Beans, Greens, and the Best Foods for the Brain

Bret S. Stetka, MD


July 07, 2015

In This Article

6 Food Questions Answered

Following the talk, the packed room had lots of questions. Below are the highlights.

Question 1: What's healthier: raw food or cooked food?

"What could be more human than a cooking fire, right?" asked Dr Deans rhetorically. She explained that cooking tends to increase nutrient availability and decrease toxins, and that many grains as well as potatoes are actually poisonous raw. "I'm not a huge fan of this raw-food movement," she said, "but some foods—greens especially—can be healthier raw because cooking breaks down nutrients." Dr Ramsey then chimed in: "I recommend a mix of cooked and raw foods to my patients. But we invented fire and started cooking for a reason."

Question 2: Should we worry about recommending too many high-cholesterol foods like oysters, particularly in people with high cholesterol?

"Dietary cholesterol really doesn't affect blood levels of cholesterol that much," responded Dr Ramsey, "One of the main drivers of heart disease is high triglycerides, which come heavily from eating glucose and fructose." But he did caution that if patients have high cholesterol or an abnormal cardiovascular condition, then it's important to get a patient's primary care doctor or cardiologist involved.

Question 3: We hear a lot about certain spices being healthy. Can you comment on this?

"That's a great point," answered Dr Ramsey, "You can't just tell people to eat grass-fed beef; spicing is important both for flavor and possibly health." Evidence suggests that curcumin, an ingredient in turmeric, increases BDNF.[15] Other research has found that populations that eat more curry have a decreased risk for dementia,[16] while rosemary extract may help prevent cognitive impairment.[17] "Many spices seem to have healing properties," Dr Ramsey commented.

Question 4: Is coffee and tea consumption healthy?

The data on coffee are very good. "I had a patient who was drinking nine Diet Cokes a day," recalled Dr Ramsey. "I switched him over to coffee. It's still a low-calorie drink, but now he's getting healthy flavonoids. And tea is one of my favorite ways to try to get people off of soda; there are so many teas available with antioxidant properties." Earlier this year, a study out of Japan reported that higher consumption of green tea is associated with a lower risk for dementia or mild cognitive impairment.[18]

"Most coffee data have been positive, even with high intake," commented Dr Ramsey, though, as he pointed out, transient increases in blood pressure and anxiety can occur.

Question 5: Is milk healthy for the brain?

"Milk consumption is an interesting adaptation in the human race since the advent of agriculture," explained Dr Deans, "and lactase persistence in adults—meaning you can digest lactose into adulthood—has evolved six separate times over the past 6000 years. Clearly there's an evolutionary population advantage to it." Milk consumption may help explain why modern humans are so much taller than other hominids.

Dr Ramsey then mentioned the fact that people started avoiding dairy in part as reaction to the "China study,"[19] a large epidemiologic study that reported a correlation between dairy and cancer. "But this is one of those cases where we take a correlational study and go crazy with it," he said. "The data have also been called into question." Dr Ramsey explained that milk is reasonably nutrient dense and that he's not pro- or anti-dairy.

Question 6: What about fasting?

Although the "Food and the Brain" session at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting focused on what toeat in the interest of brain health, intermittent fasting might also be beneficial for the brain. In addition to helping maintain a healthy weight, fasting induces ketosis. Ketone metabolism has been shown to be beneficial for the brain and improve cognition in patients with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer disease.[20] Keep in mind that fasting can come with risks for some people, particularly diabetics, and should be discussed with a healthcare provider.


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