9: The World’s Best Brain Diets, Brain Food
THE BLUE ZONES
Sometimes it is worth leaving the research lab to find out what works in the real world. By doing so, researchers have discovered entire communities of centenarians—those who are one hundred years old and counting. What’s even more interesting is that they have somehow remained as sharp as a tack.
As of today, five regions have been identified that possess the highest concentration of centenarians in the world. These are known as the “blue zones.” The first of these longevity hotspots was discovered in the provinces of Nuoro and Ogliastra in Sardinia (Italy), which is the location with the highest concentration of male centenarians in all the world. This is quite a pedigree. In fact, women typically live longer than men, and male centenarians are especially rare. Next up is the Greek island of Ikaria in the Aegean Sea, cleverly nicknamed “The Island Where People Forget to Die.” The third blue zone is Okinawa, sometimes referred to as “Japan’s Hawaii,” home to the world’s longest-living women and to as much as 15 percent of the world’s supercentenarians (110-plus years). Crossing the planet, we find the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica—home to 100,000 mestizos with a lower-than-normal rate of middle-age mortality. Finally, the Seventh-day Adventists community in Loma Linda, California, boasts a life expectancy that exceeds the American average by a decade.
In all the blue zones identified so far, people reach age one hundred at rates ten times greater than the U.S. average. And not only do they live longer, they also enjoy remarkably full lives with a very low incidence of heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes—not to mention dementia. Clearly they’re doing something right.
Despite the wide geographical distance that separates these regions, or the fact that these cultures couldn’t be more different from one another in so many ways, people who hail from these blue zones turn out to lead surprisingly similar lifestyles.
First, they move a lot. In spite of their old age, they incorporate physical activity naturally into their daily lives, like gardening or walking, but also more rigorous activities such as farming, manual harvesting, and even shepherding livestock. They have low stress levels and keep a slow pace of life. In spite of this, they still insist on taking time out to relax, for example, by taking regular naps. Blue zoners also tend to have strong family and social connections, and often belong to religious communities that further reinforce these behaviors. In addition, they have a strong sense of life’s purpose and belonging that keeps them socially active and well integrated in their communities. This couldn’t be more different from the United States, where frequently elderly parents retire to a different state than their families or to senior homes, sometimes located at a distance from their family members. In the blue zones, grandparents play an essential role in the upbringing, education, and caring of grandchildren, and are often actively engaged in civic volunteering as well. Incidentally, the word retirement doesn’t exist in the traditional Okinawan dialect.
As for what they’re eating, it turns out that blue zoners, no matter their far-flung locations, tend to follow similar diets. While regional variations exist, their typical diets are largely based on plant sources, and are characterized by moderate caloric intake and small portions. Confucian ideals like eating only enough food to feel 80 percent full are at home within these communities. Typically, these centenarians start their day with a large breakfast, followed by a good lunch and a small, often early dinner to facilitate sleep. From a nutritional perspective, they consume a high-carb diet with moderate-to-low levels of protein and fat. Legumes such as beans are a staple dish. Meat is consumed rarely, on average five times a month and in very small portions by our Western standards. Alcohol intake is modest, no more than one to two glasses a day, most often of wine.
For a closer look at their typical meals and recipes, we need to look at each blue zone individually. In Sardinia and Ikaria, people enjoy a Mediterranean diet plentiful with wild, bitter greens like dandelions and grape leaves, legumes like garbanzo beans, and potatoes. They also enjoy and eat plenty of fish—simply grilled and seasoned with herbs like thyme, dill, sage, and marjoram—and the occasional bite of cheese such as Feta and Pecorino. Their beloved olive oil features prominently in their day-to-day lives.
The diet of the Okinawans couldn’t be more different from that of the Mediterranean countries, yet it turns out to be just as delectable. Some classic staple foods include their bright purple sweet potato, various seaweeds, vegetables and fruit like bitter melon—along with the use of soy products like tofu and natto (fermented soy beans). Of course, fresh-caught fish is also a main staple, as are brown rice, green tea, shiitake mushrooms, ginger, and garlic. Among these Okinawans, almost no meat, eggs, or dairy products are consumed. Additionally, this diet is particularly low in calories, even by Japanese standards. A typical Okinawan centenarian consumes 20 percent fewer calories than the average Japanese citizen, highlighting caloric restriction as a proponent of increased life spans.
