Regular readers know this familiar brain health mantra: exercise regularly, manage stress, eat lots of different fruits and vegetables, and supplement wisely.
It seems that every day there’s another important study that reinforces how lifestyle can boost—or diminish— brain health and cognition.
Scientists have explored the potential brain benefits of certain diets including the Mediterranean diet,1 the MIND diet,2 and the list goes on.
Simply put, a healthy diet supports a healthy brain.
Now a new study published in the journal Neurology suggests that it’s not just what you eat, but how you combine the foods you eat that may decrease or increase your risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.3
Researchers in France asked more than 627 people with the average age of 78 about their diet. At the beginning of the study, participants recorded which types of foods they typically ate.
What happened next was fascinating.
First, researchers studied what foods participants often ate at the same time, which they called “food networks.” Next, they looked at the effect those food pairings had on the cognitive health of the participants five years later. By then, 209 people in the study group had developed dementia. (Not too surprising, since these folks were at an advanced age when the study began.)
Interestingly, when researchers took a general look at the foods that all members of the group ate, there wasn’t much difference in individual food choices. However, there was a significant difference in how those without dementia had combined their foods in food networks.
The “Meat and Potatoes” of the Study
Study author CéciliaSamieri, Ph.D., explained in a press release that many previous studies have shown how eating a healthier diet, for example a diet rich in green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains and fish, may lower a person’s risk of dementia.
However, she says this particular study was different, because it didn’t focus on quantity and frequency of foods.
“Our study went one step further to look at food networks and found important differences in the ways in which food items were co-consumed in people who went on to develop dementia and those who did not,” Dr. Samieri notes.
“People with dementia were more likely, when they ate processed meat, to accompany it with potatoes, and people without dementia were more likely to accompany meat with more diverse foods, including fruit and vegetables and seafood,” says Dr. Samieri.
“We found that more diversity in diet, and greater inclusion of a variety of healthy foods, is related to less dementia,” she said.
Processed Meats, The Good and Bad
Not surprisingly, researchers found pairings that included processed meat and starches – hello bacon and hash browns! – were most likely to contribute to dementia risk.
However, individuals who ate the same amount of meat but paired it with healthier sides such as fruit and vegetables seemed to fare better in their cognitive skills.
Dr. Samieri reasons that how frequently processed meat is combined with other unhealthy foods, rather than how much of it a person eats, may be important for dementia risk.
Additionally, red flags emerged when participants paired processed meats with alcohol and sugary snacks like cookies and cakes.
“In fact, we found differences in food networks that could be seen years before people with dementia were diagnosed,” Dr. Samieri said.
Those folks with no signs of cognitive decline were more likely to group their foods into smaller, more diverse food “networks.” These wise choices included healthier foods, such as seafood, fruits and vegetables.
Are there limitations to the study? You bet. Dubbed an observational study, participants self-reported their food consumption, which isn’t always trustworthy. It was also a small study.
Another weakness is that the participants’ diets were only recorded once. Plus, this study was undertaken years before the onset of dementia, so any important changes in diet over time went unknown.
Still, I believe this study underscores the critical link between dietary choices and cognitive health. It also shows that nutrition is a modifiable risk factor that can be changed to improve brain health outcomes.
There’s no “magic bullet” to prevent Alzheimer’s or delay cognitive aging. But I’m convinced that a colorful plate full of brain-healthy foods, such as leafy greens, fish and whole grains is an essential weapon against cognitive decline.
I’ll keep an eye out for future studies on the topic of brain boosting “food networks” and let you know what I find.