Power Foods for the Brain with Dr. Neal Barnard
Dr. Neal Barnard
Jonathan: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Very exciting show for you today. We have a New York Times bestselling author with us. He is also an adjunct Associate Professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine. He is also board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.
Many of you may know of him as the President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington D.C. and he’s got a new book out called The Power Foods for the Brain, an effective three step plan to protect your mind and strengthen your memory. He loves non-starchy vegetables and he loves the Vitamix. I said, “We have got to have, Dr. Neal Barnard on the show because we love us some non-starchy vegetables as well as some Vitamix.” Dr. Barnard, welcome to the show, brother.
Dr. Barnard: It’s great to be with you.
Jonathan: Well Neal, thank you again for joining us and I just wanted to get started. You have been conducting some pretty amazing research on how we can use nutrition, exercise, sleep, things that are not necessarily thought of as medicinal by mainstream medicine and use them to protect our brain from breakdown overtime. That’s amazing, can you tell us a bit about that?
Dr. Barnard: Well it really is, tremendously exciting, because if there was one condition we felt we couldn’t do anything about it was the memory problems that people tend to get when they’re older. We thought, “What? That’s just old age or Alzheimer’s disease is just genetic.” There’s nothing you can do but the excitement is that science has shown that foods that we chose, this is probably the most important thing that affects our risk, so I’m just delighted that we’ve actually got some tools that we didn’t have a few years ago.
Jonathan: So, if I’m understanding this correctly, we can really start and let’s get in to some of this foods but, for example, we can see green leafy vegetables almost like a medicine. We don’t overdo anything but the more green leafy vegetables we can get into our body, the more we’re building a shield around our brain, almost.
Dr. Barnard: Okay. You take some green, leafy vegetables and the leafy greens, if you think about them as foliage. The word foliage got word morphed into foliate, that’s B vitamin. That is a brain protector so, kale, collard, spinach all of them, all of these leafy greens have this foliate in them. It’s a B vitamin and what does it do? I think of it as sort of a shovel, a little shovel that gets rid of waste that’s built up in your brain and without getting too technical, there is a waste product in the brain. It’s called homocysteine and homocysteine builds up in the brain and it damages the brain but foliate helps get rid of it and to do that, it partners with two other B vitamins, B6, B12 and the three of them sort of clean out the brain of this toxin that builds up.
When we have looked over the long run, you can look at the brain scan of a person where the homocysteine is building up and they have brain atrophy. Their brain is actually wasting away but when you build into your routine, the simple B vitamins, the green leafy vegetables you talked about or the beans or bananas that bring you B6, suddenly the risk of the brain atrophy is just cut dramatically and you’re actually protecting the brain physically with these simple foods.
Jonathan: Keeping a medical analogy going, what is the proper or let’s say optimal, what is the optimal dosage for green leafy vegetables day to day?
Dr. Barnard: Well, I would encourage people to have a couple of servings of them every day and it could be a generous amount. I think about a one cup serving if it’s cooked, bigger than that if it’s raw because it kind of compresses down when it’s cooked and this doesn’t have to be just for dinner. This may not sound so appetizing but I this morning a actually had a little bit of broccoli with my breakfast and I spray it with a little bit of soy sauce or Bragg’s aminos or something like that. It makes it kind of delectable. I have to say I kind of hooked on it.
Jonathan: Certainly, incorporating vegetables with breakfast, I know a lot of people have found success with that if you try to pack in 10 servings of vegetables with dinner, you may not sleep very well, so I also notice on some of your websites, you recommend one of the favorite helpful products for folks who listen to this show and that’s the Vitamix. How can we use the Vitamix or any high powered blender… Neither one of us, at least I don’t think you work for the Vitamix Corporation nor do I, any high powered blender to make consumption of this brain boosting foods easier?
Dr. Barnard: You’re right, I don’t work for commercial enterprise but I do have to say I appreciate what they do because they make it fun to eat in a healthy way and there are lots and lots of people, especially kids. They might be a little phobic of green vegetables but you make them into like what we call a green smoothie and for the kids, we call it a “Shrek smoothie” because that way, they’re thinking about their favorite movie character and think “Oh, this is cool.” I really appreciate what they do and they encourage people to bring healthy foods into their diet in fun ways.
Jonathan: Omega-3 fats, we talk about things like flax seeds, chia seeds, as well as myriad other sources. The more research I see on this, the more I hear about it. This stuff is just amazing. Why is it that these Omega-3 fats have such a powerful impact on the brain and please do feel free to geek out here if you’d like.
Dr. Barnard: Well, the Omega-3 fats, where do you go them from flax seed or chia seeds or there are even traces on back in the greens that we are talking about. There’s not a lot of fat in broccoli but there is maybe about eight percent of its calories come from fat and of the traces of fat that there are in broccoli and other green vegetables. If you sent them to a laboratory, they would say they are very high in Omega-3’s, exactly the ones we need.