An entirely different ingredients list hails from the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, where centenarians regularly enjoy the three main staples of Mesoamerican agriculture: beans, corn, and squash. Homemade corn tortillas accompany most meals. Black beans, white rice, yams, and eggs are dietary staples that the culture combines with a variety of fruits like mango, passion fruit, guava, papaya, and their distinctive peach palms high in vitamins A and C. These blue zoners also consume fish, as well as some meat. Finally, Costa Rica is known for its excellent coffee, and the people of Nicoya are the third blue zone (along with Sardinia and Ikaria) to drink it daily.
Last but not least, Loma Linda in California hosts a large community of Seventh-day Adventists, a Protestant Christian denomination that encourages members to eat a well-balanced vegetarian diet with plenty of legumes, whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Their top foods include avocados, nuts, beans, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and soy milk. Some Seventh-day Adventists eat eggs and dairy. When it comes to drinking, their only beverage is water. No coffee, tea, soda, or caffeinated beverages are permitted. Sugar is a no-no, too, except via natural sources such as honey. It comes as little or no surprise that these blue zoners, besides living longer, also have the lowest rates of heart disease and diabetes in the United States, as well as a very low rate of obesity.
THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET
For many, one of the first diets that comes to mind when talking about brain health could very well be the Mediterranean diet. Centenarians in two blue zones out of a total of five eat this way. Researchers have long praised the Mediterranean diet for promoting brain health as well as overall physical health. In fact, as famously heart-healthy as this diet is, it also benefits your brain. A large body of scientific literature, my own work included, shows that people who closely follow a Mediterranean diet are not only less likely to develop diseases like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, but also have a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s as they age.
Born and raised in Italy, I have firsthand experience of what this diet is all about. For Italians, it is not even a diet so much as it is a way of eating and experiencing food. If you were to travel from Italy to the Greek Islands, or from the southwest of France to Barcelona, you’d probably notice a wonderful variation of cuisines—a wide spectrum of specialties, different key ingredients along with all the local habits that accompany them—each and every one a source of regional pride. However, what all these countries have in common is a healthy respect for fresh, locally grown, sun-basked products.
If you were to create a Mediterranean diet pyramid, as many nutritionists are fond of doing, you’d find a wide range of vegetables, fruits, beans, and nuts at the base, as they are the main focus of the plate. Whole grains like wheat, oats, spelt, and barley (consumed in minimally processed forms to provide the maximum dose of nutrients), often served along with wild-caught fish, from trout to orata (dorade, sea bream), are one step up and are eaten fairly often. Meat and dairy are occasional indulgences. Herbs and spices are used freely to naturally flavor the food, reducing the use of extra fat and salt in the process. Sweets are consumed in small portions, usually as a Sunday treat or at special celebrations. In addition, they tend to be much healthier than the usual supermarket-bought desserts, since they are typically made using nuts and seeds and sweetened with honey, molasses, and other natural sugars. As a whole, the Mediterranean diet is a very fresh, very tasty diet, low in calories and fat, and rich in all sorts of brain-essential nutrients.
Olive oil deserves special mention. It is now believed that regular consumption of extra-virgin olive oil is a prime reason for the health effects of the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil that is truly extra virgin has a distinctively bitter, almost pungent taste, and owes its reputation as “the world’s healthiest oil” to its high antioxidant content. In fact, this oil contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fat blended with artery-scrubbing phenolic compounds and vitamin E, another important antioxidant. This particular combination makes olive oil practically magical, as polyphenols also protect and preserve the delicate vitamin E. Even clinical trials show that if we regularly consume extra-virgin olive oil (up to 1 liter/1 quart a week), we can actively protect ourselves from cognitive decline.
Red wine is another main staple of the Mediterranean diet and an excellent source of anti-aging antioxidants. Mediterranean people have a curiously relaxed relationship with wine. Wine is even given in sips to children to introduce them to the fine art of drinking it. I remember my dad giving me my very first sip of red wine diluted with water when I was only six years old. Before you balk, I should let you know that to this day I have never suffered from a hangover. This is because we learn not only how to handle wine at a young age, but also how to consume it within specific guidelines. For men, up to two small glasses of wine a day is considered ideal. Since women absorb alcohol more rapidly than men, one glass a day does the trick. It’s important to note that wine delivers this benefit when drunk as an accompaniment to the meal rather than as a drink had by itself. It is considered downright detrimental to drink wine on an empty stomach, for example.
