If you want to increase your chances of avoiding Alzheimer's disease, you might want to drop the cheeseburger.
That advice comes from Dr. Neal D. Barnard, a clinical researcher, author and frequent talk-show guest known for his advocacy of meat-free diets.
Through the years, Barnard has explored how our lifestyle choices, and what we eat or drink, are tied to medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease and chronic pain. But his latest book, "Power Foods for the Brain" (Grand Central Life & Style, $26.99), marks the first time Barnard has looked at diet, neurological health and memory — a top topic for the aging baby-boom generation. More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's or related dementias.
"We used to think of diseases like infections that we then could treat or cure. But now we realize it's also what's on your plate or in that pack of cigarettes," said Barnard.
The book also explores how metals commonly found in food, containers and cookware — including aluminum, copper, iron and zinc — may harm the brain, and explains how to protect yourself.
The adjunct associate professor of medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences said we still have a lot to learn about how diet affects our brains and if shunning animal products can protect us from Alzheimer's.
"What we really need is a large study where we put these things together. I would love to take 1,000 people, throw the bad foods out and see what happens," Barnard said.
He is also president and founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit that promotes preventive medicine, higher research standards and alternatives to using animals in experiments.
Barnard, who grew up on a North Dakota cattle ranch and gradually turned vegan, spoke with us about what to eat, how to break the high-fat habit, and where he dines.
You promote going vegan, which means giving up all meat as well as animal-based products such as cheese and eggs. Isn't that too difficult for most people?
Being a vegan isn't really that hard. If you compare it with quitting smoking, smoking is a 6 or 7. Being vegan is a 2. Start off by trying a three-week experiment. Don't focus on, "I'll never again have a bacon double cheeseburger." Just do it for now. Many people try diet changes short-term and then realize, "Hey, I really like this."
Research has shown there is a strong genetic link to some type of dementias. So how would one's diet make a difference?
Genes are not necessarily destiny. The genes that predispose people to Alzheimer's disease or obesity or diabetes aren't dictators. I think of them as committees. They make suggestions, but you can fight back by making healthy changes.
What are your favorite food brain-boosters and good habits for neurological health?
Within the vegetable group, go for color. Green kale, spinach and sweet potatoes are all good. Look at blueberries and grapes. And do take a vitamin B12 supplement every day. Also, go to sleep. People stay up too late. At 10 p.m., knock yourself out.
Do you have any guilty food pleasures, given the constraints of being vegan?
Maybe some dark chocolate every now and then. But really, I don't ever feel deprived. I go (to vegan restaurants), dine with culinary geniuses, and walk out with a smile on my face. The idea is you can eat in a healthy way and still have a beautiful experience.