In your body, the Omega-3 molecule gets into the blood stream and it’s gradually lengthen to one that’s called DHA, which the brain uses and plant sources are the cleanest source of it there. They give the body the Omega-3’s that you need and you don’t have to go crazy with it. You don’t have to necessarily supplement with Omega-3’s. Get your green vegetables or a little bit more in walnuts and flax as you mentioned is very, very rich in Omega-3, so you’re going to do fine from those sources.
Jonathan: A lot of people know that eating healthful foods obviously is helpful to the brain but not everyone is as familiar with how exercise, maybe as beneficial if not even more. I know physician’s that now literally say, if you’re experiencing depression or mental fog, we can give you pills, we can send you to a counselor, or you can exercise, which do you want to do? Why is exercise so powerful for the brain?
Dr. Barnard: Researchers at the University of Illinois did an interesting study. They brought in a group of adults. They were already having forgetfulness, there’s a condition we called mild cognitive impairment. It’s not Alzheimer’s disease, you’re still yourself. You’re still driving and managing your checkbook and so forth but you know that you’re having trouble thinking of names of movies or even the names of your friends and you’re losing words on a daily basis, so they brought in a group of folks.
They said let’s lace up our sneakers, three times a week brisk walk and what they showed over a two year period was not only that their memory improve but when they actually scan the brain, the central part of the brain that’s involved in memory, it’s called the hippocampus. By the way if you want to win trivial pursuit, hippocampus is the Latin for seahorse because some anonymous thought that the hippocampus looks sort of the shape of a seahorse, so hippocampus means seahorse. Anyway, the hippocampus is critical for memory. It decides what is worth remembering or what should just be discarded and not remembered. At the University of Illinois, after they got people exercise for about a year three times a week brisk walk, the hippocampus was measurably bigger and why that matters is your brain is only three percent of your body weight but it gets 20 percent of your blood flow. When you’re exercising, what happens?
The blood flow increases, the oxygenation increases, the nutrients get into the brain, the waste gets flushed out, the hippocampus pumps up and you can test people on their memory and it’s actually better, so exercise is great. By the way, for all of the people who are listening to this and thinking, yes, I’m sure it swell but I don’t want to get hot all sweaty and I’m tired and I don’t feel like exercising, here’s what they did. They said start with a 10 minute walk three times a week. Who cannot do that? The next week, increase by five minutes, so you went 15 three times a week then 20 then 25. Once they got to 40 minutes three times a week that is the level that reverses brain shrinkage, so it’s really simple.
Jonathan: It sounds like exercise does to our brain if we think about brain like a muscle, like people already think it does to our muscles. It literally can make it bigger and it can also flush things out, get the blood flowing. It increases both the quantity and the quality of not only our muscles but also our brain, is that fair?
Dr. Barnard: I think it is fair. Exercise is good in every way. Now, having said that, you don’t want to exercise and smoke or exercise and eat a terrible diet, have these things work together. The best possible diet, the best possible exercise routine, put them together and you’re going to really get a good pay off.
Jonathan: Dr. Barnard, I really want to dig in to what you just said because so often people see exercise as almost, I hope I don’t offend anyone here, but back in church history, there were these things called indulgences and they’ve since been done away with but the idea was that if you pay, you get your sins forgiven and so just like $5 you get a sin forgiven and sometimes people think obviously that’s been done away with. Sometimes people think that I win for a 30 minute jog so I’m going to reward myself by eating a donut and that I can cancel out poor dietary habits through proper exercise habits but that’s not accurate, correct?
Dr. Barnard: It’s not accurate and if you want to prove it to yourself, run flat out for a mile. You go to the gym, get on a treadmill, run flat out for a mile, we’ll then wipe your sweaty brow and push the little button on the treadmill that says, how many calories you’ve burned. It’s only about 100. Well, that’s half an order of French fries or less than half of soda, so in other words, after you exercise, it is very easy to eat back all the calories you burn. Now, don’t get me wrong, exercise is good for you. It does pump up the brain. It’s great in every way but you need to do it along with healthy diet, not in place of it.
Jonathan: When especially it seems like we could get into a really bad place. For example, we exercise so because we exercise, we think we have credit in the nutritional arena, so we don’t eat those green leafy vegetables with dinner and in fact we eat something else that contains trans fats and like excess iron and excess copper, then not only forget about calories. That would be like saying I just went for a two mile jog and now I can smoke two packs of cigarettes like, there’s something way beyond calories that that badness is happening, correct?
