Monday, August 31, 2009

Healthy Brain Symposium: Food for Thought

Many of us have heard that two-thirds of adults are overweight and that the incidence of childhood obesity is skyrocketing. But did you know that if you eat at fast food restaurants, you will get a fast food brain? Or that as your weight goes up, the size of your brain goes down? And that when it comes to brains -- size does matter? So says brain expert and best-selling author of Change Your Brain Change Your Life Dr. Daniel G. Amen.

Amen spoke to a standing-room-only crowd this last Wednesday at a special Commonwealth Club Member Led Forum afternoon series on brain health. He focused on the connection between what we eat and the health of our brain, because after all, "we are what we eat.” He said that the reasons diets don’t work is because most weight problems are “between the ears” and that, in fact, the word diet is “a four letter word.” So, to lose weight, argues, people have to employ what he calls “a life plan.”

Amongst Amen’s 10 critical steps to changing our brain and changing our bodies are boosting our brains to lose our bellies and knowing our motivations for eating. He said it is important to identify the kind of eaters we are, citing several types: compulsive, impulsive, impulsive-compulsive (the combination of both), sad (seasonal-affect disorder), or anxious. He noted how important it is to use brain supplements to boost our bodies. He also said that it is critical that we know our numbers -- the number of calories that we intake daily, the number of our body mass index, the levels of our hormones and cholesterol, and the number of hours we sleep. In fact, sleep is so important to brain health and weight that sleep deprivation can actually lead to overeating and, in fact, doubles the risk of obesity.

Amen emphasized the “need to eat right to think right.” He recommended replacing artificial sweeteners with the natural herbal sweetener stevia and eating smaller meals throughout the day rather than two or three big meals at designated times. He said people should avoid drinking calories, and he advocated a diet high in protein and fiber, stressing the importance of eating fruits and vegetables “from the rainbow.” Even certain spices -- such as tumeric, sage, rosemary, ginger, mint, cinnamon, and oregano -- are considered salubrious for our brain health. In particular, saffron is known to decrease depression.

Dr. Amen was one of six special guests to address what it takes to keep our brains healthy at all ages. Nutrition coach and health educator Patty James, a Commonwealth Club volunteer who helped organize the program, prepared healthy snacks for the reception that kicked off the afternoon’s talks. As the first speaker, James explained why she selected the reception's menu. Noting the importance of eating what she called “brain food,” she described the health benefits of raw walnuts and seeds, and fish (especially salmon).

Referencing the Monterey Aquarium's free helpful fish guide, she noted that the essential fatty acids found in salmon are also abundant in herring, mackerel, and blue fish. Because the brain is composed of 80-percent water, it is critical to drink lots of it. “However, this doesn’t mean a glass of wine at night and coffee in the morning, but at least 8 glasses of water a day.” She also pointed out the value of anti-oxidants in the diet, stressing the importance of consuming at least five to nine cups of different colored vegetables every day. Antioxidants, she said, counteract the damaging effect of oxidents on the tissue. “But almost everything” she concluded, “is okay in moderation.”

The series also featured talks by Dr. Bill Grant, chair of the Club’s Health and Medicine Member Led Forum and health researcher for SUNARC, who underscored the important role of Vitamin D in brain health, and UCSF’s neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazelle, who explored the crossroads of memory and attention. Also addressing the crowd were Phil Jacklin, past president of Palo Alto’s alternative health group, the Smart Life Forum, who shared information on Alzheimer’s disease prevention and reversal, and renowned psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff, who emphasized that people need to harness their biology and attitude to reduce stress and optimize brain health and fitness.

--The Commonwealth Club's Media & Public Relations Department


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