Dr. Gourmet Serves Up Culinary Treats To Protect Brain Health

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Dr. Gourmet serves up culinary treats to protect brain health

Updated ; Posted

By Tony Dearing

tdearing@njadvancemedia.com,

NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Dr. Timothy Harlan wants you to eat well. More than that, he wants you be well.

Harlan sees them as one in the same.

To the thousands of people who visit his website and to the viewers who've seen him on The Food Network, Harlan is better known as Dr. Gourmet -- the chef-turned-physician who provides nutritional information and healthy recipes "so that you can eat great food that just happens to be great for you."

If you're looking to keep your mind sharp and reduce your risk of dementia, what you'll get from Harlan's site and his recipes is food for thought. Literally.

Tim Harlan headshot copy.jpg>Dr. Timothy Harlan wants you to enjoy "great food that just happens to be great for you."Courtesy of Dr. Timothy Harlan 

His eating plan is based on the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to benefit brain function and reduce the risk of dementia.

The Mediterranean diet draws on the healthy foods favored by people living in the region around the Mediterranean Sea. They eat a lot of vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts and whole grains. Their diet emphasizes less red meat and more fish and plant-based protein. They prefer to cook with olive oil and they drink moderate amounts of wine.

A study announced at the Alzheimer's Association annual conference in London earlier this year followed nearly 6,000 older adults with an average age of 68 and found those who closely adhered to the Mediterranean diet -- or the MIND diet, which is based on the Mediterranean diet -- had better brain function and a 30 to 35 percent lower risk of cognitive impairment as they aged.

Harlan says research going back decades suggests Mediterranean-style eating leads to better health in general, and better brain health in particular. He wants all of us to eat that way, and his goal is to show us how easy and tasty that can be. Often, it's as simple as tweaking the ingredients in dishes we already eat and enjoy.

"My posture is that there is no specific diet for diabetes, for hypertension, or to prevent cancer or for aging," Harlan says.

"They're all basically the same diet, and that's a Mediterranean-style diet," he says. "What my site does is translate those Mediterranean diet principles into food for the American kitchen, and that works, because if you've got someone in the household who has mild cognitive impairment, but their wife has hypertension, it's the same diet. You should be eating the same diet, and that diet is tacos, and red beans and rice, and macaroni and cheese and things you're familiar with, that you love and cherish and crave."

Eating gone awry

However you're eating right now, you don't want it to be the way most Americans eat.

The traditional Western diet is laden with saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and sugar. Any of these can take a toll on the brain. Taken together, they help explain why America has one of the highest rates of Alzheimer's in the world, and why nations like Japan are seeing dementia climb as their populations abandon traditional diets in favor of Western-style eating.

As I wrote in a column last year, we're essentially exporting Alzheimer's to the world -- one cheeseburger at a time.

Still, eating a more cognitively conducive diet doesn't necessarily mean giving up that burger. It just means cutting back on foods like that n favor of healthier choices that contain the nutrients your brain needs.

Here are 3 ways to do that.

Be smart about carbs

When it comes to foods that are bad for our brain, experts single out simple, refined carbohydrates -- which can include anything from white bread and cookies to French fries and soda -- as public enemy No. 1.

These foods contribute to obesity and type 2 diabetes, both of which are high risk factors for cognitive decline. They also can impair the body's ability to regulate glucose, and that can damage the brain as well.

"With impaired glucose management being so closely linked with neurocognitive decline and the onset of Alzheimer's, it's important to take charge of our food choices, beginning with choosing smart carbohydrates," Harlan advises on his site.

What you want instead are complex carbohydrates, which are nutrient-rich and high in fiber. To help guide you, Harlan's site offers a chart that lists common refined carbohydrates and suggests healthier alternatives. For instance, try seltzer water instead of soda, or choose nuts or seeds instead of potato chips. Eating oatmeal or granola instead of sugary breakfast cereals is a good choice, too.

More "good" fats, less bad

There are two essential fatty acids, and our bodies need both. Omega-3 fatty acids are often referred to as the "good" fats. The other type of fats are called omega 6, also known as saturated fats.

