Guest Blog written by Amy Weisser, Case Manager at Heavenly Helpers
This is the second in a series of articles that I am writing based from an Alzheimer’s conference I attended at St. Louis University in May.
Hippocrates said it so well over 2,000 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”. We have known for years now that healthy eating is a key ingredient in healthy living. We know that healthy eating is a key ingredient of brain health. But how do we define healthy eating? Is it the absence of junk food in our daily diet? Should we cut out all desserts? How about red meat? And what if you like to eat out? Who knows how many calories, fat and sodium we’re taking in at each sitting?
Research now tells us that both the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet have been found to promote brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline and future dementia. Studies have shown that people who closely follow either one of these eating plans seem less likely to develop cognitive impairment as they age, compared to people who don’t follow the diet. We’re not sure why, but researchers have speculated that making healthy food choices, such as on both of these eating plans, may improve cholesterol and blood glucose levels, as well as overall blood vessel health. These are all factors that may reduce the risk of cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s Disease. More research is needed to determine to what degree following these two healthy diets actually slows the progression of cognitive decline. Consider it a win-win situation: you’ll feel better, and most likely look better, too! A healthy diet is always paramount to staying physically and mentally fit.
The Mediterranean diet incorporates basic heart-healthy eating with components of traditional Mediterranean cooking, helped along with daily exercise. Basically this means a daily eating plan that includes lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, fish, and nuts. You limit sweets and unhealthy saturated fats, substituting olive oil for butter or margarine. Rather than salt, you season with herbs and spices. You may drink red wine in moderation. Greek people in general eat very little red meat, but eat up to 9 servings a day of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants. Researchers speculate that these antioxidant properties may help prevent formation of plaque and tangles in the brain. We know that saturated fats found in animal – based foods– – butter and red meat for example—promote inflammation in cells. They speculate that this inflammation may contribute to the growth of these harmful plaques and tangles.
Another simple daily dietary strategy: take vitamin D (1,000 units); B12 (500mcg) and Omega-3 supplements (1,000mg of DHA). Keep yourself hydrated with water or water-based drinks. As we age, we often don’t feel as thirsty and don’t drink as much as we should. Seniors can easily become dehydrated for this very reason. Drink tea, coffee, skim milk or low-sodium soup. If the caffeine bothers you, try the decaffeinated. Skip the sugary sodas and fruit drinks. And rather than drinking a glass of orange juice, eat the whole orange instead. You’ll get the vitamin C, bonus fiber and a much fuller feeling in your stomach.
Spice it up! Season your foods with herbs and spices, rather than salt. You’ll be much better off health-wise, and will appreciate the enhanced taste of your food. An added bonus: research is showing the importance of certain spices to our health. Did you know, that on average, people in India have one quarter of the Alzheimer’s cases that people in the United States have? Research points to the spice turmeric (actually curcumin, which is its active ingredient), an essential ingredient of Indian curry. Cinnamon also has been found to have certain anti-inflammatory effects.
The DASH diet has also been found to promote brain health, as well as being a great help in controlling hypertension. It is not necessarily a weight loss diet, but if that is your goal, you can tweak portion sizes and increase your physical activity. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is a long-term, lifelong approach to healthy eating that is beneficial for just about everyone. The basic premise of the DASH diet is to drastically lower your sodium intake, as sodium is known to raise blood pressure, especially in persons who are sodium-sensitive. It also may offer protection against osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Moderation and sensible eating are the keys to success here. Cut back on saturated fats and high-cholesterol foods. Substitute olive oil for butter or margarine, or other fats. Trim off all visible fats from meats, and keep your meat portions small: 3-4 oz. per meal, which is about the size of a deck of playing cards. Steam, grill, roast, broil or stir-fry, instead of frying in fat.
