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Food for Thought

Food for Thought

Connecting nutrition to brain health

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It’s easy to understand that eating an entire box of toaster pastries is less healthy than eating fruits or vegetables, but among the healthy foods, are some choices better than others? Food affects the function of the entire body, but one area that is of particular interest to researchers is the effect of nutrition on brain function. According to early findings reported by a researcher at Rush University Medical Center, poor nutrition is the cause of a certain type of dementia.

Demystifying Dementia

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. It may be caused by nutritional deficiencies, injury, disease or age-related decline. 

With the aging of the Baby Boomer generation and the onset of the Silver Tsunami, an estimated 131 million people worldwide may be living with some form of dementia by 2050, according to the World Alzheimer’s Report. But can anything be done to delay or even avoid the onset of brain-related decline?

“The brain is a highly metabolic active organ. It requires a lot of nutrients for it to function continuously,” said Christina Liew-Newville, assistant professor and dietetic technician program director at TCC Southeast. “In addition to glucose, which serves as the primary fuel for the brain, many vitamins and minerals are essential for brain development, function and maintenance.”

Man pinning food pictures to a bulletin board

Recent studies found that dementia caused by nutrition deficiencies can be prevented or even reversed. According to dementia.org, eating a diet rich in B vitamins with fruits, vegetables and whole grains will prevent and reverse dementia that is caused by nutritional deficiencies. 

“A diet high in refined carbohydrates is typically lower in nutrients and fiber. Regular consumption of this diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies,” Liew-Newville said.

Know Your ABCs

Having a brain-healthy diet is more than eating a specific food or taking vitamins A, B or C.

“Food provides the building blocks of your body. If you want your house to last a long time, you want to build a good foundation. Nutrition is the foundation of health. For your body to function optimally, it is important to have adequate nutrient intake. Your body needs nutrients to build, repair itself and regenerate,” said Liew-Newville. “Some of the foods [that might improve brain function] are avocado, blueberries, fatty fish, leafy green vegetables, turmeric, nuts and seeds such as almonds, flaxseed and walnuts.”

Researchers have discovered some promising results from people using the MIND diet. 

“MIND diet stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It adopts the components of Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which is a dietetic approach to lowering blood pressure,” according to Liew-Newville. “The MIND diet encourages regular consumption of green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, legumes, fish and olive oil. It discourages intake of red meat, sweets, cheese, butter/margarine and fried food.

“The MIND diet may be able to improve cognitive functions.”

Chef chopping herbs

Fat is an important dietary element, according to Dawn Blevins, dietary manager program coordinator at TCC Southeast. “Small amounts of fat are essential to a healthy and balanced diet. Over the long term, if we do not consume adequate amounts of fat, we can see vitamin deficiencies, trouble concentrating or mental fatigue, dry skin, dry eyes and hormonal problems.”

Fat also is one of the major nutrients that bodies need. “It is used in the structures of the cell membrane, hormone production, production of Vitamin D, bile acid and insulation. Fat is especially important for brain cells and brain functions,” said Liew-Newville. “Consumption of monounsaturated fats (MUFA) and omega 3 fats lower the risk of heart disease and related death. Good sources of MUFA include olive oil, avocados, almonds and peanuts. Omega-3 fats are found in fatty fish, flaxseed and chia seed,” she continued.

Dietary fat is needed for the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamin A, D and E, though Blevins noted there are differences in the type of fat a person eats. “Good fats are the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that we get from nuts, seeds, grain and vegetables. These are good for us because they provide essential fatty acids that the body cannot make on its own, and they support the absorption of all the other wonderful nutrients in these foods.”

The fad diets of the '80s supported a lot of misinformation and may have steered the public in the wrong direction toward unleahtly, unbalanced diets.

Dawn Blevins
Dietary Manager Program Coordinator,
TCC Southeast

TCC’S Dietetic Programs

Tarrant County College offers five different degrees or certificates in Nutrition for students who are interested in wellness, nutrition, health promotion, public health and chronic disease prevention. Students can earn a Healthy Meal Planning Occupational Skills Award; Certificate of Completion Nutrition Specialist I; Certificate of Completion Food and Nutrition Coach; Certificate of Completion Dietary Manage or Associate of Applied Sciences degree as a Dietetic Technician. 

“Job opportunities in this career path include hospitals, long-term care facilities, community agencies, corporate wellness, fitness industry, food service management and consulting and coaching,” Liew-Newville said.

In the Dietetics Lab at TCC Southeast, students practice doing nutrition assessments, providing diet education and documenting patient information. Students also can join the Student Dietetic Organization (SDO). The club provides information about the dietetic program, as well as serves students and their families through the promotion of good nutrition, health and well-being. 

Though the causes of early onset and increased cognitive decline among the general population are not yet known, many dietary professionals are now focused on the role of nutrition for the maintenance of health rather than the treatment of disease. “It is not too late to change. Even making small changes in your diet can have positive effects on your health,” Liew-Newville said.

Dietetics students speaking to a young man

The Worst Foods for Your Brain, according to WebMD.com

  1. Margarine and Frosting
  2. Alcohol
  3. Soda and Other Sugary Drinks
  4. Diet Sodas and Drinks with Aritifical Sweenteners
  5. French Fries and Other Fried Foods
  6. Doughnuts
  7. White Bread and White Rice
  8. Red Meat
  9. Butter and Full-Fat Cheese
  10. Swordish and Ahi Tuna
  11. Bottled Dressings, Marinades and Syrups
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