Can Your Diet Cause You To Lose Your Mind?

What Is A Mind-Healthy Lifestyle? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Cognitive-DeclineMost of us look forward to our golden years – that mystical time when we will be free from the workday pressures and have more time to spend with friends and family doing the things we love.

But cognitive decline can cast a dark cloud over those expectations.

  • By the age of 65, 11% of adults suffer from some degree of cognitive impairment.
  • And by the age of 80 the percentage of adults suffering from cognitive impairment has increased to 26-30%, depending on which study you cite.

The results of cognitive decline can be devastating.

  • First you start to lose the cherished memories of a lifetime.
  • Then comes confusion and an inability to perform basic tasks and participate in your favorite activities.
  • Eventually you may reach a stage where you no longer recognize the ones you love.

In short, cognitive decline can rob you of everything that makes you you.

The causes of cognitive decline are complex, but recent studies have pointed to the role of chronic inflammation in cognitive decline. If that is true, it is a good news – bad news situation.

  • The bad news is:
    • Some increase in chronic inflammation appears to be an inevitable consequence of aging.
    • Chronic inflammation can be caused by certain diseases that are beyond our control.
    • Chronic inflammation can be triggered by viral or bacterial infections.
  • The good news is that chronic inflammation is also controlled by your diet and lifestyle. For example, as I said above, chronic inflammation is often triggered by a viral infection, but whether the inflammation is mild or severe is strongly influenced by diet and lifestyle.

In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I share a study (S Charisis et al, Neurology, In Press, November 10, 2021) showing that diets high in inflammatory foods increase the risk of dementia. Then, I answer 3 important questions.

  • Can your diet cause you to lose your mind?
  • What is a mind-healthy diet?
  • What is a mind-healthy lifestyle?

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were taken from the first three years of the Hellenic Longitudinal Investigation of Aging and Diet (HELIAD), a study designed to look at the effect of diet on dementia and other neuropsychiatric conditions in the Greek population.

There were 1059 participants (40% male, average age = 75 at the beginning of the study) in this study. At the beginning of the study the participants completed a food frequency questionnaire administered by a trained dietitian. The foods were broken down into individual nutrients using the USDA Food Composition tables adapted for foods in the Greek diet.

The diet of each participant was then rated on a 15-point scale ranging from pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory based on something called the Diet Inflammation Index (DII).

Simply put, the DII is a validated assessment tool based on the effect of food nutrients on 6 inflammatory biomarkers found in the blood (IL-1β, IL-4, IL-6, IL-10, TNF-α, and CRP). Nutrients that decrease these markers are considered anti-inflammatory. Nutrients that increase these inflammatory biomarkers are considered pro-inflammatory.

For example, anti-inflammatory nutrients include:

  • Carotenoids and flavonoids (found in fruits and vegetables).
  • Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in cold-water fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds).
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids (found in olive, avocado, and peanut oils).
  • Fiber (found in minimally processed plant foods).
  • Antioxidants, most B vitamins, and vitamin D.
  • Magnesium and zinc.
  • Garlic, onions, most herbs & spices.

Pro-inflammatory nutrients include:

  • Refined carbohydrates.
  • Cholesterol.
  • Total fat.
  • Saturated fats.
  • Trans fats.

The participants were followed for 3 years, and all new diagnoses of dementia were recorded. The diagnoses were confirmed by a panel of neurologists and neuropsychologists.

Can Your Diet Cause You To Lose Your Mind?

Forgetful Old ManAs described above, the diet of each participant in the study was rated on a 15-point DII (Diet Inflammatory Index) scale ranging from pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory. The association of the DII score of the participant’s diets with the onset of dementia was evaluated in two ways.

  • Each one-point increase from an anti-inflammatory diet to a pro-inflammatory diet was associated with a 21% increase in the risk for dementia.
  • In other words, even small changes in your diet can have a significant impact on your risk of developing dementia.

The investigators then divided the participants into three equal-sized groups based on the DII score of their diets.

  • The group with the highest DII scores were 3 times more likely to develop dementia than the group with the lowest DII scores.
  • In other words, a major change in your diet can have a major effect on your risk of developing dementia.