Here are some basic guidelines to follow…
Breads/grains: About 6 servings a day, preferably whole grain. Whole grains have more fiber and nutrients than refined grains. Look for products that are labeled 100 percent whole grain or 100 per cent whole wheat. An average serving size is one slice of bread, 2 oz. of dry cereal, or ½ cup cooked cereal. Avoid slathering with butter, margarine or cream cheese–they’re all high in fats and calories. Remember, moderation is the key here.
Vegetables: About 5 servings a day. Most vegetables are full of fiber, vitamins and minerals. One serving would be a cup of leafy fresh greens, or ½ cup of cooked vegetables. Try for fresh or frozen. If you use canned, buy the low-sodium, or rinse in a colander before eating. If the skin is edible, leave it on. This is a great source of fiber and adds some interesting texture. Just be sure you give it a good, thorough rinsing first. And think about using veggies as your entrée, or main part of the meal, rather than just as a side dish. Think outside the box, and give some new recipes a try. There are lots of great recipe sites online. You can get used to new patterns of eating– – it just takes some practice and patience.
Fruits: Again, go for 5 servings a day. Fresh or frozen fruit is usually the best choice. Canned fruit has too much added sugar. If you must use canned fruit, buy the low or no sugar added. Like vegetables, fruits are great natural sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals. You already know the drill about leaving an edible skin on—eat it, it’s good for you! With the exception of avocados and coconuts, fruits are low in fat. And even the fat in an avocado is a good, heart-healthy fat. But go easy, as avocados are high in calories. Remember, moderation is the key. 1/3 of an avocado per meal is plenty if it’s an average sized fruit. With other fruits, a serving is one average sized piece or ½ cup of cut-up fresh, frozen or canned.
Dairy products: Three servings a day, using skim or low-fat dairy only. One serving is a cup of milk or yogurt or 1 ½ oz. of cheese. Watch that cheese—even if it’s low-fat cheese, such as mozzarella made with skim milk, it often has way too much sodium than is healthy. Don’t forget that you’re trying to lower your sodium intake. Before buying yogurt at the grocery store, read the label. Some “fruit” yogurts are loaded with sugar and very little fruit. Try the no-fat, no-sugar-added kind. Lowfat frozen yogurt in moderate quantities can be a great, refreshing dessert, especially in the heat of summer. A moderate serving is ½ cup. Look into taking a calcium plus vitamin D supplement, as three servings of low-fat dairy a day does not provide enough of your daily requirement for calcium. Remember that calcium must be combined with vitamin D to be effectively utilized by your body.
Lean meats, poultry and fish: Six (or less) servings a day. This is a bit tougher, as one serving is only one ounce of cooked, skinless poultry, lean meat, or seafood. One egg or one ounce of water-packed, no-sodium tuna also counts as a serving. That is not as much food as most of us are used to eating. That is why we fill in with vegetables and fruits. Tofu is a good substitute for meat as it has about the same amount of nutrients that your body can convert into protein. Try eating salmon, herring and tuna, as they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are very good at lowering cholesterol. But again, watch that sodium! Salted, smoked and brine-packed fish have way more salt than is healthy for you.
Nuts, seeds and legumes: Four to five servings a week is the quota. These are very healthy foods to eat, often with unique vitamins and minerals, but they are high in calories. A little goes a long way: one ounce of nuts (which is an average handful), 2 Tablespoons of seeds (such as sunflower seeds), or a ½ cup of cooked beans or lentils. Great in salads instead of empty-calorie bread croutons!
Fats and oils: needless to say, use sparingly. Two to three servings a day, which is one tablespoon. Stick with the healthier, unsaturated fats, such as olive or canola oil. Don’t even think about using trans-fats, such as whipped vegetable shortenings. They are not heart-healthy!
So that’s a brief run-down to get you started. Any new plan takes time and patience. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Eating is an enjoyable part of daily life for most of us. We all backslide—we just do. Don’t let it get you down—enjoy your momentary indulgence, and then go right back to where you where you were headed with the next meal. Nobody’s perfect. Remember, think outside the box, be creative, and go for it! Your health is at stake. What could be more important than that?