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

Moderator: How about bad fats? Can they affect the brain?

Magee: In terms of bad fats, in general we want to keep trans fats as low as possible and keep saturated fats less than 10% of calories. There are some recent studies that suggest that a lower-fat diet that's also higher in antioxidants may equal lower Alzheimer's risk (more to come on that in future studies). 

Moderator: What are antioxidants, exactly? I hear about them all the time; it's become quite a catchword, but how do they work?

Magee: We obviously need oxygen, but sometimes it can create aging in the body by oxidizing your cells. Free radicals, for example, can be created when components in your body mix with oxygen. So antioxidants in the body give themselves up, basically, to mix with oxygen so that other cells aren't, and are therefore saved. Bottom line, antioxidants decrease aging at a cellular level in our bodies.

"We're finding that vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals work together synergistically in our bodies."

Eating ample antioxidant-rich foods should slow down the rate of aging. Certain vitamins have antioxidant properties, as well as certain minerals and certain phytochemicals, or plant chemicals. The two antioxidants that have been linked to better memory and reasoning are vitamin C and beta-carotene. 

For example, a large study in Switzerland discovered that people in their 60s who had the highest blood levels of vitamin C and beta-carotene scored higher on memory tests than those with low levels. And in almost all cases they got the vitamin C and beta-carotene from food, not supplements.

Moderator: So if getting these from food is so important, please share your favorite sources with us!

Magee: Look to yellow, orange, and dark green veggies for beta-carotene, and dark-green vegetables and citrus fruits for vitamin C. Here's a top 20 list for each.

Beta-carotene top 20: 

  • Carrots
  • Pumpkin
  • Sweet potato
  • Butternut squash
  • Mango
  • Spinach
  • Cantaloupe
  • Kale
  • Greens (beet, collard, and mustard)
  • Swiss chard
  • Red peppers
  • Apricots
  • Broccoli
  • Prunes
  • Artichoke hearts
  • Romaine and loose-leaf lettuce
  • Tomato juice and tomato sauce

Vitamin C top 20:

  • Fresh orange and grapefruit juice
  • Oranges
  • Papaya
  • Strawberries
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Red peppers
  • Cantaloupe
  • Tomato vegetable or tomato juice
  • Broccoli
  • Mango
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Grapefruit
  • Pea pods
  • Green pepper
  • Cauliflower
  • Kale
  • Red cabbage
  • Greens
  • Butternut squash
  • Grapes
  • Tomatoes
  • Tomato juice and tomato sauce
  • Potatoes
  • Swiss chard
  • Green soybeans
  • Berries (raspberries and blackberries)

Moderator: What about blueberries? I've heard they are the ultimate antioxidant.

Magee: And they are. They are just on these lists because they're not in the top 20 for vitamin C and beta-carotene, but they have a lot of other things going for them. Researchers found that people eating blueberries regularly for four weeks showed improvements in a number of aging indicators, including decision speed, aches and pains, and energy level. Another study found that people who ate a cup of blueberries a day, which I could personally do, appeared to be protected from age-related mental decline. 

One brand-new study found that supplementing rats' diets with extracts from blueberries, cranberries, and black currants and boysenberries improved some aspects of learning and memory, and the blueberry and cranberry diets also improved motor performance in rats. 

It's being suggested that blueberries may influence the way brain cells communicate. Most likely it's a phytochemical in blueberries. In fact, phytochemicals called anthocyanins, which are in blueberries, cranberries, and boysenberries, is what some experts think is the component that is helping brains from aging. This particular phytochemical is what may possibly help the brain make new neurons, which is huge when you're aging.

The neat thing about this is through the year we can eat blueberries, cranberries, and boysenberries, because you can often get them frozen. Adding them to cereal, yogurt, and smoothies are easy ways to work these berries in.

Moderator: Does the freezing affect the nutrition content?

Magee: No. In fact, oftentimes it has more nutrition because they're freezing at peak harvest, so they're more likely to be at a peak nutritionally, and the freezing actually freezes the aging of the fruit. It stops it from exposure to the environment, which would break down nutrients over time.

Member question: You mentioned getting vitamin C from foods earlier. What do you think about supplements to help with memory, alertness, and general mental 'sharpness?' Are vitamin companies making a mint off of us for nothing, or does popping a morning supplement really help us think better?

Magee: I don't think the morning supplement is necessarily going to help you that same day, but we do want to correct vitamin deficiencies. You want to make sure, for example, you're getting enough folic acid and B12. These are two brain-worthy vitamins. There is the possibility that too low levels of folic acid might promote neurodegeneration, the breaking down of neurons in the nervous system. We can increase our folic acid in our systems by eating foods and taking a supplement, a multivitamin that contains folic acid.

The most important thing to do is get these important vitamins and phytochemicals from the foods we eat, because more and more we're finding that vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals work together synergistically in our bodies. When we get them from food we get all the components in a particular food that may work together. We're not getting that in a multivitamin or supplements, necessarily, but I consider taking a complete multivitamin with minerals an insurance policy. 

Member question: What kinds of foods naturally have folic acid in them?

Magee: When you think folic acid, think foliage. It's going to be in plants, but it's also enriched in certain grain products. So I'm going to list the top 20 folic acid rich foods. When you see me mention a grain product, it's because it's enriched in that product.

  • Brewer's yeast
  • Lentils
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Okra
  • Black beans
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Kidney beans
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Green soybeans
  • Pasta
  • Flour tortilla
  • Greens (collard, mustard)
  • Asparagus
  • Navy beans
  • Orange juice
  • Pinto beans
  • Beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Tofu
  • Papaya
  • Crab
  • Vegetable/tomato juice

Moderator: Elaine, do you have any final comments for us on anything we may not have covered?

Magee: Besides diet, exercise, and good sleep, which I mentioned earlier, praying and meditation, just having some quiet, time can really help us to be more focused and alert. Types of exercises that incorporate that would be yoga and pilates.

I know I mentioned a lot of food strategies today. A lot of this is from a chapter in a book that I wrote called The Change of Life Diet and Cookbook, which will be coming out in July of this year. Other books of mine, The Flax Cookbook and a new edition of Tell Me What to Eat if I have Diabetes, both came out recently.

Moderator: Thanks to Elaine Magee for being our guest. For more information on brain foods, nutrition, cooking light, or eating for special needs diets, visit Elaine on her Snack Attack! and Recipe Doctor message boards.

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