The authors concluded, “In the present study, higher DII scores (indicating greater pro-inflammatory diet potential) were associated with an increased risk for incident dementia [newly diagnosed dementia]. These findings may avail the development of primary dementia strategies through tailored and precise dietary interventions.”

What Is A Mind-Healthy Diet?

Vegan FoodsThis and other studies show that an anti-inflammatory diet is good for the mind. It helps protect us from cognitive decline and dementia. But what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like?

One hint comes from analyzing the diets of participants in this study:

  • Those with the lowest DII scores (most-anti-inflammatory diets) consumed 20 servings of fruit, 19 servings of vegetables, 4 servings of beans or other legumes, and 11 servings of coffee or tea each week. That’s almost 3 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables every day!
  • Those with the highest DII scores (most pro-inflammatory diets) consumed only half as many fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
  • In short, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and legumes is a good start.

I have described anti-inflammatory diets in more detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor.” Let me summarize that article briefly.

Anti-inflammatory foods include:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Whole grains.
  • Beans and other legumes.
  • Nuts, olive oil, avocados, and other sources of monounsaturated fats.
  • Fatty fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Herbs and spices.

Pro-inflammatory foods include:

  • Refined carbohydrates, sodas, and sugary foods.
  • Foods high in saturated fats including fatty and processed meats, butter, and high fat dairy products.
  • Foods high in trans fats.
  • French fries, fried chicken, and other fried foods.
  • Foods you are allergic or sensitive food. For example, gluten containing foods are pro-inflammatory only if you are sensitive to gluten.

If your goal is to reduce chronic inflammation and keep your mind sharp as a tack as you age, you should eat more anti-inflammatory foods and less pro-inflammatory foods.

Of course, we don’t just eat random foods, we follow dietary patterns. It should be apparent from what I have Mediterranean Diet Foodscovered above that whole food, primarily plant-based diets are anti-inflammatory. This is true for diets ranging from vegan through semi-vegetarian, to the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets.

All these diets are anti-inflammatory and likely protect the brain from cognitive decline. However, the best evidence for brain protection is for the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets.

  • The Mediterranean and DASH diets have been shown to prevent cognitive decline in multiple studies.
  • The MIND diet is a combination the Mediterranean and DASH diets that was specifically designed to prevent cognitive decline. It has been shown to cut the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in half.

What Is A Mind-Healthy Lifestyle?

Diet is just one aspect of a holistic approach for reducing cognitive decline as we age. Other important factors include:

  • Reduce excess body weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Reduce and/or manage stress.
  • Eliminate smoking and reduce alcohol consumption.
  • Socialize with friends and family who support you. Numerous studies have shown that a strong support network reduces dementia risk in the elderly.
  • Keep your brain active. Work crossword puzzles. Learn new things. An active brain is forced to lay down new neural pathways.

The Bottom Line 

Recent studies have suggested that chronic inflammation increases the risk of cognitive decline and dementia as we age. Some causes of chronic inflammation are beyond our control, but others, such as diet, we can control.

Recently, a precise scoring system called the Diet Inflammatory Index (DII) has been developed. This scoring system allows studies to look at the correlation between the inflammatory potential of the diet and cognitive decline.

A recent study enrolled 1,000 participants with an average age of 75 in a 3-year study to determine the impact of diet on cognitive decline. The association of the DII score of the participant’s diets with the onset of dementia was evaluated in two ways.

  • Each one-point increase from an anti-inflammatory diet to a pro-inflammatory diet was associated with a 21% increase in the risk for dementia.
  • In other words, even small changes in your diet can have a significant impact on your risk of developing dementia.

The investigators then divided the participants into three equal-sized groups based on the DII score of their diets.

  • The group with the highest DII scores were 3 times more likely to develop dementia than the group with the lowest DII scores.
  • In other words, a major change in your diet can have a major effect on your risk of developing dementia.

The authors concluded, “In the present study, higher DII scores (indicating greater pro-inflammatory diet potential) were associated with an increased risk for incident dementia [newly diagnosed dementia]. These findings may avail the development of primary dementia strategies through tailored and precise dietary interventions.”

