What We Know About Eating to Prevent Alzheimer’s, According To A Neuroscientist
Not only do we need to eat to live, but many of us also love eating, whether for a special occasion or just because it makes us feel good. It’s no wonder that more and more we're realizing how nutrition is so closely related to many diseases that didn’t seem nutrition-related at all before.
Let me start off with a disclaimer by saying that there is no one diet or supplement that can prevent Alzheimer’s disease. However, it’s become more apparent in recent years that nutrition can play a role in Alzheimer’s prevention and progression.
Although it’s not totally clear exactly how our eating patterns may lead to Alzheimer’s, we do know that inflammation1 in the body and insulin resistance2 are related to its development, suggesting a connection to food. In fact, some chronic diseases are directly linked to nutrition, such as obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, are risk factors for Alzheimer’s.
Researchers have found that high-fat, high-sugar3 diets that typically cause metabolic syndrome, also appear to lead to the development of characteristic symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Those diseases that typically arise from metabolic syndrome, such as heart disease and diabetes, are also linked to chronic inflammation1 as a result of poor nutrition.
Considering this connection between nutrition and Alzheimer’s, let’s take a closer look at what you should be eating, and what you shouldn’t, in order to prevent Alzheimer’s.
What foods to eat to prevent Alzheimer's
Dark, Leafy Greens
Growing up, our parents always told us to eat our greens—and for good reason! Leafy greens, especially spinach, are an excellent source of folate (among a ton of other nutrients). The connection between folate and Alzheimer’s4 has been researched extensively, and there is strong evidence to suggest that folate intake is associated with a lower risk of dementia later in life. Just half a cup of sautéed spinach contains 131 mcg of folate, and 1 cup raw contains 58 mcg. If spinach isn’t your thing, there are 64 mcg in 1 cup shredded romaine, 78 mcg in ½ cup Brussels sprouts, and 59 mcg in half an avocado.
Fish, Especially Fatty Fish
Fish are part of a healthy, Alzheimer’s prevention diet for two reasons: omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12. Salmon especially is an excellent source of both of these key nutrients. There are 4.8 mcg of vitamin B12 in 3 oz of salmon, and anywhere from 500 to 1,500 mg of omega-3’s. Studies show that fish consumption or supplementation with omega-3’s may contribute to a reduced risk of cognitive impairment. Similarly, participants of a study who had low levels of vitamin B125 (and folate) were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
As mentioned earlier, inflammation is a key player in terms of chronic disease pathogenesis. There are several spices and herbs that are idolized for their anti-inflammatory effects, but consuming fermented foods is possibly the quickest way to see these benefits. Fermented foods6 are full of probiotics (good bacteria), such as lactic acid bacteria, that go right into your intestine and help increase the population of beneficial bacteria in our gut. These beneficial bacteria in turn provide us with a wide variety of health benefits—inflammation reduction being one of them. The best part is, there are so many different types of foods that fall into this category: yogurt, cheese, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, kombucha, miso, and tempeh.
What foods to avoid to prevent Alzheimer's
Added Sugars & Artificial Sweeteners
Eating too much added sugar doesn’t just contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, or heart disease. These health problems are also risk factors for Alzheimer’s. In fact, type 2 diabetes7 has been closely linked to Alzheimer’s, and we now know that Alzheimer’s may be caused by abnormalities in the way the brain breaks down glucose8. A huge factor in the development of diabetes is the excessive consumption of added sugars. Your best bet is to reach for water.
Red Meat & Processed Meats
Red meat and standard processed meats, although full of some important nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12, tend to do more harm than good. In this case, there are a couple of reasons as to why you should limit consumption of red meats and processed meats, such as the high saturated fat content and inflammation that it causes. As mentioned earlier, a high-fat diet (specifically high in saturated fat) can lead to chronic diseases that are risk factors for Alzheimer’s. Likewise, inflammation9 that may result from a diet high in red and processed meat is a precursor to many diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Thus, it’s best to limit your intake of these types of meats to just a couple times a week.
It may seem like there are a ton of things to consider, but when it comes down to it, the best diet for Alzheimer’s prevention is basically a whole foods diet with an emphasis on veggies, fatty fish, and some fermented foods or probiotics. If we had to put a name to it, the Mediterranean Diet would be best. Anyone looking to avoid chronic disease should limit excess sugar and red meat, and especially so if you want to eliminate some risk factors for cognitive decline. Although we can’t say that proper diet will definitely prevent Alzheimer’s disease, it doesn’t hurt to do what we can to make sure we stay healthy as long as possible.
Nicole Avena, Ph.D., is a research neuroscientist, author and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She received a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology from Princeton University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology at The Rockefeller University in New York City. She has published over 70 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters and a book, on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She also edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (2012), Hedonic Eating (2014) and the popular books Why Diets Fail (2014, Ten Speed Press), co-written with John R. Talbott, and What To Eat When You’re Pregnant (2015, Ten Speed Press).
Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association. She also maintains a blog, Food Junkie, with Psychology Today.