Use your brain — avoid questionable fad diets

  • By Barbara Quinn The Monterey County Herald
  • Monday, June 2, 2014 11:48am
  • Life

Reader “Lynn in Salinas” writes: “Will you please comment on Dr. David Perlmutter’s bestseller book, ‘Grain Brain,’ and his claim that wheat, gluten, carbs and sugar are the cause of dementia?”

In the famous words of Jack Nicholson, “I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.” But here goes.

Perlmutter is a neurologist who makes some pretty sweeping claims that wheat, carbohydrates and sugar are “the brain’s silent killers.”

Yet scientists who actually study such things have concluded that diets rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes (such as the well-studied DASH or Mediterranean diets) are “positively associated with higher cognitive (brain) function.”

Perlmutter states that “our ancestors never ate grain.”

To which archaeologists may argue that, based on discoveries of grinding stones with grain residues, we have probably been eating grains for at least the past 30,000 years.

And I would guess our ancestors didn’t turn down a meal of berries or other carbs when they had the chance to eat.

Glucose from these foods might have provided the energy they needed to run away from predators before they figured out to hunt them for food.

It’s a fact that our brains run on glucose, a fuel derived from carbohydrates. Carbs are sugars and starches made by plants when they are exposed to energy from the sun.

Without glucose, brain cells die. Even on low-carb diets, the body switches to other mechanisms to manufacture glucose for the brain. It’s that important.

This author has stated that “a rise in blood sugar is completely detrimental to the brain.”

I hope he remembers that a rise in blood sugar is a natural process every time we eat. It’s how our body replenishes the glucose (blood sugar) drained from our brains when we think.

I am not a neurologist. But I suspect if whole grains caused dementia, we’d have a worldwide epidemic on our hands. But then what do I know? I eat granola and fruit for breakfast.

To its credit, this book advocates a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils), which is supported by good science for brain health. Yet it ignores other evidence that excess saturated fats can impair brain function.

Alas, it comes down to what my grandfather taught me. Too much of anything is not good for us. Even extreme diets. Cutting out entire nutrient groups eliminates important nutrients. That might not be so smart.

And we might be wise to consider what some pretty reliable sources have to say. The World Health Organization states that a higher intake of whole grains could help alleviate early death and disability worldwide.

And independent research by Consumer Reports states the “ideal diet is varied, rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products plus modest amounts of fish and low-fat meat and chicken.”

Worth thinking about.

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.

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