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Nutrition and the Brain: What Doctors Are Learning

Dr.Gary Small Gene Stone Default

The last of five conversations between brain expert Dr. Gary Small and health writer Gene Stone

Gary Small: As we mentioned in our last conversation, eating a healthy diet improves an individual's mood. There is a connection between consuming Omega-3 fats from fish, nuts, or flaxseed, and lower rates of depression. In another recent study, my research group looked at the effects on memory of antioxidants from pomegranate juice, which contains polyphenols, powerful antioxidants also found in dark chocolate and artichokes. We found that people who drank the pomegranate juice, compared to those who drank a placebo, demonstrated better memory abilities after just one month.
Gene Stone: What other work have you done on the relationship between good diet and brain health?
Small: We're studying the cognitive effects of the curcumin, produced from turmeric and used to make spices (including curry and mustard), food coloring, and medicine to treat a variety of ailments. Our group would like to study nutrition more, but as you probably know, nutrition has not been a major part of the medical curriculum.
Stone: From what I understand, until recently medical schools didn't even offer nutrition courses.
Small: When I was in medical school we had just one hour of nutrition for the entire four-year curriculum, and that was just about the basic four food groups—that's it. The situation is improving. For example, at UCLA we now have a human nutrition center that focuses on both basic science and clinical effects of nutrition on health and wellness. But Western medicine still tends to be focused on medicine. Not food. Think of what it's called: Medicine.
Stone: Don't you think a lot of younger doctors are starting to treat diet as an important part of their patients' health?
Small: Yes. In my practice, for example, I take a traditional Western medical approach and address modern diagnostic techniques and issues of treatment with medication, I also focus on diet, stress management, physical exercise, mental stimulation, and other lifestyle choices that affect health.
Stone: How do your patients respond to that?
Small: Many embrace that approach but others are not so interested in changing their lifestyles, despite the scientific evidence showing that it does work. They don't want to be told they should exercise or eat a healthy diet. They want to know if there's a pill they can take to make it all better.
Stone: And yet there is so much information about the relationship between diet and health coming out now. For example, have you read Caldwell Esselstyn's Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease or Colin Campbell's The China Study?
Small: One of the vegan doctors I know sent me a copy of The China Study and I have begun to read it. Some of the data referred to in the study in the book are quite compelling.
Stone: I've recommended that book to many doctors. Some read it, some don't. But I've also found that in New York City, where I live, many doctors are simply not interested in nutrition and diet. For example, after I turned vegan, my cholesterol level dropped fifty points, my HDL went up, and my LDL went down. My triglyceride levels also dropped. It was amazing. But my doctor, whom I admire very much, nonetheless was convinced I must have been taking statins on the side without telling him.
Small: Well, I do try to work with diet, which I think is important for brain health as well as general health. I emphasize Omega-3 fats, which you can get in fish of course, but you can also get in a plant-based diet through foods such as walnuts or flax seeds. I also tell people that it's important to minimize the amount of refined sugars they take in, as well as processed foods. Another recommendation I make, and this is part of the Alzheimer's prevention program, is to eat more frequent, small meals throughout the day. Too often people have a big meal in one sitting, then are famished the rest of the day, and consequently eat too much when they have their next meal.
Stone: Given all you've been learning about diet, is there any chance that you will ever go vegan yourself?
Small: Not right now. I just like meat too much. I don't eat it all that often, however—I eat red meat a couple of times a week, maybe fish two to three times. What about you? What do you eat?
Stone: I eat pretty much all plant-based whole foods all the time. For dinner I might have a rice and bean casserole with a salad, or a whole-wheat lasagna dish, or a mushroom burrito. Since I've written several books that have hundreds of plant-based recipes in them, it's pretty easy for me to figure out what will be healthy and enjoyable to eat. There are also six vegan restaurants within a mile of my apartment. I tell you what: Next time you're in New York I'll take you out to a vegan restaurant. The journey of a plant-based eater begins with a single dinner—if it tastes good.

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