Another special feature of the Mediterranean diet is its social component. One doesn’t eat (or drink) alone, nor while walking to work or in a mall, let alone while sitting in front of a computer screen. Rather, meals are consumed in the company of others and savored over enjoyable conversation—which, funny enough, often revolves around food. My grandmother would start planning dinner while we were having lunch, and Sunday’s lunch menu was often discussed as early as at Tuesday night’s dinner. This invited everyone to put in their two cents, or in Italian, “dire la loro,” while at the same time making people more aware of their eating choices. “How about pasta al pomodoro? Wait, we had it last week—how about polenta instead?”
Finally, daily physical activity is second nature to Mediterranean cultures. This doesn’t mean strenuous exercise, however. Traditionally, the average person does not go to a gym to work out. Rather, leisurely activities such as walking, housework, gardening, riding a bike, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator are all normal parts of the culture’s daily routine. Truth be told, the majority of buildings in these countries don’t even have elevators.
All in all, the Mediterranean diet is not so much a diet as it is a lifestyle. It is vibrant and fresh, and genuine foods combined with regular exercise, a rich social life, and a positive outlook all contribute toward the long life span of the Mediterranean people.
What is really exciting is that the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet even show up on brain scans. Do you remember the MRI scans in chapter 1? Those scans come from a series of brain imaging studies in which we looked at the effects of the Mediterranean diet in over fifty participants ages twenty-five to seventy-plus years old. The results were astonishing. Regardless of their age, those who followed the diet had overall healthier brains than those on a typical Western diet (or any diet full of red and processed meats, sugary beverages, and sweets and low in plant-based foods and fish). The brains of those on these less healthy diets seem to literally age and shrink more rapidly. In some studies, their brains appear to be a good five years older.
Not only were these beleaguered brains shrinking. Their activity was also reduced. Worse still, even though none of the participants had yet to demonstrate any outward sign of cognitive impairment, the brains of those on a Western diet were already carrying more amyloid plaques than was normal for their age, indicating a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the future.
The good news is that while you probably get the biggest payoff adopting such a diet early on in life, research shows that it is never too late to reap the benefits of a healthy shift toward better lifestyle choices. For example, a study of over ten thousand women showed that those who followed the Mediterranean diet during middle age, though not necessarily prior to that, were much more likely to live past the age of seventy without chronic illness or mental deficiencies than those who did not eat as healthily.
Luckily, you don’t have to move to these Mediterranean countries to keep your mind sharp. A new diet known as the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet) makes the Mediterranean diet easier to follow no matter where one lives in the world. Its core principles are: three servings of whole grains plus a salad and one additional vegetable every single day, along with a glass of wine. Legumes are eaten every other day, while poultry and berries are included twice a week. Fish is consumed once a week. Additionally, to have a real advantage against the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s, dieters are encouraged to limit foods considered unhealthy, especially fried or fast foods but also high-fat dairy and meat. If that sounds too demanding, here’s some incentive: the MIND diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 53 percent in participants who adhered to the diet rigorously. But even those with “middle-of-the-road” compliance with the diet still showed a 35 percent risk reduction. Finally, if the Mediterranean diet isn’t your thing, perhaps Chinese food is?
NOODLES OF LONGEVITY
Even though this next region has yet to be granted blue zone status, Bama Yao in southern Guangxi, once one of China’s poorest regions, is home to the famed Longevity Village, where many people live to one hundred and beyond.
