Thought for food: Green vegetables, healthy diet can stave off cognitive decline, say UC Davis nutritionist

Brain foods address part of a series of talks hosted by UC Davis MIND Institute in Sacramento

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the November 3, 2016, issue.

You think what you eat—that was the message a renowned nutritional expert delivered last week to a local audience of about 125 people.

On October 27, Dr. Liz Applegate, professor of nutrition and director of sports nutrition at UC Davis, spoke about how the food we consume impacts the function of our brains. Applegate’s address, “Brain Foods and Cognitive Health,” is part of a series of talks, hosted by the UC Davis MIND Institute near Tahoe Park, that are focused on Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss and cognitive decline.

“People don’t know that the brain is another organ in your body that is very responsive to what you eat,” Applegate said.

The address was designed to encourage people to consider the impact that nutrition has on the brain. Like your heart, Applegate said, the brain is full of blood vessels that are impacted by nutrition and cholesterol levels. Highly refined carbohydrates, processed sugars and fats promote poor brain health and can hasten cognitive decline.

“I think our brains are a little bit of a mystery—it’s literally a black box—we don’t research brain function as much as we do cardiac function,” Applegate said.

A former nutritional adviser to Olympic athletes, Applegate has been quoted in Vogue, Teen Vogue, Real Simple, Glamour, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Better Homes and Gardens.

Applegate recommends the MIND Diet, which is short for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.” (Not to be confused with the MIND Institute’s acronym for “Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders.”) The diet was developed by researchers at Rush University Medical School, and encourages consumption of green leafy vegetables, nuts, berries, whole grains and legumes coupled with small portions of meat, olive oil, weekly servings of fish and daily glasses of wine.

In population trials, those who followed the diet experienced significantly slower cognitive decline than peers who ate a typical American diet high in animal fat, processed foods and sugar, according to Applegate. Even people who loosely followed the diet benefited.

“It’s compelling information and I think that we have a lot more to learn,” Applegate said. “It’s no surprise that exercising and nutrition helps slow our cognitive decline.”