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Published March 04, 2013, 11:40 PM

Brain-friendly food: Fargo native's book tackles Alzheimer’s

WASHINGTON - When Dr. Neal Barnard’s father started to develop dementia, everything that was important to him was taken away piece by piece. “Nothing else matters if you can’t remember names or things you did together,” said Barnard, a Fargo native and nutrition advocate who often creates controversy with his suggestion of an all-vegan diet.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

WASHINGTON - When Dr. Neal Barnard’s father started to develop dementia, everything that was important to him was taken away piece by piece.

“Nothing else matters if you can’t remember names or things you did together,” said Barnard, a Fargo native and nutrition advocate who often creates controversy with his suggestion of an all-vegan diet.

Both of Barnard’s parents developed dementia before they passed away.

Barnard, who founded the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, researched and wrote about Alzheimer’s in his newest book because “it’s an impending disaster,” he says.

More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Although Alzheimer’s is the focus of Barnard’s book, “Power Foods for the Brain,” he says the book is really about memory and brain function at any age.

We spoke with Barnard from his office in Washington, D.C., to get the scoop on his 15th book and the PBS special that began airing Saturday, “Protect Your Memory with Dr. Neal Barnard.”

Why write about Alzheimer’s? The reason I wanted to tackle it is because it’s an impending disaster. The projections are going right off the scale.

When my father started to develop dementia, it was as if everything that was most important to him was being

taken away bit by bit by bit. His connections with his children and my mother and things that he loved to do and his ability to understand the books he was reading – this is all being taken from him.

When my mother started to lose her memory, too, I saw this same thing happening to her, and she was so worried about it she was in a panic.

Part of it is the science and how important it is, but I have to say, having seen it in my own family, it’s something that I really want other people to be able to tackle.

Is the research on the correlation between food and the brain new? Until recently it was not known.

I think the turning point occurred in Chicago in 1993 when a study was started – the Chicago Health and Aging Project – and they began tracking what people ate.

Ten years ago, it became pretty clear that the people who ate the most saturated fat – not only did they have more heart problems – but they had more brain problems, specifically Alzheimer’s.

The people who ate the most saturated fats had easily three times the risk of Alzheimer’s compared to other people. From there, they looked at trans fats like those in doughnuts and snack foods. Same story. The bad fats of either type would dramatically increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.

When that came out, I realized that if you just avoid those fats, you can cut your risk of Alzheimer’s in half or more.

What I’m doing with people is to try to give a prescription that they can easily put together that shows all of these factors at one time and how to protect your family.

Although we’ve known for a long time that foods affect our heart, and foods and lifestyle can help us prevent cancer or improve diabetes or lose weight, most people are not aware of the new research that shows food can protect your brain too.

Your past books have focused on a vegan diet. Does this book as well? It absolutely encourages a vegan diet. The closer you get to that, the better off you’re going to be. For many people, that’s a whole new thing.

When I was growing up in Fargo, I never met a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. It seemed like a real tall order. But something has changed in the past six or eight years. It’s become very common.

If it sounds like a tall order, I encourage people to have as many vegan meals as they can and at some point, take a three-week period and really as an experiment, do it all vegan all the time for those three weeks.

For many people, it’s much easier than expected. They feel so good that they want to stick with it. It’s not hard; it’s just a new idea.

A generation ago, Americans were grappling with the issue of tobacco, and many people said it’s too hard to quit. This generation, the current generation, is dealing with food.

What can people expect from your PBS special? It’s the third program I’ve hosted, and I’ll be talking about how foods contribute to memory problems and how to protect our memory.

For example, sweet potatoes are brightly orange colored. That’s beta-carotene, which is an antioxidant that will protect you.

Certain fruits and vegetables have special protective effects that protect the brain specifically and the rest of you.

Exercise protects the brain as well and can reduce brain shrinkage.

Can Alzheimer’s be reversed? I think it (the plan he discusses in “Power Foods for the Brain”) does help if the person is in the very early stages.

There’s a pre-Alzheimer’s condition called mild cognitive impairment. When a person is at that stage, the way you’ll know is their memory is faulty, especially for names.

If they eliminate bad fats, boost vegetables and fruits, particularly the ones that are rich in B vitamins like beans, bananas, green leafy vegetables – what they’ve shown is for many cases, these people get better.

Sometimes memory can be contributed to a specific treatable cause, like a B-12 deficiency. I want people to realize that they can take action.

Once a person is many years into serious Alzheimer’s disease, I don’t believe I can reverse it, and even the medicines that are there are so disappointingly weak.

In the book, you talk about “Blue Zones” or geographic areas where people live long lives. Could Fargo become a blue zone? Overnight. Here’s what it requires.

We have many, many good habits in Fargo. There are good foods that you can eat. For everything that’s good, there’s also maybe something that’s not so hot.

If you look at what people have in common in the Blue Zones, they have a mostly plant-based diet. They’re physically active, they have a sense of community, and they kind of support each other on staying on the straight and narrow.

What one message do you want people to take away from “Power Foods for the Brain?” You’re not alone. I hope that people share it with their family and try recipes.

I want us to be bold and realize that we can change this in our lives. Wherever you live, we can put this to work right now. If people goof up, that’s OK. Dust yourself off, come back on, and we can do this together.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525.

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