Geographically speaking, Bama is surrounded by picturesque hills and mountains, with the Shangri-la’s Panyang River flowing in between. Thanks to its clean, fresh air, Bama is hailed by many as a natural oxygen tank. It is in this idyllic location that Bama centenarians lead a lifestyle worthy of any other blue zoner. They eat frugally and mindfully, favoring freshly picked vegetables and fruits above all other food. Vegetables in particular are part of each meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Other staple foods include rice and hominy (maize kernels) with the addition of sweet potatoes, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Sweet corn, beans, peas, lentils, and fresh-caught fish round out their diet. Hemp seed oil, a vegetable oil very high in PUFAs, is another main staple. Overall, these centenarians follow a low-calorie, low-fat diet, which is high instead in carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
In addition, they are mostly farmers and engage in this work no matter their age. Traditionally, this remote area had no access to mechanical equipment, power tools, or even electricity until very recently, so nearly everything was done entirely by hand. And never mind watching TV or spending hours online attending to social media. This society thrives on a “real-time” social network, proving once again that such exceptional well-being anchors itself in a strong sense of community and the sense of belonging that it provides. In addition, elders are held in the highest regard. One sign of this is that families serve their elders first at every meal. Further, everybody turns to their grandparents for sage advice.
Speaking of China, several herbs traditionally used in Chinese medicine deserve special attention, as they are some of the world’s most renowned brain tonics. One of the oldest plants on the planet, ginkgo biloba, has long been known for its potential to treat age-related mental decline, so much so that it’s often prescribed in countries like Germany and France. It is believed that ginkgo works by thinning the blood and thereby improving oxygen flow to the brain. Although the results are not unanimous, some clinical trials showed that administering 240 mg/day of ginkgo extract for about six months had beneficial effects on attention, memory, and overall cognitive function.
Ginseng is another herb with celebrated anti-aging properties to the point that it is considered the Fountain of Youth among the Chinese. Though more data is needed, a few clinical trials demonstrated that supplementation of 4.5 grams a day of Panax ginseng might be helpful in improving cognitive function even in Alzheimer’s patients.
India has a spectacularly low incidence of Alzheimer’s as compared to more developed countries, even after accounting for their lower life expectancy rates. As a comparison, Americans are eight times more likely to get Alzheimer’s than their Indian counterparts.
Research indicates that diet has a lot to do with this. In fact, Indian cuisine is particularly rich in spices known for their brain-protective properties. It turns out that turmeric, the signature spice of Indian cuisine, is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. A mustard-yellow powder eaten daily by Indians in their curries, turmeric has been used for at least five thousand years in Ayurvedic medicine against many types of pain and inflammation associated with aging. Recent evidence shows that this spice, or more specifically, its active ingredient curcumin, helps protect against cognitive loss and dementia by keeping our neurons healthy as we age.
For example, in several lab studies, mice that were fed curcumin developed fewer of the amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s than animals that weren’t. Further, older animals who already had plaques in their brains experienced a significant reduction in the number and severity of these plaques. In other words, curry seems to help the brain stay clear of Alzheimer’s lesions.
To date, only a few clinical trials of curcumin supplementation have been completed on humans, yielding negative or inconclusive results. However, as a large number of investigators believe in its anti-aging potential, there are several ongoing trials evaluating curcumin’s efficacy against aging and dementia. It is possible once again that eating the actual spice might prove more synergistically powerful than taking an isolated ingredient.
THE ANTIOXIDANT DIET
As we have seen in the previous chapters, as the brain ages, it employs antioxidants to fight off harmful free radicals. The antioxidant diet aims at increasing the intake of foods and nutrients with high antioxidant potential based on the idea that the more antioxidants you have at your disposal to help squelch free radicals, the lower your brain’s risk of suffering from oxidative stress and disease. This diet can be seen as a spin-off of the Mediterranean diet that puts even more emphasis on the nutritional content of plant-based foods.
The plant kingdom is abundant in especially powerful antioxidants such as vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene; the mineral selenium; and several phytonutrients—like the carotenoids found in orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes) and the anthocyanins that give cherries their bright red color. Berries like blackberries and blueberries, citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges, along with Brazil nuts, walnuts, and many dark-colored beans like raw cacao, are loaded with natural antioxidants that can help protect the brain from harm. Vegetables, in particular spinach, peppers, and asparagus, are also excellent sources of antioxidants, as are some oils like extra-virgin olive oil. These are not ordinary foods. These are superfoods—which should be routinely added to our diets, no matter our age.