For more details and a description of mind-healthy diets and a mind-healthy lifestyle read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Can Diet Douse The Flames?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

InflammationIf you have arthritis, colitis, bursitis, or any of the other “itis” diseases, you already know that inflammation is the enemy. Chronic, low level inflammation is also a contributing factor to heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases. Clearly, inflammation is a bad actor. It is something we want to avoid.

Obesity and diabetes are two of the biggest contributors to inflammation, but does diet also play a role? With all the anti-inflammation diets circulating on the internet, you would certainly think so. How good is the evidence that certain foods influence inflammation, and what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like?

The Science Behind Anti-Inflammatory Diets

ScientistLet me start by saying that the science behind anti-inflammatory diets is nowhere near as strong as it is for the effect of primarily plant-based diets on heart disease and diabetes. The studies on anti-inflammatory diets are mostly small, short duration studies. However, the biggest problem is that there is no standard way of measuring inflammation.

There are multiple markers of inflammation, and they do not change together. That means that in every study some markers of inflammation are altered, while others are not. There is no consistent pattern from one study to another.

In spite of these methodological difficulties, the studies generally point in the same direction. Let’s start with the strongest evidence and work our way down to the weakest evidence. 

Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory (I. Reinders et al, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 66: 736-741, 2011). The evidence is strongest for the long chain omega-3s found in fish and fish oil, but the shorter chain omega-3s found in foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil also appear to be anti-inflammatory. 

Inflammation is directly correlated with glycemic index (L. Qi and F.B. Lu, Current Opinion in Lipidology, 18: 3-8, 2007). This has a couple of important implications.

The most straightforward is that refined carbohydrates and sugars (sodas, pastries, and desserts), which have a high glycemic index, increase inflammation. In contrast, complex carbohydrates (whole grains, most fruits and vegetables) decrease inflammation. No surprise there. The second implication is that it is the glycemic index, not the sugar, that is driving the inflammatory response.

That means we need to look more closely at foods than at sugars. Sodas, pastries and desserts are likely to cause inflammation, but sugar-containing foods with a low glycemic index are unlikely to be inflammatory. 

Fruits and vegetables are anti-inflammatory. This has been shown in multiple studies. At this point most of the research is centered on identifying the nutrients and phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables that are responsible for the reduction in inflammation. I suspect the investigators are hoping to design an anti-inflammatory supplement and make lots of money. I will stick with the fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Saturated fats are inflammatory. At face value, the data on saturated fats appear to be contradictory. Some Fatty Foodsstudies say that saturated fats increase inflammation, while others say they do not. However, similar to my earlier discussion on saturated fats and heart disease), the outcome of the study depends on what the saturated fats are replaced with.

When saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates, sugar and highly processed foods (the standard American low-fat diet), inflammation doesn’t change. This doesn’t mean that a diet high in saturated fat is healthy. It just means that both diets are bad for you. Both are inflammatory.

However, when saturated fat is replaced with omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (J.A. Paniagua et al, Atherosclerosis, 218: 443-450, 2011) or monounsaturated fats (B. Vessby et al, Diabetologia, 44: 312-319, 2001), markers of inflammation decrease. Clearly, saturated fats are not the best fat choice if you wish to keep inflammation in check.

I would be remiss if I did not address the claims by the low-carb diet proponents that saturated fats do not increase inflammation in the context of a low-carb diet. I want to remind you of two things we have discussed previously:

  • The comparisons in those studies are generally with people consuming a diet high in simple carbohydrates and sugars.
  • These studies have mostly been done in the short-term when the participants are losing weight on the low-carb diets. Weight loss decreases inflammation, so the reduction in inflammation on the low-carb diet could be coming from the weight loss.

The one study (M. Miller et al, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109: 713-717, 2009) I have found that compares a low-carb diet (the Atkins diet) with a good diet (the Ornish diet, which is a low-fat, lacto-ovo vegetarian diet) during weight maintenance found that the meat based, low-carb Atkins diet caused greater inflammation than the healthy low-fat Ornish diet.

Red meat is probably pro-inflammatory. Most, but not all, studies suggest that red meat consumption is associated with increased inflammation. If it is pro-inflammatory, the inflammation is most likely associated with its saturated fat, its heme iron content, or the advanced glycation end products formed during cooking.