Dr. Barnard: Yeah, I think that’s right and people sometimes imagine to fuel my exercise, I need to load up on huge amounts of protein and so forth, you don’t need that. Look at a stallion, look at a bull, what are they eating? They’re eating simple plants but they are the fastest, strongest animals there are. I always make a pitch for our neglected friend, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, the things that have been around but that people tend to think of as second class foods, they are the first class food. Think of those, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans. If we consume those and make those our staples and also get exercise with it, you’re really powering your body in a great way.
Jonathan: We often hear about the deeper the color of a vegetable or a fruit, the better it is for us. Has your research collaborated that?
Dr. Barnard: Yes. Those colors are there for a reason. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati looked at Concord grapes and they showed that if you take Concord grape juice, give it to older people, the first study average age 78, people who are having memory problems, they gave them Concord grape juice two cups a day for three months, their memory noticeably improved. That sounds too easy. Well, what’s in the grape? That deep color comes from anthocyanins that are powerful antioxidants. The red in a tomato, that’s Lycopene, that’s an antioxidant. The orange in a carrot, that’s beta carotene.
All of these antioxidants get their tremendously bright colors from antioxidants but the way I really like to think of it is in kind of reverse. A human retina is designed so as to be able to recognize antioxidants. Across the room, your cat can’t do that, your dog can’t do that. They are carnivores, so their color vision is terrible. They’re looking for the fish counter but the human retina sees these antioxidants under the skin of the carrot or the tomato and you sense them and they are calling out to you, so unfortunately people takes those beautiful colors and put them in a candy bag. What we should be doing is recognizing that foods that have them, are healthy for us.
Jonathan: Dr. Barnard, I know you frequent the Dr. Oz Show, popular talk shows. You’re all over the media, so you may not often have the opportunity to really geek out on the science, so I want to give you that opportunity right now. We talk about all of these wonderful foods we can eat to protect our mind and strengthen our memory but just for a second, what is actually happening and let’s go science, it’s cool. We’ve got time. We’ve got time. The audience is ready for it. What actually happens with memory loss and dementia and Alzheimer’s? Do we understand what’s physically going on in the brain when those conditions take place?
Dr. Barnard: There are a couple of things that need to be said, the first is, and this goes back to 1906 when Dr. Alzheimer himself identified the first case of Alzheimer’s disease. He dissected the brain of a woman who had died with this disease and he found, looking under the microscope, something really very, very striking and that was there are little tiny things. They look like balls of yarn inside the brain. They’re just microscopic. They’re called amyloid plaques and what happens is protein strands normally come out of the brain cells and they collect in these little balls of yarn and, according to most neurologists, they end up damaging the brain cells. What’s causing that to happen?
Well, high cholesterol level will do it, high fat intake will do it but what then seems to actually do the final damage is free radical and this can relate to the too much iron, too much copper, you mentioned earlier. Iron rusts, copper corrodes and if you’re getting too much of those in your diet, they will corrode in your brain, producing free radicals that damage brain cells.
Jonathan: Free radicals are really the ones in there, poking away at things and breaking things down. It’s this tie that back then to antioxidants. Antioxidants then counteract those free radicals?
Dr. Barnard: Right. The free radicals, what they actually are molecules of oxygen for the most part that you have inhaled but they become unstable. They lose an electron or for some other reason, the molecule is destabilized and it’s trying to become stable, so it will take a chunk out of a brain cell or out of your skin or out of another part of your body to try to get stability. That free radical will be neutralized by an antioxidant, so think of vitamin E for example as like a fire extinguisher just puts those sparks right out and by the way, let me cheerlead, for my friend the walnut loaded with vitamin E same as sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, sprinkle a little bit on your salad, and you’ll get the vitamin E that you need that will cut Alzheimer’s risk.
Jonathan: Dr. Barnard, this is more me just asking. I’m going to be a little selfish here. I have to ask you a personal question about my own health and that is recently, I’ve really been enjoying macadamia nuts, coconut, and coco, all of which I know are fatty. Obviously, these are different kinds of fats. The one there is going to be a more medium change triglyceride, one is more standard saturated fat and other is more monounsaturated fats but I’ve actually made those a large component of my diet. Are the fats found in those foods detrimental in any way or what’s your research say about that?
Dr. Barnard: Generally, they beat the socks off chicken fat what can I say but keep in mind for any of the listeners who are having a little bit of issue with their weight. Fat from any source, every gram of fat no matter where it’s from even it’s from extra, extra virgin olive oil, it’s still got nine calories. From the calorie standpoint, you want to not overdue it on fat. Having said that, you do need a little bit of fat in your diet and so something like sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts they gave you a little bit of Omega-3.
They give you a little bit of the vitamin E, so that’s a good thing and to prevent myself from overdoing it my rule of thumb is, I don’t use nuts as a snack, I use them as a flavor. Instead of pouring some cashews into my hand and sticking it in my mouth, I may pour them in my hand but then I crumble them up and I put them on my salad. In that way I don’t overdo it.