And now for the trick up the neuro-nutritionist’s sleeve: glutathione. Glutathione is known as the “master antioxidant.” In a way, it is the supervisor of all other antioxidants, and is also in charge of your body’s detoxification and immune system. As such, it is the antioxidant that everybody needs to stay healthy and prevent disease. Yet many people have never heard of it. Glutathione is produced internally in the body, but there are several foods and supplements that help to boost its levels. Foods rich in sulfur, especially onions, garlic, asparagus, avocado, spinach, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, are all very helpful in raising your glutathione levels.
In addition to increasing our dietary consumption of antioxidants, it is important that we stay away from those foods that further deplete our brains’ antioxidant potential. In the past decade, scientists have shown that some foods contain high amounts of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), harmful compounds that, much like free radicals, can produce inflammation and negatively affect nearly every type of cell and molecule in the body. This in turn accelerates brain aging, cognitive decline, and disease.
Animal-derived foods high in fat and protein, such as butter, margarine, sausage, hamburger meat, and pork chops, contain a lot of AGEs. Additionally, they are prone to additional “AGEing” during cooking, especially with dry heat. Good examples of this would be broiled beef frankfurters and fried bacon, which are quintessentially harmful AGE-carrying offenders. Recommended cooking methods to lower your chances of oxidative stress are (1) steaming, (2) using shorter cooking times, and (3) cooking at lower temperatures. So if you are in the mood for protein, poached eggs and steamed salmon are nutritious low-AGE choices. Also, cooking with acidic ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar actually manages to reduce the AGE levels in animal foods. Have you tried roasting your chicken in balsamic vinegar? It’s quite delicious.
In contrast to animal foods, carbohydrate-rich foods contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking. Vegetables like carrots and tomatoes, fruits like apples and bananas, and whole grains such as oats and rice are at the top of the AGE-free list. With a healthy supply of free-radical-neutralizing foods in your diet, your brain will be armed to both withstand and ward off the age-related “rusting” effects of oxidation and fight off disease.
CALORIC RESTRICTION AND THE KETO DIET
Although not as widely publicized as the Mediterranean diet and certainly not as enticing, caloric restriction, or dramatically reducing your calories within reason, has been associated with increased longevity and improved cognitive function.
The strategy behind this diet is based on almost a century of scientific data showing that stressing our bodies via caloric restriction pushes our cells to get stronger and more resilient against stress. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” as put by Nietzsche quite elegantly in his philosophical essays. Just as muscles get stronger the more you exercise, your brain cells strengthen themselves when they are hungry.
For reasons under investigation, caloric restriction boosts the brain’s antioxidant defense system in laboratory animals. Plus, it ramps up the action of mitochondria (the energy factories of the cell), producing more energy. It also reduces inflammation, prevents deposition of Alzheimer’s plaques, and seems to promote neurogenesis—the formation of new memory-related neurons. That’s quite an impressive résumé.
In general, these effects are observed in animals whose diet has been limited to 30 to 40 percent of their habitual caloric intake. To compare, when eating a calorie-restricted diet, instead of consuming an average of 2,000 calories a day, one would bring that number down to 1,200 to 1,400 calories a day. While limited data is available in humans, a recent clinical trial showed that a similar caloric restriction does indeed lower the risk of memory loss. This study looked at fifty healthy normal-to-overweight elderly subjects, a third of whom were placed on a calorie-restricted diet. After three months of intervention, their memory performance had improved by 20 percent. Those who stuck to the diet more closely also showed markedly improved insulin levels and reduced inflammation.
However, it turns out that although reducing the overall amount of calories definitely helps, fasting might work even better. If you just thought to yourself “forget it,” picturing a guru perched upon a bed of nails, don’t worry—we’re not talking about prolonged fasting but intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is a type of limited, shorter-term fasting that involves short spells of dietary restriction amid longer periods of habitual eating. This seems to confer the most health benefits. For instance, intermittent fasting can increase the life span of laboratory animals by up to 30 percent. This makes sense if you consider that most animals, including humans, evolved through multiple short-term periods of caloric restriction, for example, during winter. As a result, our metabolism operates more efficiently when freed from the burdens of 24/7 digestion and nutrition assimilation.
