Grains for your brain

Published on September 23, 2013

“Grain brain” is the title of a new book released last week, suggesting that inflammation is behind the increasing number of neurodegenerative diseases and disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. David Perlmutter, the book’s author, suggests that inflammation is caused by high carbohydrate foods rich in gluten and sugar. Gluten is named as the main culprit, but his recommendations include an overall reduction of carbs, including suggestions to limit gluten containing grains, fruits and starchy vegetables in your diet.

The claims in this book are largely based on testimonies and the doctor’s experience with specific patients.

The bottom line, however, is that any diet that eliminates carbohydrates or categories of foods without medical justification or guidance can put your health at risk.

It’s important for the public to be aware of such fads which offer simple solutions to complex health problems, while failing to be based on good sense, let alone good science.

Does it sound strangely familiar? Not too long ago, another book, “Wheat Belly,” published by another doctor, also bashed the consumption of wheat and other grains. The difference between “Wheat Belly” and “Grain Brain” is that the former focuses on weight loss and management, the latter, disease prevention.

We usually hear more about eating well for our hearts, but eating well for your brain is equally as important. When it comes to keeping the brain healthy as we age, the truth is that grains and many other foods are beneficial.

Whole grains (like whole grain wheat, brown rice, barley, oats and rye), fish (such as salmon, sardines and mackerel), fruits and veggies, particularly cabbage, broccoli and kale, nuts, seeds, dairy, lean proteins (like meat, fish, poultry and tofu), and healthy oils rich in omega-3 (like walnut, flax and canola), will provide the brain with the nutrients needed for optimal function and protect against age-related damage.

Equally as important is the avoidance of foods that are highly processed and empty in calories, and keeping both the mind and body active. Contrary to popular belief, there are no particular singular foods, aside from fatty fish and beneficial omega 3 fats, which are “super foods” for brain health.

Poor eating habits, in addition to an inactive lifestyle, physically and mentally, are greater contributors to dementia than genetics alone. Sixty per cent of Alzheimer’s diagnoses are attributed to lifestyle choices. Studies have shown that older adults who consume nutrient-rich diets, without the avoidance of nutrients like carbohydrates or particular food groups, have better cognitive function. Healthy eating, including a balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, provides enough fuel for the body and mind to perform daily functions necessary for work, school or play, without midday mental and physical slumps.

A well-balanced diet with whole grains will strengthen blood vessels so that oxygen and nutrients can be delivered to all areas of our body, and promote the growth of new brain cells and nerve connections. Proper nutrition nourishes our brains, particularly the areas involved in speech, reasoning and learning.

Last but not least, a high-quality diet protects the whole body against stress and inflammation (promoters of chronic disease like diabetes and heart disease), including the brain. It’s never too early to start eating well. Dementia isn’t something which starts at retirement. Studies show that aging occurs throughout the lifespan, even as early as our 20s and 30s.

So, if you are looking to learn more about grains, and wanting a good (science-based) read, pick up “Mindfull: Over 100 Delicious Recipes for Better Brain Health” by Dr. Carol Greenwood, one of Canada’s leading experts in brain health and nutrition, senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute and professor with the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto.

The book inspires healthy living and eating to ensure healthful aging and to prevent the degeneration of one’s cognitive function, including memory. Dr. Greenwood advocates that a “brain-healthy” diet with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, dairy and other proteins, is vital to achieving optimal brain health. In addition, the book provides Mindfull recipes like whole-wheat oatmeal, blueberry pancakes with ricotta and golden quinoa with raisins and almonds for keeping minds sharp.  

September is Whole Grains Month. For more information on whole grains, brain health and nutrition, visit www.healthygrains.ca.

Amanda Burton is a registered dietitian in St. John’s. Contact her through the

website: www.recipeforhealth.ca.