Jonathan: As just a pure source of calories for someone who may be just doesn’t enjoy… It’s obvious we’ve got to get our calories from somewhere, so if I’m not a huge fan of starchy foods, let’s just say I just don’t like them but I need to get my calories from somewhere. If I were to get my calories let’s say 40% of my calories from plant fats with that harm my brain help my brain neutral or we don’t know from the research?
Dr. Barnard: If you’re getting your fats, plant fats are always better than animal fats, always because they’re extremely low in saturated fat. That’s good. Having said that, 40% of calories as fat is a little bit on the high side, so when I look at countries where they are at their absolute peak health like Japan before the burger invasion occurred around 1990, their caloric content was maybe 10% fat. They’re not allowed the added grease. On the other hand if you’re a slim person, weight isn’t an issue for you and all the fats you’re eating are healthy, pushing your fat content a little bit I don’t think is a problem.
Jonathan: Last but not the least, we’ve talked about what we’re putting in our mouth, we’re talking about what we’re doing with our feet maybe most under appreciated especially in our go, go, go, do, do, do culture is sleeping, how can treating ourselves to a good night sleep and/or a nap help us keep our brain strong and healthy?
Dr. Barnard: Keep in mind all day long, you’re acquiring experiences. It’s almost like you’re taking one file folder after another and throwing it on the top of your desk. All of these experiences are building up. Once you go to sleep, your brain files those away. It integrates the memories of the day and you can actually see this on the beginning of the night and the EEG will read slow wave sleep, that’s when the brain is integrating facts and words. The second half of the night when REM sleep predominates your integrated emotion, so if you were to stay up all night or really cut your sleep short, you discover two things.
The first is your memory is poor. You’re going to have trouble with names and words and secondly, your emotional control will be poor. You’ll be grumpy or giddy or you’ll flip back and forth between the two. You want to go to sleep. What is really most worrisome, researchers have found, and by the way, I suggest you don’t volunteer for this research. What they do is they pass a little catheter into the spinal canal of the patients and they sample cerebrospinal fluid hour by hour and what they show is the amyloid protein that builds up in the brain and that I was describing earlier is leading to Alzheimer. That’s produced sort of nonstop while you’re awake.
When people go to sleep, it shuts down, so sleep isn’t just good for you and makes you feel energetic, it actually turns off that beta amyloid production. Again, these are the proteins that come out of the brain cells that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease, so it doesn’t matter how good your book is, 10:00 o’clock at night, turn the light off and go to sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping I do have some tips for you in power foods for the brain. A lot of people are a little over caffeinated or had a little bit too much wine. There are other simple reasons why their sleep is a little rocky. It’s easy to identify them and easy to fix.
Jonathan: Dr. Barnard, you said no matter how good the book is, put it down at 10 o’clock, does that hold true even if we’re reading Power Foods for the Brain?
Dr. Barnard: Yes, turn off the light at 10 o’clock, just get up in the morning at 5:30 and you can start reading then.
Jonathan: I love it. I love it. Well, Dr. Barnard, what’s next for you?
Dr. Barnard: We are now really sinking our teeth into a number of research studies. We’re bringing in people who have more advanced conditions; diabetes, nerve pain from the diabetes and we are using totally plant based diets which people are embracing and doing really well with it and we’re just excited to see how well they’re doing. We are publishing in this coming spring some new guidelines to help people with Alzheimer’s disease as well and we’re very excited that finally we’re unleashing the power of foods.
Jonathan: It sounds like you’re getting back to the old adage of let food be thy medicine, in a modern and exciting scale.
Dr. Barnard: Well, it really has to be instead of the doctor saying “Okay, conventional medicine is a prescription and food is more alternative,” we need to turn that around. If you have diabetes or cholesterol problem or whatever because of food, then that is going to be our conventional medicine and if I need a prescription, fair enough that that’s my alternative.
Jonathan: Brilliant. Dr. Barnard, tell us again the name of your book and also where folks can learn more about you as a researcher?
Dr. Barnard: Well, thank you. The book is Power Foods for the Brain and you’ll see it on Amazon, you’ll see it on our website which is pcrm.org and you’ll also see it at your local book seller, who I’m sure would appreciate your business.
Jonathan: Well Dr. Neal Barnard, thank you again for joining us today. This has been a delightful, as well as a very informative and educational conversation.
Dr. Barnard: Well, it’s been great talking with you.
Jonathan: Listeners, I hope you enjoy this wonderful conversation as much as I did. Again today’s guest is Dr. Neal Barnard, you can learn more about him at pcrm.org and the book we were discussing today is Power Foods for the Brain, an effective three step plan to protect your mind and strengthen your memory. Please remember this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Chat with you soon.