Unhealthy Fats: In addition to the saturated fats mentioned previously, researchers have associated consumption of another unhealthy lipid, trans fats, with serious negative effects on the brain. Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or vegetable shortening, can be found in processed foods, fast foods, baked goods, and margarines, among other dietary sources. High blood levels of this type of fat have been linked to signs of brain damage, less total brain volume, and worse performance on cognitive tests.

In November 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a determination that trans fats “are not generally recognized as safe for use in food” and announced plans to phase them out in processed foods and restaurant fare.

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