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Brain food is also good for your heart

Published:Wednesday | September 7, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Charlyn Fargo, Contributor

New research suggests that a diet that's good for your heart is also best for your brain. The Alzheimer's Association finds that the risk of developing Alzheimer's or vascular dementia appears to be increased by many of the same conditions that damage the heart or blood vessels - high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol.

A small clinical trial found that overall dietary changes - not just adding a single food - could affect the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's. The study found that in healthy people, a diet low in saturated fat and simple carbohydrates improved biomarkers associated with the risk of developing Alzheimer's.

Researchers at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System evaluated the effects of two different diets in 20 older adults who were healthy and 29 older adults who had amnestic mild cognitive impairment (meaning they had some memory problems), a condition considered to be a precursor to Alzheimer's. After four weeks, the healthy participants on the low-fat/low-simple-carbs diet were found to have decreased biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid as well as lower total cholesterol.

However, the same drop was not found in participants who already had memory loss, suggesting dietary interventions may not be as effective in later stages.

The Alzheimer's Association suggests following the Mediterranean diet - relatively little red meat, emphasis on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, olive oil and other healthy fats - or the DASH eating plan. DASH stands for 'dietary approaches to stop hypertension' and the diet is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and total fat, and emphasises fruits, vegetables and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. It includes whole-grain products, fish, poultry, nuts and lean red meat.

No matter whether you choose to cut down on saturated fat and simple carbs, or go along with the Mediterranean diet or DASH eating plan, all are a healthy path for most people and may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's, according to a Tufts University health and nutrition letter.

The Mediterranean diet

Q: I keep hearing that the Mediterranean diet is so healthy, but isn't it fattening?

A: The version of Mediterranean-style eating you see in the United States certainly can be fattening.

Often, we create an Americanised version of Mediterranean dishes, picking the highest-calorie options, such as dishes made with large amounts of olive oil or baked in rich crusts. We add extra cheese and serve buttery, honey-soaked pastries for dessert. We ignore the proportions of the traditional Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of vegetables and beans, little meat and most frequently fruit for dessert.

Also, traditional Mediterranean dishes were designed for people living a very physically active farming life, so we need to adjust the amount of olive oil to meet our more sedentary lives.

Several studies link a Mediterranean diet with less yearly weight gain, and the heart of that is filling up on non-starchy vegetables rather than meat, sweets and other junk food. Don't be afraid of the olive-oil-and-nuts characteristic of the Mediterranean diet, but use them in modest portions to enhance the basic healthy foods on your plate.

In a recent analysis of 16 short-term controlled trials of Mediterranean-type diets, getting a few more calories from fat was not a problem for weight loss, as long as total calories were controlled - meaning those foods were substituted for others, not just added in.

The analysis also shows that including regular physical activity and really sticking with the eating pattern (rather than using it as a quick-fix diet) also make weight loss with this style of eating more likely, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian at Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, www.creators.com.