Is Your Diet Damaging Your Brain?

The right diet to keep your mind sharp and prevent stroke

May 2012 enews Mediterranean diet 260 × 180

Eating a healthy diet has been shown to improve energy levels and help maintain weight, but new studies have shown that it might even improve overall brain health. A recent study conducted in Manhattan, New York, found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet was shown to reduce damage to the small blood vessels in the brain.

“It is important to eat a healthy diet, which includes foods low in saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars, and foods high in whole grain fiber, lean protein, and a variety of fruits and vegetables,” says Mary Kalafut, MD, a neurologist at Scripps Clinic. “This allows the body to be able to make new cells and create the energy needed to function well and fight diseases.”

A Mediterranean diet includes these principals for eating, basing meals off of the traditional cuisine from the countries boarding the Mediterranean Sea including Greece, Spain, Italy and France. It emphasizes eating few meats, cheeses and sugars and focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish.

Many healthy eating plans center on reducing fat intake to fewer than 35 percent of total daily calories. What makes a Mediterranean-style diet unique is its emphasis on eating “good fats,” allowing for 35 to 40 percent of daily calories to come from the right types of fat.

Good fats and bad fats

There are four major types of dietary fats, and while they are all the same in terms of calories, some fats provide added health benefits while others contribute to cholesterol production.

“The bad fats are trans and saturated fats,” says Dr. Kalafut. “These fats raise the LDL or bad cholesterol and contribute to heart disease, stroke and a variety of other health problems.”

Saturated and trans fats are the types that come from fried and processed foods as well as animal products such as red meat and dairy. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, or the “good fats,” come from sources such as fish, olive oil, and some nut and seed oils.

“Good fats can lower your bad cholesterol,” says Dr. Kalafut. “Therefore by eating monounsaturated fats in moderation instead of trans or saturated fats, you can decrease the level of your bad cholesterol.”

In terms of benefits for the brain, lower levels of bad cholesterol can reduce the likelihood of cardiovascular problems such as stroke or heart attack. The Manhattan study also found that this type of diet might reduce the amount of hyperintensities seen in MRI scans of certain areas of the brain. These hyperintensities are often considered a normal part of aging but have also been associated with neurological and psychiatric disorders. The study authors noted that further research is needed, but these results could indicate that reducing the small blood vessel damage to these areas could reduce hyperintensities and protect the brain later in life.

Protecting your brain starts early

Not all stroke and cardiovascular disease risk factors — such as heredity and age — can be prevented. However, there are many modifiable risk factors that can be reduced by lifestyle. In addition to a healthy diet, not smoking and regular exercise can reduce the risk of stroke and improve overall health by decreasing weight, decreasing the risk of diabetes, decreasing blood pressure, decreasing stress and improving mood.

For the maximum health benefits and to protect the brain from damage, it’s best to start developing healthy lifestyle habits as soon as possible.

“In most cases, once a cholesterol plaque is established in a blood vessel wall, it won’t go away. Therefore if we can establish healthy habits at an early age, we may be less likely to have unhealthy changes in the blood vessels that can result in stroke and heart attack,” adds Dr. Kalafut. “The earlier we can start a healthy lifestyle, the more likely we are to prevent vascular related diseases.”