Ideally, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in your diet should be about 1 to 1. But the typical American may consume up to 25 times as much omega-6 as omega-3.

"We get far, far too many omega-6s in our diet in America, mostly because of hydrogenated oils and highly processed food," Harlan says.

The impact of that on cognition can be dire. As Harlan's website warns: "Diets high in saturated fats have been linked to impairments in cognitive functions."

The answer is to cut back on refined foods and fast food and red meat, and get more omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in cold-water fish like salmon, tuna and trout, as well as in foods like flax seed and walnuts.

Are you nuts?

Another failing of the standard American diet is that it leads to inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. Both conditions can contribute to cognitive decline.

In fact, Harlan says the brain is "more susceptible to oxidative stress than any other organ."

To defend against that, you want to eat more foods that contain antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties.

Harlan says nuts are a source of essential nutrients and have been shown to reduce both inflammation and oxidative stress.

He adds that walnuts have the highest antioxidant content and also provide vitamin E, melatonin and omega-3 fatty acids. That makes them particularly hearty brain food indeed.

Berries also pack an antioxidant punch, and are anti-inflammatory as well. Good choices there include blueberries, blackberries and strawberries.

The brain-health benefits of walnuts and berries are promoted heavily by those industries, but Harlan says the marketing claims are legitimate.

"There've been a lot of studies done with walnuts and blueberries specifically, because they've been funded by the walnut and blueberry guys," he says. "While you always are a little questionable about the quality of those studies, I don't think anybody is going to say walnuts and blueberries aren't good for you."

A heaping helping of health

Harlan is uniquely qualified to teach food as medicine; after all, he's worked in both worlds.

He entered the culinary arts early, managing a restaurant at the age of 18. He studied under top chefs and opened his own French bistro. He eventually left that to study hotel and restaurant management, but a career in medicine called. He received his degree from the Emory University School of Medicine.

Harlan is a practicing, board-certified internist and a nationally recognized expert in food and nutrition who has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and CNN. His website, drgourmet.com, offers evidence-based information on diet, health and wellness. He has been an on-air expert for the show "Cooking Thin" on the Food Network and won an Emmy for his public broadcast program "The Dr. Gourmet Show."

He's also published several books, including "Just Tell Me What to Eat!," a six-week plan for healthy eating that features his favorite tips and plenty of mouth-watering recipes.

Harlan believes that "eating great food is the easiest path to health." And he says getting started down that path can be easier than you think.

Tiny steps, big gains

The secret is to take small steps. Just work to improve your diet a bit at a time. Harlan makes that simple for you by breaking the Mediterranean Diet down into nine basic elements. You can see those in the table below.

Pick one of those elements, and incorporate it into your diet. Maybe you'll set a goal of having a banana every morning. Or maybe you want to cut back on red meat and eat a little more fish.

One way to know you're improving your eating habits is to keep score, based on the Mediterranean diet table of foods.

Give yourself one point for each one of the nine food elements that you eat the recommended amount of. Over time, see how many points you can earn, but don't feel you have to make radical changes to your diet all at once. Harlan says adopting even a few of these food recommendations can serve to improve your health.

"It doesn't take a lot to get a point on the Mediterranean diet score for, say, increasing your amount of legumes," he says. "That works out to a nice handful of peanuts, or choosing to have beans as your side dish, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

Harlan encourages you to make simple changes, such as eating a piece of fruit every day. And it helps to choose whole foods that come from plants.

"It's really just about trying to consume more legumes, more vegetables, more whole grains, and more fruits and nuts," he says. "Those four points -- which are actually five different ingredients -- those are all plant-based ingredients, and the more you're doing those plant-based ingredients and the less you're consuming the animal-based protein, the healthier you're going to be."

 

The guide below offers detailed information on how to incorporate the Mediterranean diet into your weekly eating plan. It is reprinted with permission of the Goldring Center, and you can download a PDF from the center's website.

Source : http://www.nj.com/healthfit/index.ssf/2017/11/dr_gourmet_transforms_brain_health_into_a_culinary.html

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