Following is the full transcript of nutrition researcher and best-selling author Neal Barnard’s TEDx Talk: Power Foods for the Brain at TEDxBismarck conference. This event occurred on August 11, 2016.
You can also listen to the MP3 audio while reading the transcript: Power Foods for the Brain by Neal Barnard at TEDxBismarck
Neal Barnard – President, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Thank you for joining me.
On February, 8, 2012, my father passed away. And the truth is that was the day his heart stopped beating. For all intents and purposes, my father had died years earlier. It started with memory lapses, and as time went on, his memory failed more and more, and it got to the point where he didn’t know his own kids who came in to see him.
His personality changed, and his ability to take care of himself was completely gone. And if you could make a list of all the things that could ever happen to you, the very last thing on your list, at the very bottom of the list, the thing you want the least is Alzheimer’s disease, because when you lose your memory, you lose everything. You lose everyone who ever mattered to you.
And if you could look into the brain of a person who has got this disease, what you see is, between the brain cells are these unusual looking structures. Beta-amyloid protein comes out of the cells, and it accumulates in these little sort of meatball-like structures that are in front of you, on a microscopic slide. And they shouldn’t be there, and they are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. And this disease affects about half of Americans by their mid 80s.
And you could say to your doctor, “OK, I don’t want that. What can I do to stop that?” And your doctor will say, “Well, it’s old age and it’s genetics.” There’s a gene – it’s called the APOE-epsilon4 allele. And if you’ve got this gene from one parent, your risk is tripled. If you got it from both parents, your risk is 10 to 15 times higher than it was before.
What’s the answer? Get new parents? No, I don’t think so. That’s not it.
So, I’m sorry: it’s old age, it’s genes, period, that’s it; there’s not a darn thing you can do just wait for it to happen. Or maybe not.
In Chicago, researchers started something called the Chicago Health and Aging Project. And what they did was they looked at what people in Chicago were eating. They did very careful dietary records in hundreds and hundreds of people, and then they started to see who, as the years go by, stayed mentally clear, and who developed dementia.
And the first thing they keyed in on was something that I knew about as a kid growing up in Fargo, North Dakota – My mom had five kids, we would run down to the kitchen to the smell of bacon. And my mom would take a fork, and she’d stick it into the frying pan and pull the hot bacon strips out and put them on a paper towel to cool down, and when all the bacon was out of the pan, she would carefully lift up that hot pan and pour the grease into a jar to save it – that’s good bacon grease, you don’t want to lose that!
And my mother would take that jar, and she would put it not in the refrigerator but she’d put it on the shelf, because my mother knew that as bacon grease cools down, what happens to it? It solidifies. And the fact that it’s solid at room temperature is a sign that bacon grease is loaded with saturated fat, bad fat.
We’ve known for a long time that that raises cholesterol, and there’s a lot of in bacon grease. And by the way, the next day, she’d spoon it back into the frying pan and fry eggs in it; it’s amazing any of her children lived to adulthood. That’s the way we lived.
Now the number one source of saturated fat is actually not bacon, it’s dairy products, cheese, and milk, and so forth; and meat is number two. And in Chicago, some people ate relatively little saturated fat, around 13 grams a day, and others ate about twice that much, and the researchers just looked at who developed Alzheimer’s disease. And can I show you the figures? Here’s the low group, and there is the high group.
In other words, if you are avoiding the bad fat, your risk was pretty low, but if you were tucking into the cheese and the bacon strips, your risk was two, three, or more-fold higher.
And then they looked not just at saturated fat, they looked at the fat that’s in doughnuts and pastries; you know what that is, that’s trans fats. You’ll see on the labels. And they found the very same pattern in there, too.
So, the people who tended to avoid the saturated fat and the trans fats, we wanted to avoid them for cholesterol and heart disease reasons, but they also seem to affect the brain.
Then researchers in Finland said, “Wait a minute, let’s go further.” There is a condition we call mild cognitive impairment. You’re still yourself – you’re managing your checkbook, you’re driving, your friends know it’s you – but you’re having mental lapses, especially for names and for words. And they brought in over 1,000 adults, they were 50 years old, and they looked at their diets.
And then, as time went on, they looked to see who developed mild cognitive impairment. Now some of these people ate relatively little fat, some people ate a fair amount, and then they looked at whose memory started to fail. And they found exactly the same pattern. In other words, it’s not just, “Will I get Alzheimer’s disease?” but, “Will I just have old age memory problems?”
Well, what about that gene, that APOE-epsilon4 allele, the one that condemns you to Alzheimer’s disease? Well, they then redid the study, and they focused only on those people, and some of these people ate relatively little fat, some people ate more, and — exactly the same.
In other words, if you are avoiding the bad fats, even if you have the gene, your risk of developing memory problems was cut by 80%. And this is my most important point: genes are not destiny.
Now let’s take another look in those plaques. We know there’s beta amyloid protein, but there’s also iron and copper. Metals in my brain? That’s right, there are metals in foods, and they get into the brain.
Now think about this: I have a cast-iron pan, and we had a backyard barbecue, and a week later, I remember, “Oh I left my frying pan on the picnic table, and it rained last week.” What happened to my pan? It rusted, and that rust is oxidation.
Or you take a shiny new penny, and does it stay shiny forever? No, it oxidizes too.
Well, iron and copper oxidize in your body, and as they do that, they cause the production of what are called free radicals. You’ve heard of free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that are swimming around in your bloodstream, and they get into the brain, and they act like sparks that seam through the connections between one cell and the next.
So, how is this happening? Where am I getting all this iron? Where am I getting all this copper? How can that be? Well, how many people have a cast iron pan? Let me see hands.
Now if that’s your once a month pan, I’m going to say, “Who cares?” But if it’s every single day, you’re getting the iron into your food, and it’s more iron than your body needs.