THE FOODIE FILES: Your brain on blueberries

By on May 6, 2015

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Can what you eat help prevent Alzheimer’s disease? Wouldn’t it be great if you could add a few brain-friendly foods to your diet each week and cut your risk of developing this devastating disease in half?

Surely, it’s not that simple. Scientists have yet to figure out what causes this progressive form of dementia, how to prevent it, or even how best to treat it.

But a study out of Rush University Medical Center got my attention this week by reporting amazing results: The center slashed its patients Alzheimer’s risk by 53 percent just by changing a few of the foods they eat.

They created a diet called MIND, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. Its a hybrid of two well-studied diets: the Mediterranean diet, which you’ve probably heard of, and the DASH diet designed to reduce high blood pressure.

The study followed 923 participants for four and a half years, tracking how well they adhered to the MIND diet guidelines, and whether or not they developed Alzheimer’s disease. Those that followed the MIND diet closely had the best results – a 53 percent reduction in the incidence of the disease. But the remarkable thing about this study is that even those who cheated on the diet were still 35 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

I’ve never been a fan of diets as most have a poor track record, especially when it comes to losing weight. The MIND diet doesn’t seem like a diet, though. It encourages you to eat more from a list of foods you are probably already eating, like chicken (two servings per week), fish (once per week), green leafy vegetables (twice per day), whole grains (three servings per day), beans (three times per week), and nuts (five times per week).

Berries are the only fruit specifically recommended on the MIND diet. The anthocyanins in blueberries are thought to possess potent brain-protecting substances. Eat a few handfuls of blueberries at least twice a week (strawberries are thought to be brain-healthy, too, but weren’t included in this study).

It sounds a lot like the Mediterranean diet, doesn’t it? It even recommends using olive oil as your primary cooking oil, and enjoying one glass of wine per day. Just one, people.

The MIND diet encourages you to eat less of the foods you already know you should avoid — butter (less than a tablespoon per day), margarine (yuck, who eats margarine?), cheese (one serving per week), pastries and sweets (no more than five per week), red meat (no more than four servings per week), fried foods and fast food (no more than once per week).

“I think it’s very exciting,” said Dr. Martha Stearn, founder of the St. John’s Institute for Cognitive Health, and our local Alzheimer’s disease expert. “I’ve been recommending the Mediterranean diet for years because it has been proven to reduce cardiovascular disease and may help with Alzheimer’s disease. But the MIND diet looks even better.”

What I love about the MIND plan is that it’s all about moderation. You don’t have to give up your beloved Persephone chocolate croissant, just try to limit yourself to five of those treats per week. I think we can do that, don’t you?

Maybe getting Alzheimer’s is the last thing in the world you are worried about. Isn’t it a disease for old people? Although those under 60 are rarely afflicted (and I’ll assume we’ve all seen Still Alice), the earliest changes in the brain begin 25 years before the first signs of memory impairment. If the MIND diet pans out to have an impact on developing the disease, the time to eat brain-healthy foods is now.

It will take a lot more studies, preferably randomized and controlled, to sort out the story of food and your brain. The next phase of the MIND study will look at the diets effect on blood flow in the brain, looking for early markers to identify Alzheimer’s disease years in advance. Maybe someday a diet will help those with the genetic defect for Alzheimer’s APOE genes avoid the disease by eating the right foods.

In the meantime, I’ll be eating a lot of blueberries. “Just make sure those blueberries are organic,” Stearn said. “Pesticide residues on fruit cause oxidative stress, which could cancel out their potent antioxidant benefits.”

Enjoy this recipe from the Foodie Files:

Warm farro breakfast bowl with hazelnuts, honey and blueberries
If I have precooked farro and toasted hazelnuts stashed in the freezer, it only takes minutes to warm up this hearty breakfast bowl.

1 cup cooked farro (or quinoa, brown rice, or oats)
teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon olive oil
cup toasted hazelnuts, skinned and chopped (or almonds, walnuts, pecans, or pistachios)
cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
1-2 tablespoons good honey
cup almond milk

To cook farro: Place one cup of farro (pearled or semi-pearled) in two cups water. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat for 25 to 35 minutes, adding a pinch of salt in the last 5 minutes. The farro is done when it is soft and chewy but the grains are still intact. Drain and use immediately, or store in the fridge for up to four days or the freezer for up to three months.

To toast the hazelnuts: Place one cup of hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and onto a clean kitchen towel; rub to remove the skins. Chop coarsely.
Assemble the breakfast bowl: If using precooked refrigerated or frozen farro, warm it in a microwave oven or over the stove with the olive oil, almond milk and cinnamon. Top with hazelnuts, honey and blueberries.

About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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