What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Colorful fruits and vegetablesAnti-inflammatory diets have become so mainstream that they now appear on many reputable health organization websites such as Harvard Health, WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, and the Cleveland Clinic. Each have slightly different features, but there is a tremendous amount of agreement. 

Foods an anti-inflammatory diet includes: In a nutshell, an anti-inflammatory diet includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins (like beans and nuts), fatty fish, and fresh herbs and spices. Specifically, your diet should emphasize:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables. Not only do they help fight inflammation, but they are a great source of antioxidants and other nutrients important for your health.
  • Whole grains. They have a low glycemic index. They are also a good source of fiber, and fiber helps flush inflammatory toxins out of the body.
  • Beans and other legumes. They should be your primary source of protein. They are high in fiber and contain antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory nutrients.
  • Nuts, olive oil, and avocados. They are good sources of healthy monounsaturated fats, which fight inflammation.
  • Fatty fish. Salmon, tuna, and sardines are all great sources of long chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are fish and fish oilincorporated into our cell membranes. Those long chain omega-3s in cell membranes are, in turn, used to create compounds that are powerful inflammation fighters.

Walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are good sources of short chain omega-3s. The efficiency of their conversion to long chain omega-3s that can be incorporated into cell membranes is only around 2-5%. If they fight inflammation, it is probably because they replace some of the saturated fats and omega-6 fats you might otherwise be eating.

  • Herbs and spices. They add antioxidants and other phytonutrients that fight inflammation.

Foods an anti-inflammatory diet excludes: In a nutshell, an anti-inflammatory diet should exclude highly processed, overly greasy, or super sweet foods, especially sodas and other sweet drinks. Specifically, your diet should exclude:

  • Refined carbohydrates, sodas and sugary foods. They have a high glycemic index, which is associated with inflammation. They can also lead to weight gain and high blood sugar, both of which cause inflammation.
  • Foods high in saturated fats. This includes fatty and processed meats, butter, and high fat dairy products.
  • Foods high in trans fats. This includes margarine, coffee creamers, and any processed food containing partly hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fats are very pro-inflammatory.
  • French fries, fried chicken, and other fried foods. They used to be fried in saturated fat and/or trans fat. Nowadays, they are generally fried in omega-6 vegetable oils. A little omega-6 in the diet is OK, but Americans get too much omega-6 fatty acids in their diet. Most studies show that a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is pro-inflammatory.
  • Foods you are allergic or sensitive to. Eating any food that you are sensitive to can cause inflammation. This comes up most often with respect to gluten and dairy because so many people are sensitive to one or both. However, if you are not sensitive to them, there is no reason to exclude whole grain gluten-containing foods or low-fat dairy foods from your diet.

Can Diet Douse The Flames?

FlamesIn case you didn’t notice, the recommendations for an anti-inflammatory diet closely match the other healthy diets I have discussed previously. It should come as no surprise then that both the Mediterranean (L. Gallard, Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25: 634-640, 2010; L. Schwingshackl and G. Hoffmann, Nutrition Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 24: 929-939, 2014) and DASH (D.E. King et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, 167: 502-506, 2007) diets are anti-inflammatory.

Vegan and vegetarian diets also appear to be anti-inflammatory as well. The anti-inflammatory nature of these diets undoubtedly contributes to their association with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

As for the low-carb diets, the jury is out. There are no long-term studies to support the claims of low-carb proponents that their diets reduce inflammation. The few long-term studies that are available suggest that low-carb diets are only likely to be anti-inflammatory if vegetable proteins and oils replace the animal proteins and fats that are currently recommended.

What does this mean for you if you have severe arthritis or other inflammatory diseases? An anti-inflammatory diet is unlikely to “cure” your symptoms by itself. However, it should definitely be a companion to everything else you are doing to reduce inflammation.

The Bottom Line 

If you have arthritis, colitis, bursitis, or any of the other “itis” diseases, you already know that inflammation is the enemy. Chronic, low level inflammation is also a contributing factor to heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases. Clearly, inflammation is a bad actor. It’s something we want to avoid.

Obesity and diabetes are two of the biggest contributors to inflammation, but does diet also play a role? With all the anti-inflammation diets circulating on the internet, you would certainly think so. In this article I review the evidence that certain foods influence inflammation and describe what an anti-inflammatory diet looks like.

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor