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Can diet really protect you from dementia?

 

‘Have you been to the dentist this year?’ Dr Alon Seifan, MD asks. 

‘Um, yes.’ 

‘Have you been to the neurologist?’

‘Um… no.’

‘Are your teeth more important than your brain? Obviously not. We need to bring brain health into our day-to-day life.’

That is how the neurologist-turned-restaurant-owner explained his reasons for opening Honeybrains, a high-end ‘fast food’ cafe with a menu that he claims will lower your risk of Alzheimer’s.

Brain healthy: This is one of the dishes at Honeybrains, with fresh lox, dill and lemon on whole wheat bread and olive oil. The menu was inspired by the diets of people from Blue Zones - regions with the lowest rates of Alzheimer's and longest lifespans 

Brain healthy: This is one of the dishes at Honeybrains, with fresh lox, dill and lemon on whole wheat bread and olive oil. The menu was inspired by the diets of people from Blue Zones - regions with the lowest rates of Alzheimer's and longest lifespans 

Brain healthy: This is one of the dishes at Honeybrains, with fresh lox, dill and lemon on whole wheat bread and olive oil. The menu was inspired by the diets of people from Blue Zones – regions with the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s and longest lifespans 

The Honeybrains directors were inspired by studies on Middle Eastern honey consumption and lower dementia risk. Customers are invited to try the different honeys on display at the restaurant (pictured)

The Honeybrains directors were inspired by studies on Middle Eastern honey consumption and lower dementia risk. Customers are invited to try the different honeys on display at the restaurant (pictured)

The Honeybrains directors were inspired by studies on Middle Eastern honey consumption and lower dementia risk. Customers are invited to try the different honeys on display at the restaurant (pictured)

'The daily catch' is a dish of salmon fillet, roasted sweet potato, kale and a honey and lemon dressing, designed to include the five main food groups that feature in Blue Zone diets: whole grains, legumes, omega-3s, vegetables and fruit

'The daily catch' is a dish of salmon fillet, roasted sweet potato, kale and a honey and lemon dressing, designed to include the five main food groups that feature in Blue Zone diets: whole grains, legumes, omega-3s, vegetables and fruit

‘The daily catch’ is a dish of salmon fillet, roasted sweet potato, kale and a honey and lemon dressing, designed to include the five main food groups that feature in Blue Zone diets: whole grains, legumes, omega-3s, vegetables and fruit

ALZHEIMER’S: FAST FACTS 

WHAT IS IT?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain. 

A build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.

This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink.

WHAT HAPPENS?

As brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost. 

That includes memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason. 

The progress of the disease is slow and gradual. 

On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some may live for ten to 15 years.

EARLY SYMPTOMS:

  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Disorientation
  • Behavioral changes
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulties dealing with money
  • Difficulties making a phone call 
  • Difficulties following a TV show

LATER SYMPTOMS:

  • Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar objects or places
  • Becoming anxious and frustrated over inability to make sense of the world… 
  • …This can lead to aggressive behavior
  • Eventually lose ability to walk
  • May have problems eating and drinking 
  • The majority will eventually need 24-hour care 

HOW ALZHEIMER’S DIFFERS FROM NORMAL MEMORY LOSS:

With ordinary age-related forgetfulness, you will still remember details associated with the thing they’ve forgotten.

For example, you may forget your neighbor’s name in conversation, but you still know that person is your neighbor.

Alzheimer’s sufferers forget the entire context. 

HOW FOOD AFFECTS YOUR RISK OF DEMENTIA

We do not know what causes dementia and how to prevent it. 

If we did, it wouldn’t be the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States – more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. 

It affects more than five million people. By 2050, that number is expected to rise to 16 million. 

What we do know is that it is linked to inflammation of the blood vessels, which fuel the build up of clusters of ‘tau’ proteins, blocking brain connections and slowly eating away at cells. 

A growing swell of research suggests that changes made to your diet – whether you are 18 or 48 – can have an immediate impact in lowering your risk by lowering inflammation in your body. 

The brain consumes 25 percent of the body’s energy, and relies on the smooth movement of oxygen and blood throughout the body to stay sharp. 

A lack of exercise, stress, poor sleep, and smoking or drug-taking can drastically hamper the flow of oxygen and blood.

But a poor diet – which is so prevalent in the US – is one of the biggest culprits, and one of the easiest to remedy. 

America’s so-called ‘Western diet’ is high in saturated fats, red meat and sugar, which has triggered a rise in obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and brain diseases. 

Conversely, none of those feature in the diets of people in ‘Blue Zones’ – the five regions in the world with the longest lifespans and lowest risk of brain diseases, according to a study by Dan Buettner.

Those regions typically eat variations on the Mediterranean diet, rich in omega-3s, vegetables and whole grains.    

INSIDE THE RESTAURANT THAT CLAIMS TO FIGHT ALZHEIMER’S 

Honeybrains, which opened in New York’s Noho last fall, has a menu of toast dishes, salads, grain bowls, sweet treats, juices, and coffee.

Catering to an increasingly health-conscious population, each menu item has symbols next to it, indicating which of the five superfoods it contains (out of legumes, vegetables, fruit, omega-3 and whole grains).

With avocado toast, oatmeal, Cobb salad, and hummus bowls on the menu, it doesn’t seem radically different to the Prets, Chop’ts, and FreshCos of this world. 

But Dr Seifan insists it is. 

‘Everything on the menu has a point. We want it to be food you want to eat, that fits into people’s lives, but that each item has at least one benefit for your brain.’ 

The oatmeal mix, prepared the day before, is infused with cinnamon, which is high in antioxidants and excellent at supporting the brain¿s detox systems

The oatmeal mix, prepared the day before, is infused with cinnamon, which is high in antioxidants and excellent at supporting the brain¿s detox systems

The oatmeal mix, prepared the day before, is infused with cinnamon, which is high in antioxidants and excellent at supporting the brain’s detox systems

The salads (made in the morning and packaged in the cooler downstairs) are filled with leafy greens and grains like quinoa, a nutrient-rich complete protein source which also contains fibre, vitamin E and minerals such as zinc, phosphorus and selenium

The salads (made in the morning and packaged in the cooler downstairs) are filled with leafy greens and grains like quinoa, a nutrient-rich complete protein source which also contains fibre, vitamin E and minerals such as zinc, phosphorus and selenium

The salads (made in the morning and packaged in the cooler downstairs) are filled with leafy greens and grains like quinoa, a nutrient-rich complete protein source which also contains fibre, vitamin E and minerals such as zinc, phosphorus and selenium

The vibrant color of certain vegetables often indicates nutrient density and antioxidants

The vibrant color of certain vegetables often indicates nutrient density and antioxidants

The vibrant color of certain vegetables often indicates nutrient density and antioxidants

WHAT’S ON THE MENU? 

Some examples of the recipes at Honeybrains:

BREAKFAST 

POWER OATMEAL: Oatmeal and quinoa, cinnamon-spiced coconut milk, honey

LUNCH

THE DAILY CATCH BOWL: Wild salmon or whitefish of the day, spiced sweet potatoes, wilted kale, crushed peanuts

CHOPPED SALAD: House greens, tomatoes, cucumber, fennel, sweet peppers, radish, chickpeas, quinoa, almonds, avocado, grapes, raisins 

TOAST (ALL DAY)

MIXED MUSHROOM TOAST: Portobello crimini, fermented black garlic, kefir, fresh thyme, chia seed salt 

SIMPLE SALMON TOAST: Smoked salmon, labne, cucumber, dill lemon zest 

COFFEE

NUT AND HONEY LATTE: Made with Japanese knotwood honey and almond milk

GOLDEN MILK LATTE: Made with turmeric honey, cinnamon, peppercorn, juniper berries and vanilla 

The Miami-based doctor did his residency at Columbia University, where he segued from strokes into Alzheimer’s research. 

The menu was curated with a chef and a nutritionist, Amy von Sydow Green, LDN, of Penn Medicine, who has studied the impact of diet on inflammation in the body. 

Her background is in diabetes, helping patients to curate their diet to control their blood sugar, insulin levels, and inflammation. 

In researching diabetes, she has seen that Alzheimer’s is much more common than among the rest of the population.

‘Coming from that standpoint, the area of brain wellness was something that I have always been very curious about. 

‘I hear from my diabetes patients all the time that their blood sugar levels affect the way they think, their emotions, and their memories. 

‘So speaking to Alon about his research on brain wellness was really interesting.

‘We started having regular meetings where we would discuss what we had found. It led to us coming up with the main principles for the menu.’ 

The main principles of the menu were: 

1. FIVE FOOD GROUPS 

Every item on the menu includes legumes, vegetables, fruit, omega-3s or whole grains – or a mix of a few. 

  • Legumes are high in antioxidants, plant nutrients and plant protein, iron and other minerals. They lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar levels even many hours after you’ve eaten. 
  • Leafy green vegetables are a rich source of antioxidants that promote the flow of oxygen through the body. 
  • Fruit like blueberries and strawberries have been shown in studies to reduce inflammation in the brain and lower the risk of premature death. 
  • Omega-3s found in salmon and olive oil are some of the most valuable nutrients for our brains, helping to support the structure of our brains. 
  • Whole grains are filled with fiber and protein, which nourish our gut – essential, given that studies show gut bacteria can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Protein and omega-3s: The menu has plenty of fresh salmon and olive oil, which provide some of the most valuable nutrients for our brains, helping to support the structure of our brains

Protein and omega-3s: The menu has plenty of fresh salmon and olive oil, which provide some of the most valuable nutrients for our brains, helping to support the structure of our brains

Protein and omega-3s: The menu has plenty of fresh salmon and olive oil, which provide some of the most valuable nutrients for our brains, helping to support the structure of our brains

Vitamin-loaded sweet potatoes are a healthier carb option than processed carbs like pasta and white bread, with a slow release of energy to prevent spikes in blood sugar

Vitamin-loaded sweet potatoes are a healthier carb option than processed carbs like pasta and white bread, with a slow release of energy to prevent spikes in blood sugar

Vitamin-loaded sweet potatoes are a healthier carb option than processed carbs like pasta and white bread, with a slow release of energy to prevent spikes in blood sugar

2. BLUE ZONES

The menu takes inspiration from the Blue Zones:

  • Sardinia, Italy (plant-based Mediterranean diet with fish and dairy in moderation)
  • Okinawa, Japan (heavily plant-based meals, often made up of stir-fried ingredients, producing dishes that are rich in protein but low in calories)
  • Loma Linda, California (no meat, no dairy; vegetarian ‘biblical diet’ with fruit, veg, whole grains, nuts and no alcohol)
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica (lye-fortified tortillas, yams, rice, beans and plantains – and sometimes a small portion of meat)
  • Ikaria, Greece (plant-based Mediterranean diet with fish and dairy in moderation)

These regions have the lowest rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s in the world.

The pantry is filled with spices like cinnamon, cloves, marjoram, allspice, saffron, nutmeg and tarragon which have been shown to have a detox effect on the central nervous system

The pantry is filled with spices like cinnamon, cloves, marjoram, allspice, saffron, nutmeg and tarragon which have been shown to have a detox effect on the central nervous system

The pantry is filled with spices like cinnamon, cloves, marjoram, allspice, saffron, nutmeg and tarragon which have been shown to have a detox effect on the central nervous system

This is attributed to many things.

These regions have routines to help them de-stress, they have mantras about their sense of purpose, and they have an unrivaled attachment to family life.

Nutritionally, they all eat mainly plant-based foods, with a lot of beans for their protein fix. Those who eat meat tend to favor pork, and only about five times a month. Their serving sizes are about half the size of a standard American meal.

Most of the regions, except for Loma Linda, also tend to drink a glass of wine a day.

Honeybrains’ menu seems to align itself mostly with the Mediterranean diet of Sardinia and Ikaria, though its many meat options could fall into the realm of Nicoya as well. 

3. COLORFUL FOODS

The vibrant color of certain vegetables often indicates nutrient density and antioxidants.

Their color means that they have more antioxidants and phytonutrients.

Eating more purple food is really critical when it comes to fighting the age process, preventing diseases such as cancer, and also helping to fight inflammation.

A 16-year study found anthocyanins, found in colorful foods, can reverse brain ageing by two-and-a-half years.

This is the honey-glazed chicken salad with pickled radish, mint and carrots

This is the honey-glazed chicken salad with pickled radish, mint and carrots

This is the honey-glazed chicken salad with pickled radish, mint and carrots

The avocado salad features tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, quinoa, grapes, sultanas and nuts

The avocado salad features tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, quinoa, grapes, sultanas and nuts

The avocado salad features tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, quinoa, grapes, sultanas and nuts

The beloved avocado crush is topped with hemp and chia seed salt, olive oil, egg, and lemon

The beloved avocado crush is topped with hemp and chia seed salt, olive oil, egg, and lemon

The beloved avocado crush is topped with hemp and chia seed salt, olive oil, egg, and lemon

The study, published in the Annals of Neurology, studied 16,000 people.

They did follow-ups with each person twice a year, checking their dietary habits.

Those who consume more anthocyanin-rich berries fared overwhelmingly better in cognitive tests.

According to Dr von Sydow Green, that was key to the curation of the Honeybrains menu, which has pink pickled radish, carrots, and salads filled with green grapes. 

‘It was very important for us to include a lot of colors in the food,’ she explained. 

‘It makes the food more appealing and means that there are plenty of antioxidants which protect the cells in the body from damage. If it’s a rainbow of colors you’re getting all the different types.’  

4. HONEY 

The war on sugar is in full force. 

It has become increasingly clear over the last few years that processed sweeteners are one of the most dangerous things we can consume, sending blood sugar rocketing and damaging our arteries and brains.  

As such, there is a push for people to ditch white table sugar and opt for some complex alternatives, such as agave syrup and honey. 

One teaspoon of honey contains 25 compounds such as proteins, amino acids and trace minerals.

