Best defense for your brain? Your stomach.
Story by Lisa Allen + Photos by Lisa Staff
The old joke goes “if I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
That’s especially true in the United States, a Western culture that is late to the table when it comes to eating in a manner that improves health. We’re overweight, sedentary, and we love, love, LOVE fast and processed food. Because of these habits, we often suffer in old age, paying the price in the form of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and poor mobility. (Fortunately, Hilton Head is one of the healthiest places in the state.)
So, it makes sense that eating well can help our overall health and enable us to enjoy much of our old age. Researchers also are starting to think that diet might ward off dementia. Hands down, scientists point to the Mediterranean diet as the best way to eat for overall health. It is characterized by high consumption of fruit, vegetables, beans, and whole grains with olive oil as the primary fat source. It includes moderate consumption of fish, low to moderate intake of dairy products and wine (with meals), and very little red meat and poultry.
It’s not a fad diet or a prescription of what specifically to eat, but how to eat. Eat these types of things; don’t eat those types of things. But what’s challenging for Americans is what we shouldn’t eat is what we’ve been eating all of our lives: processed foods (bacon, ham, food in boxes, to-go bags and cans), red meat, fat and sugar.
What are Blue Zones?
The power of how we eat was illustrated dramatically in Blue Zones, communities that had an unusual percentage of people over age 100 who were in great health. Researcher Dan Buettner coined Blue Zones after studying the Italian island of Sardinia; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, Calif.; Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula; and Ikaria, an isolated Greek island. Buettner noted four things those communities had in common: Connection with others, eating wisely, the right outlook and moving.
The Brain Summit hosted by Memory Matters on March 11 at the Hilton Head Beach & Tennis Resort will focus on similar areas: exercise, the Mediterranean lifestyle, lifelong learning, socializing and restfulness.
The Mediterranean lifestyle segment is where chef Kim Baretta of Sea Pines comes in.
“I didn’t start out using food for health,” Baretta said. “In 2001, I went to culinary school in London where we were living at the time. I was a caterer and I cooked anything you asked me to cook,” she said.
In fact, nutrition consumed only one day of her schooling at Leiths School of Food and Wine.
When she and her husband returned to Cincinnati, she started studying Blue Zones and taught her two children about healthy eating. (Her husband is still a work in progress.)
What does food have to do with the brain?
Intuitively, we know if we eat well, our bodies will function better. But science goes steps further. Researchers discovered that a protein found in the brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF — helps brain functions such as keeping brain cells alive, growing new neurons and aiding cognitive function. Low levels of BDNF have been linked to Alzheimer’s, accelerated aging, poor neural development, neurotransmitter dysfunction, obesity, depression, and even schizophrenia.
Research has found that one way to increase BDNF is to follow that Mediterranean diet, thereby cutting out saturated fats and refined sugar.
The Mayo Clinic cites research that suggests a Mediterranean diet may slow cognitive decline in older adults, reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — a transitional stage between the cognitive decline of normal aging and the more serious memory problems caused by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and reduce the risk of MCI progressing into Alzheimer’s disease.
The link between what we eat and our overall health is a topic that is gaining traction in the United States, and is finally becoming part of medical training. Doctors realized telling patients just to eat better wasn’t working. A new focus, culinary medicine, teaches doctors specifically what to eat and how to cook it so they can educate their patients.
Dr. Rani Polak, a physician, chef and research associate at Harvard Medical School, says obese, chronically ill patients know the basics: Healthy food is good, junk food is bad; weight loss can improve health. Yet some patients struggle to translate that knowledge to specifics around mealtime, and doctors don’t have the tools to teach them.
“Most of the discussion about nutrition is in science language,” Polak said in a recent interview with U.S. News. “Clinicians usually talk with patients about vitamins, minerals, saturated fat and cholesterol. You do not buy this stuff in the grocery store. You buy food, you buy vegetables, you buy grains, you buy fish. That’s the way we think to communicate with patients.”
“It’s nice to know that they know they need to consume quinoa,” he says. “But unless they know how to cook it, they probably will not consume it.”
