Can We Feed Our Brains?

Americans do not eat properly. In an economy and culture of abundance, the population appears almost plagued by obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and various afflictions that are a consequence of poor nutrition and inadequate exercise. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), in fact, estimates that 2 of every 3 adults in America is either overweight or obese, and about one third of children and adolescents between ages 6 and 19 are considered are in the same categories. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) also reports that 29 million Americans have diabetes, often because of poor diet and lack of exercise.

Instead of changing behavior, choosing proper foods and becoming dedicated to exercise, people have often sought simple solutions. The answer for many has been to take vitamins or dietary supplements while ignoring a healthy lifestyle. About 65 percent of Americans take vitamins and supplements, which gave rise to a multi-billion dollar industry that was partly unregulated and delivered modest health benefit.

“Just popping pills on an empty stomach or eating bad food that you supplement with vitamins is not going to provide real health,” said Stacey Bell, D. Sc., a nutritional expert formerly on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. “The body needs certain fats, proteins, and carbs, which have unique triggers to cause the release of enzymes to prompt digestion and get essential vitamins and nutrients into the bloodstream to deliver them to your body and keep you healthy.”

Dr. Stacey Bell
Dr. Stacey Bell

Bell, who has published more than 70 peer-reviewed articles during 40 years as a registered dietitian nutritionist, has become part of a business and scientific effort to produce nutrient-dense foods that fill in the gaps existing in the American diet. In fact, a company she is working for has developed a food product that targets the health of the human brain and is based on research results over the past decade that indicate diet has a powerful effect on brain function.

“Until recently, no relationship was understood about cognitive impairment and what you eat,” Bell said. “There are now profound and consistent findings that it matters what you eat in terms of sharpening and honing skills on memory and concentration, and it matters what you eat as a youngster. We need to start early as youngsters to eat right for our brains and prevent these geriatric brain problems. It is very important to consume the right types of things.”

Alzheimer’s, for example, and other forms of dementia were estimated to have cost the U.S. $236 billion dollars in care and treatment in 2016 and that figure is expected to reach $1 trillion annually by 2050. One in three seniors die with Alzheimer or other dementia-related diseases, and 40 percent of people with diabetes type 2 will ultimately suffer from Alzheimer, which has become so prevalent it is now referred to as diabetes type 3.

Dr. Bell, consequently, is involved with a recently-launched food product call the “Brain Shake,” which claims to facilitate “memory, focus, performance, and to protect that brain as we age.” The company says the supplemental food will deal with brain atrophy, oxidative stress, neurotransmitters, brain cell deterioration, plaque buildup, brain diseases, and will mitigate mood swings and depression. Bell says the product was the result of insights acquired through the findings of top researchers and about 100 papers investigating brain health and nutrition, and that nothing was included that did not have an associated human study.

Dr. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a leading authority on nutrition and the brain at the University of California, Los Angeles, was asked to independently analyze the formulation of the shake.

“My judgment,” he said, “is based on the formulation they have given me in terms of the types of components that are included. They have a very comprehensive formulation with more than 40 different nutrients and vitamins, and this appears to be very useful. They have many elements that are good for reducing inflammation and degradation and that provide energy to the brain.”

Dr. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla
Dr. Fernando Gomez-Pinilla

Gomez, who has published more than 150 papers on the role of nutrition and the brain, said he had never previously seen a product in the marketplace intended to improve performance of the brain. In his research paper, “Brain Foods: The Effects of Nutrients on Brain Function,” Dr. Gomez wrote, “In particular, research over the past 5 years has provided exciting evidence for the influence of dietary factors on specific molecular systems and mechanisms that maintain mental function. For instance, a diet that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids is garnering appreciation for supporting cognitive processes in humans. The newly discovered effects of food on cognition are intriguing for the general public, as they might challenge preconceptions, and they attract substantial interest from the media.”

Shortly after she wrote her book, “Essential Foods: Eat Healthy, Lose Weight & Live Longer,” Stacey Bell was contacted by Chip Marsland, who founded the company Peak Health, which is producing the Brain Shake. Marsland told Dr. Bell he was trying to undo 100 years of problems caused by bad food, a notion she considered impossible.

“The food industry utilizes vintage circa-1900 technology,” Marsland said. “Those manufacturing processes destroy the delicate essential nutrients in the foods, making them ‘dead’ and non-nourishing. On top of that, they add chemical preservatives, artificial flavors and synthetic additives you can’t pronounce. Today’s foods have lots of empty calories but very few nutrients. Curing the world of pervasive chronic disease through food is our ultimate mission.”

It’s an ambitious goal. Doctors and researchers have been trying to get Americans to eat right and exercise since science began to understand biology and nutrition and aging. And it is a transition that must happen.

The consequences of failure are likely a loss that may be too great to imagine.

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