While more work is needed to prove the potentially beneficial effects on cognitive health due to fasting, there is evidence that a form of intermittent fasting known as the “5:2 diet” has positive effects on cardiovascular function, and therefore might help slow age-related cognitive decline. This diet involves eating normally five days a week and then taking in a maximum of approximately 600 calories a day for the following two days. In a recent study, 107 overweight or obese women were divided randomly into two intervention groups. One group was put on a calorie-restricted diet (1500 kcal/day for seven days) and the other group on the 5:2 diet. After six months of dieting, both groups had lost weight and showed reduced inflammation, insulin resistance, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure levels. However, these improvements were more pronounced in the 5:2 group than in those on the stricter seven-day version, indicating that reduced-calorie dieting for just two days a week might be just as good if not better than 24/7.
Another bonus of calorie restriction is that fasting increases production of ketone bodies. As mentioned before, ketones are the only alternative energy source for the brain when our glucose supply runs too low. Since many people might find fasting difficult, supplementation of ketone bodies via a low-calorie diet has been proposed as a viable alternative to support brain health.
The high-fat, low-carbohydrate “ketogenic diet” was formulated in the 1920s and is based on the principle that if one drastically restricts carbohydrate intake, the body goes into a state of ketosis, forcing it to burn fat, which in turn produces ketones. Besides being helpful for weight loss, this diet is known for its anticonvulsive properties and is widely used to treat epileptic seizures, revealing a brain-protective effect.
Recent data suggests that the keto diet might also help with diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Although clinical trials have been scarce, preliminary studies have shown that supplementation with medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), a type of fat that is among the best sources of ketones, improved Parkinson’s symptoms by 43 percent after just one month of treatment. Similarly, patients with Alzheimer’s or MCI showed improved cognitive performance after a few months of supplementation with caprylidene (Axona), a prescription medical food that the body metabolizes into ketone bodies. These studies are limited however by a very small sample size and await replication. It also remains unknown whether eating natural foods rich in MCT, like coconut oil, could be just as effective.
If the keto diet sounds appealing to you, it is important to keep two things in mind. First of all, ketone bodies are not the preferred energy source for the brain. As we discussed, the brain always needs, at a bare minimum, 30 percent of calories from glucose to work efficiently. Second, this diet is basically the opposite of the scientifically proven Mediterranean diet. Third, increased fat consumption can alter the body’s metabolism. Lastly, even though your body will eventually burn off the saturated fat ingested as part of this diet, your cholesterol level might increase in the meantime. Plus, fat-rich foods are usually low in fiber, which is hard on your digestive system, and rich in protein, which might be hard on your kidneys. As a result, adverse effects such as constipation, flatulence, dyspepsia (disturbed digestion), and “keto breath” (bad breath) can be fairly common.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE WORLD’S HEALTHIEST DIETS
What lessons can we learn from the world’s healthiest diets? How can we incorporate their principles into our everyday lives when we’re constantly tempted by processed foods and excess sweets during the long hours often spent at our desks, stressed and restless for something more?
While all these diets might at first glance have very little in common (seaweed in Okinawa, olives in Sardinia, curry in India)—they actually share a key common ingredient. With the exception of the keto diet, each of them provides an excellent example of a whole, nutrient-dense diet known to benefit the brain as much as the rest of the body.
In each of these diets, regular consumption of wild, fresh greens is integral. These greens come with an arsenal of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that brain cells need to stay healthy and communicative. Fresh fruit, picked ripe from the trees, is another excellent source of vitamins as well as natural sweetness that at the same time curbs cravings for refined sugars. Among all fruits, berries seem to be especially brain-supportive. Many research studies have shown that berry extracts from blueberry, cranberry, blackberry, cherry, strawberry, and Concorde grape all ameliorate or even prevent cognitive declines in laboratory animals.
Although many of us love chocolate, few of us realize that raw cacao also comes from berries. Cacao is loaded with antioxidants like theobromine, a close relative of caffeine, and many powerful flavonoids. A recent clinical trial showed that consumption of cocoa drinks with a high flavonoid content of 500 to 1000 mg improved attention and memory in the elderly while reducing inflammation and insulin levels in as little as eight weeks.
