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Home » Power Foods for the Brain: Neal Barnard (Full Transcript)

Power Foods for the Brain: Neal Barnard (Full Transcript)

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.

Or copper pipes. Who has got copper pipes? Well, that water sits in the copper pipes all night long, and in the morning it goes into the coffee maker, and you’re drinking that copper, you’re getting more than you need, and it starts producing these free radicals that go to the brain.

Now if you’re a meat eater, of especially liver, there’s iron and copper in those foods too. And we used to think, “Isn’t that great?” until we realized iron is a double-edged sword. You need a little bit, but if you have too much, it becomes toxic.

Vitamins.  Vitamin manufacturers put in vitamin A, and the B vitamins, and vitamin C, and vitamin D. And then they throw in iron and copper, thinking, “Well, you need these,” not recognizing you’re already getting enough in foods, and if they add it to your supplement, you are getting too much.

OK, so what am I saying? What I’m saying is aside from the fact that the saturated fat and the trans fats will increase our risk, these metals will, too, and they are causing sparks to form in the brain, free radicals to form that seam through the connections.

And if that’s the case, then I need a fire extinguisher. And we have one, and it’s called vitamin E.

Now Vitamin E is in spinach, and it’s in mangoes, and it’s especially in nuts and seeds. And in Chicago, some people eat a little bit of it, and some people eat a lot of it, and the beauty of this is vitamin E is an antioxidant: it knocks out free radicals.

So, if what I’m saying is true, then the people in Chicago who ate only a little bit of vitamin E would be at much higher risk than people who ate a lot, and that’s exactly what the research showed. People getting 8 milligrams a day of vitamin E cut their risk of Alzheimer’s by about half compared to people getting less than that.

Hmm, OK, how do I get that? Well it’s very, very easy: run to the store and just buy a bottle of vitamin E pills? No, I don’t think so. And here’s why not. Nature has 8 forms of vitamin E. It’s built into nuts and into seeds, but if I put it into my supplement pill, I can legally call it vitamin E if it has only one form. And if you’re eating too much of one form of vitamin E, it reduces your absorption of all the others. So, you want to get it from food; that’s the form that nature has designed for us, and that’s the form that we’ve evolved with.

OK. Now we can go a step further. Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you. How much should I have? If I put some nuts or seeds into the palm of my hand, by the time it hits your fingers, that’s just one ounce, and that’s about five milligrams of vitamin E, right there.

Now the trick is: don’t eat it; because if you do, you know what happens. If you have those diced salty almonds, and you’ve eaten them: you fill your hand again, and then you eat it again. And there’s something about salty cashews and almonds, is it just me? There’s something about them, they’re a little bit addicting in some way. So, don’t do that, that’s going to be way more than you need.

The answer is pour them into your hand, and then crumble them up, and put them on your salad, or put them on your oatmeal, or on your pancakes, or something. Use them as a flavoring not as a snack food, then you’re going to be OK.

All right, researchers at the University of Cincinnati went one step further. Not just saturated fat, not just trans fats, not just vitamin E, but they said, “What about color?” Look at blueberries and grapes: that color that they have is dramatic. And the colors of blueberries aren’t just there to make them pretty, those are called anthocyanins.

They brought in a group of individuals into a research study: average age: 78, and everyone was already having memory problems. And what they asked them to do was to have grape juice, a pint a day. A cup in the morning, a cup at night.

OK. Three months later, they tested everyone, and their memory was better, and their recall was better. Three months? That sounds too easy. How can that be?

Well, think about it: a grape has a rough life. A grape has to sit on the vine, all day long under the sun, and exposed to the elements, and it has no protection. Or does it? That purple color, those anthocyanins happen to be powerful antioxidants, just like vitamin E, but they’re the grape form, and if you consume them, they go into your bloodstream. And if that’s true, it doesn’t have to be grapes, it could be anything that has that color. Like blueberries.

So, back into the laboratory: a new group of patients, they came in, they all had memory problems. And three months on blueberry juice, their memory was better, their recall was better.

Now, the moral of the story is not to have grapes and blueberries, and blueberry juice, and grape juice. No, the answer is color. If you look at the colorful foods, there’s an important lesson there for us.

You walk into the grocery store, and from a hundred feet away, looking at the produce department, you can recognize beta-carotene, lycopene, anthocyanins. Your retina can detect them because that’s the orange color of a carrot, or the red color of a tomato, or the purple color of a grape.

And the brain also tells you they’re pretty, they’re attractive, you can recognize antioxidants, you’re drawn to them.

So, back in 2009, my organization, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, went to the Department of Agriculture. We said, “This is important. Let’s throw out the pyramid.” The pyramid was a nice shape, but it had a meat group, and it had a dairy group, despite the fact that people who don’t eat meat or dairy products happened to be healthier than people who eat them.

And also, who eats off a pyramid anyway? We eat off a plate. So, we devised a plate that said fruits, and grains, and legumes – that’s the bean group – and vegetables, those should be the staples. Well, we gave this to the USDA in 2009, and we didn’t hear back from them.

So, in 2011, we sued the federal government, the Physicians Committee filed a lawsuit against the USDA, simply to compel response. And did you see what the US government came out with in 2011? I’m not taking any credit for this, but this is now US government policy, it’s called MyPlate, and it does look in some way similar to what we’d sent them a couple of years earlier.

Fruits, and grains, and vegetables, and they have this thing called ‘the protein group.’ Now the protein group could be meat, but it could be beans, or tofu, or nuts, or anything that’s high in protein, it doesn’t have to be meat. In fact, there is no meat group anymore in federal guidelines.

There’s a dairy group there, but to their credit, soy milk counts. So, things are improving.

Now so far, what we’ve talked about is getting away from the saturated fats, that’s in cheese, and bacon, and meats; getting away from the trans fats and snack foods. You’re having the vitamin E and the colorful foods; and there’s one more step.

It’s not all food, there’s something to say about exercise. At the University of Illinois, researchers brought in a large group of adults, 120 of them, and they said, a brisk walk, three times a week. And after a year, everyone went into the laboratory for a brain scan. And they measured the hippocampus which is at the center of the brain, and it’s the seat of memory: it decides what should be let through into memory, and what should not be let through.

And it turned out that this organ, which is gradually shrinking in older adults, suddenly, stopped shrinking. And the exercisers found that their hippocampus was a little bit bigger, and a little bit bigger, and a little bit bigger, it was as if time was going backwards: It reversed brain shrinkage, and on memory tests, they did substantially better.

So, I’ve devised my own exercise plan. I’d like to present it to you, I do this three times a week. Arrive at the airport as late as possible, carrying massively heavy luggage, and just run for the plane.

Now at the University of Illinois they had their own ideas, and their idea was a little simpler. Do a ten-minute walk, and do it three times a week. And then, next week, let’s do a 15-minute walk, and the week after that, 20. All they did was add five minutes a week until they got to 40 minutes. And a 40-minute brisk walk – this is not a trudge, but it’s a good brisk walk – 40 minutes, three times a week is all you need to improve memory and reverse brain shrinkage. Very simple.

Now what I would like to do is to go back in time, and I want to sit down with my dad, and I want to say, “Dad, I found out something really important. We can change our diet, we don’t really need that cheese and that bacon. There’s plenty of healthy things that we can eat. Let’s bring in the colorful vegetables and fruits, let’s make them part of our everyday fair. Let’s lace up our sneakers, let’s exercise together.” It’s too late for him. But it’s not too late for you.

It’s not too late for me either, and if we take advantage of what we have now learned about how we can protect our brain, then perhaps, families will be able to stay together a little bit longer.

Thank you very much.

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