That’s the gap Baretta is trying to fill. Baretta’s mother-in-law suffered from dementia and benefited from Memory Matters. But Baretta noted the lunches they served could have been healthier.
Baretta, now a board member and volunteer chef-in-residence, helped Memory Matters develop a plant-focused meal plan. “It’s not all vegetarian or vegan, but emphasizes plants, beans and olive oil.” She uses whole-grain breads and pasta and incorporates faro, bulgar wheat and barley to give foods texture as well as nutrients.
Getting the word out
In addition to speaking at the Brain Summit, Baretta speaks to community groups about healthy eating, be it at home or out. She noted that the SERG restaurant group is adding more Mediterranean dishes to their menus.
“We tend to think when we eat out, you can’t eat well,” Baretta said. “It’s a matter of asking. Ask your server, ‘does that dish include butter? Can the chef use olive oil instead?’ Chances are, the answer will be yes.”
How to tell if you’re doing it right
If you’re eating a Mediterranean diet, your plate will be very colorful because of it.
“Think of the meat as the garnish instead of the vegetables as the garnish,” Baretta said. “Turn it upside down. Plus, you don’t have to do this all at once. It’s a process.”
Some evolutionary changes:
- Darker green is better than light greens on salads. And don’t buy dressings in a bottle. It’s all sugar and sodium, Baretta said. Use flavored olive oil and balsamic vinegar because there is no sugar added.
- Add beans to soups and casseroles. Update recipes by doubling the veggies and cutting in half the amount of beef. That makes a great bolognese sauce.
- Use whole grains in chili. Add bulgar for texture, which will give a similar mouth feel as meat.
- Put flavored olive oil or lemon on vegetables rather than butter. “After a while you don’t miss it.”
- Transition to whole grain pasta. Use half and half to start.
- Avoid the words ‘never’ and ‘always.’
Remember, you don’t have to make all of these changes at once, Baretta said. You’ll get there, one dish at a time. LL
Let’s get it started
This is a great gluten-free, dairy-free hors d’oeuvre using beans, a key Mediterranean ingredient. All three elements of the dish can be prepared the day before. The ratatouille recipe makes more than what you need. Toss the leftovers into a pasta for a lunchtime meal.
Cucumber cups with hummus and ratatouille
2 cups chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)
6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
A few dashes Tabasco
Cumin to taste, about 2 tablespoons
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 red onion, diced small
1/2 eggplant, diced small
1/2 red pepper, diced small
1 small zucchini, unpeeled, diced small
1 tomato, cored, seeded and diced small
1 English cucumber (for cups)
Directions  Cut cucumber into about 20 3/4-inch thick slices. Cut each slice with a round pastry cutter to remove skin and make uniform in size. Using a melon baller, scoop out soft center to make a cup, leaving a 1/4-inch layer as the base.  Puree all hummus ingredients in food processor. Season with salt and pepper Place in piping bag with a star nozzle.  Saute ratatouille ingredients in sauté pan until soft. Season with salt and pepper.  Pipe hummus into cucumber rounds. Sprinkle with ratatouille. (Makes 20 pieces)
Into the wild
This is a wonderful dish to serve to a crowd. Be sure to buy the freshest of salmon, preferably wild. It really makes a difference. You also can marinate and cook a whole side of salmon for a pretty buffet presentation.
Soy and orange marinated salmon with spinach and cucumber sauce
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1/3 cup low sodium soy sauce
4 5-ounce salmon fillets with the skin on
Directions  Mix liquid ingredients. Marinate salmon for 2 hours in refrigerator.  Transfer to a baking sheet, skin side down. Bake at 450 degrees for 14 minutes with the skin side down.
1/3 cup baby spinach leaves
1/3 cup arugula leaves
1 teaspoon minced shallot
1/4 cup non fat plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon whole grain Dijon mustard
1/4 cup chopped, seeded, peeled cucumber
Directions  Chop spinach and shallots in food processor. Add yogurt and mustard. Pulse until just blended.  Transfer to a medium bowl. Add cucumbers just before serving. Season with salt and pepper. (Serves 4)