There are scores of studies showing people with honey in their diets have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s.  

There is a push for people to ditch white table sugar and opt for some complex alternatives, such as agave syrup and honey. This banana, pecan, chocolate toast is drizzled with honey

There is a push for people to ditch white table sugar and opt for some complex alternatives, such as agave syrup and honey. This banana, pecan, chocolate toast is drizzled with honey

There is a push for people to ditch white table sugar and opt for some complex alternatives, such as agave syrup and honey. This banana, pecan, chocolate toast is drizzled with honey

PBJ  H: The peanut butter and jelly sandwich also features raw honeycomb

PBJ  H: The peanut butter and jelly sandwich also features raw honeycomb

PBJ H: The peanut butter and jelly sandwich also features raw honeycomb

The restaurant has a wall of various assortments of honey, with labels detailing their nutritional properties, and the menu is drizzled with the sweet stuff

The restaurant has a wall of various assortments of honey, with labels detailing their nutritional properties, and the menu is drizzled with the sweet stuff

The restaurant has a wall of various assortments of honey, with labels detailing their nutritional properties, and the menu is drizzled with the sweet stuff

Chief among them is one done in the Middle East, where honey is a mainstay of both main dishes and desserts. The study was published in 2009 in Alzheimer’s Dementia, the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Researchers from the University of Babylon tracked 2893 people over five years. Among them, 1493 were fed honey regularly, and the rest received a placebo. 

Ultimately 489 developed dementia, and 90 percent of those had been taking the placebo.

Dr Seifan, whose family is from Israel, said his sister – a co-director of Honeybrains – was inspired by studies on Middle Eastern honey consumption and lower dementia risk. As a result, the restaurant has a wall of various assortments of honey, with labels detailing their nutritional properties, and the menu is drizzled with the sweet stuff. 

WHAT THE EXPERTS THINK: IS THIS THE IDEAL ANTI-DEMENTIA MENU?

Within the field of Alzheimer’s research, there are many perspectives on the root causes, the best treatments, and the best preventative measures. 

You would be hard-pushed to find a neurologist these days that does not think diet affects the brain. 

However, how you put that information into practice is another story. 

‘STEAK AND SWEET STUFF? NO WAY’

Dr Rudy Tanzi, pioneering neurology professor at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital and long-time collaborator with Deepak Chopra, is a vegetarian.

Looking at the Honeybrains menu he scoffs at the sight of steak. 

‘Steak?! How is steak good for your brain?’ he exclaims. 

Dr Tanzi cut out meat 20 years ago as he saw more and more information about how red meat inflamed the body. 

He also took issue with the cafe’s cornerstone ingredient, honey, as he insists ‘it’s still sugar – sugar is sugar, and sugar is bad for your brain.’

‘IT CAN’T HURT TO THINK ABOUT IT’ 

Dr Richard Isaacson, Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, takes a less puritanical perspective. 

‘This is a new area of science, and it’s complicated.  

‘There’s no one magic piece of food that someone can eat and prevent Alzheimer’s, but incremental changes absolutely can have a positive effect.

‘I’m a strong believer that, yes, what you eat can influence brain health. But I think if everything is done in moderation, that’s fine. 

‘Many people say “don’t eat bread” or “don’t eat meat”. Yes, studies have shown that red meat and bread are not brain healthy, and I try to limit my intake of meat. At the same time, everyone needs to make their own individual dietary decisions. When my patients decide to go vegan, I think it’s brave. If they want to, that’s great. If they don’t, there are other ways to stay brain healthy.’

Dr Isaacson says he tries to eat fish once or twice a week to get a dose of omega-3s and fatty acids. Red meat is one of the things he sees as a treat, to have perhaps once a week. 

‘Red meat is not going to kill you, especially if it’s grass-fed,’ he explains.   

Ultimately, he says: ‘We do need to understand food better – what is a carb? What is protein? And how does it affect my brain? I think anything that helps to teach people about that is positive.’

‘HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM OTHER CAFES?’

While Tanzi and Isaacson may have varying perspectives on diet, they both independently raised one pertinent question: how is Honeybrains different to Pret, Chop’t, and FreshCo?

All cafes and fast food outlets have been forced into ‘clean eating’. Even McDonald’s has a vegan burger now.

Honeybrains is headed up by a nutritionist and neurologist, with messages about brain health plastered on the walls of the cafe. 

But, as Dr Tanzi offers, it’s menu ‘doesn’t seem to be that different to other cafes – does it?’

The Honeybrains  latte made with Japanese knotwood honey and almond milk

The Honeybrains  latte made with Japanese knotwood honey and almond milk

The Honeybrains latte made with Japanese knotwood honey and almond milk

 

 

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