And what about coffee? Coffee comes from roasted coffee beans, which are again the berries of the Coffea plant. As most people are aware, coffee beans contain caffeine, a substance that keeps you awake at night but in addition possesses fierce antioxidants such as chlorogenic acid. It is worth noting that even though coffee and cocoa drinks are not consumed in all blue zone communities, those who do drink them regularly have even lower rates of diabetes and heart disease. While results are not always consistent, some research studies have shown that people who drink coffee daily in midlife are less likely to develop dementia when they get older. Again, everything in moderation. Too much coffee might affect your heart rate as well as your sleep quality.
For those of us who love wine, we celebrate that grapes are berries, too. Red wine is a great source of resveratrol, an aromatic compound found in the skin of grapes (but also in raspberries and mulberries), which is well-known for its antioxidant and neurons-protective properties. Wine also contains flavonoids that protect blood vessels and heart health. While pretty much everybody agrees that one to two glasses of red wine a day are a key part of aging gracefully, clinical trials have so far failed to show the beneficial effects of resveratrol on cognition. Again, this raises the question as to whether taking in these benefits via our food (or better, our wine) is in fact more powerful than attempting to glean results via supplementation.
While not all centenarian communities drink tea, there is some evidence that this popular beverage might also help protect brain cells and fend off dementia as we age. Most people who consume tea regularly choose black tea as their favorite tea. However, the brain prefers green tea. Green tea contains twice the amount of antioxidants than black tea and is therefore a more powerful anti-aging ally. Green tea is also quite rich in a special flavonoid called EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate) that appears to protect the brain from accumulation of Alzheimer’s plaques.
Nuts and seeds are another staple food of many centenarians. These pint-sized nutritional dynamos are loaded with healthy unsaturated fats, protein, fiber, and a variety of antioxidants. Walnuts in particular are well-known for their high level of PUFAs and antioxidants like vitamin E, melatonin, and ellagic acid. These nutrients act synergistically to enhance the effects of the PUFAs, all the while increasing absorption of their own protective compounds. The result is improved cognitive function, at least when tested in aged animals.
Local whole grains, beans, and starches are also dietary staples of most longevity diets. These foods provide a slow release of brain-supportive carbs and fiber while reducing the meal’s glycemic load, avoiding sugar rushes and crashes. Sweet potatoes in particular are part of most longevity diets. Not only are they full of dopamine-enhancing nutrients, but they also contain high amounts of one of our brains’ very favorite antioxidants, beta-carotene, which we convert into vitamin A. A sweet potato alone provides 368 percent of the recommended daily dose of vitamin A, which our bodies can store away for times of need.
Unprocessed, high-quality vegetable oil and fish rich in unsaturated fat are also common in most longevity hubs. The nutrients contained in these foods help promote cholesterol transport, which protects the heart while ensuring a healthy supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Additionally, fatty fish like salmon is among the best natural source of brain-essential DHA. To date, as many as nine large-scale epidemiological studies have concluded that regular fish consumption is crucial for brain health. Most studies reported that middle-aged and older people who consumed fish regularly succeeded in delaying cognitive decline and reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 70 percent as compared to those who ate little to no fish. They granted themselves this insurance policy by eating high-quality fatty fish just once or twice a week.
Another important lesson is that it’s not only about what you do eat, but also about what you don’t. With the exception of the keto diet, all longevity diets are characterized by infrequent consumption of red meat and dairy, thereby lowering the intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. This expedient alone might very well account for the centenarians’ lower risk of heart disease. When they do eat meat and dairy products, these come from pasture-raised animals (oftentimes goats and sheep), whose meat is leaner and higher in PUFAs than that of domesticated animals, and whose milk contains higher amounts of brain-essential nutrients like B vitamins and serotonin-boosting tryptophan.
We also saw that dessert is considered an exceptional treat and never the norm. In addition, the use of natural sweeteners like raw local honey, molasses, and dried fruit renders refined-sugar products altogether unnecessary for these populations. Most centenarians as well as their younger family counterparts do not drink or even like soda, one of modern society’s most hidden sources of added, excessive sugar. To this day, I have never seen an Italian nonna (grandmother) drinking Coca-Cola—unless she’s up to some mischief!
Overall, tradition and science agree that there are common dietary principles that promote longevity, deeply rooted in the choices we make as well as our lifestyle habits as a whole.