Eating With Your Head -- A Live Chat with Elaine Magee, MPH, RD

WebMD Live Events Transcript
Event Date: February 27, 2004.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Live Events Transcript

Remember when your mom called fish 'brain food?' She just might have been right. From reducing Alzheimer's risk to boosting memory and alertness, some foods and supplements might provide a healthy brain boost. Our resident recipe doc, Elaine Magee, RD, joined us with the details.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Elaine, recent research indicates that people who eat diets high in saturated fats and have high cholesterol levels may be at increased risk of Alzheimer's. They also said antioxidants such as vitamins C and E might delay its onset. Can you tell us more about the link between food and brain function?

Magee: First, one might think it isn't worthwhile to talk about Alzheimer's for the general population, but it is, because that's a disease of aging, and what we're all trying to do is delay aging of our brain. So I think it makes a lot of sense to look at food factors that may cause Alzheimer's, and then try to keep those in mind as we, ourselves age.

Clearly your brain is a living organ, and it is impacted by what we eat in the short-term and in the long-term. To simplify, you could even say a healthy body is more likely to equal a healthy brain. We can talk about some things to do in general with your diet and we can talk about some things to do specifically, specific foods and nutrients.

Moderator: Let's start with those general recommendations.

Magee: You want to eat an overall healthy diet, including exercise.
Hopefully this body that's now much healthier is also going to sleep better, because quality sleep comes into play, as well. And in general we want to make sure we aren't eating too much or too little. 

Let me explain why: When you eat a heavy meal, either heavy in fats or heavy in amount, blood is diverted from the circulation to the stomach to help with digestion. This means there's now less blood circulating to the brain. The brain needs blood to function. This is why you tend to feel sleepy after these large meals. But you also don't want to eat too little, because then you're being distracted by hunger and your brain is trying to get glucose out of your circulation to fuel itself.

I think it surprises people to learn that the brain prefers glucose for energy. That's one of the reasons why when people go on fasts it's often suggested they drink juice periodically; it's a way to provide a minimum of glucose to the brain. That would be carbohydrates, people! Yet another point for carbohydrates. We'll talk a little about that later, too. We know from studies that glucose gives us fast, short-term benefits to the brain, but we also know from studies that a little is good, but too much makes our memory worse. It's almost like you can overdose on it. So just keep that in mind, as well.

Another recommendation is to eat a balanced breakfast. We all know when we wake up from sleeping our body and brain have been in a fast state. We ate our last meal at 7 p.m. and if we wake up at 7 a.m. it's been 12 hours since we last ate. So it helps our brain function if we have a balanced breakfast. That means that it's not too high in calories, not too high in sugar, and it's balanced with some protein, some fiber, and some fat. That's the kind of breakfast that will keep us most alert in the morning hours.

Also, avoid high-fat diets. Rats fed a high-fat diet in a recent study tended to have poorer learning and memory than rats fed a balanced diet.

Moderator: Can you discuss the different kinds of fats? Because I know not all are the same and some can actually help the brain.

Magee: Absolutely. There are smart fats for the brain. Too low levels of omega-3 fatty acids may be linked to Alzheimer's because the first lipid changes in the disease are decreased level of DHA (one of the long chain omega-3s that we get from fish), which is needed for various enzyme systems involved in signaling mechanisms in the brain. DHA is actually present in the nerve endings in our brain.

Moderator: Where do we get this DHA?

Magee: We get DHA in fish. The fattier the fish, the better, such as salmon and sardines. One really good guideline that I give people on what to eat to prevent Alzheimer's, for example, is eat fish two to three times a week. Our body also converts around 5% of plant omega-3s to DHA. Some of our best plant sources are:

  • Ground flax seed
  • Canola oil
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Red kidney beans