A few years ago, my friend Sarah got the kind of news that most of us only have nightmares about—her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It was a terrible time for her. The woman who had loved her and cared for her all her life was slowly disintegrating before her eyes, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. No amount of medical care, love and tenderness, or even pleading with God made a difference.
Dealing with dementia is, in many ways, like going through the stages of grief, and Sarah reacted as most people would. She bargained with God. She became angry and then depressed. And then, she was inspired to change her life.
With the specter of someday facing the same fate in front of her, Sarah decided to fight back. She joined a gym and started exercising. She took supplements. She started meditating and took a yoga class after reading that these might help stave off dementia. She did puzzles and “brain teasers” in an effort to keep her mind nimble.
But what she didn’t do might just be the most important key to keeping your mind healthy.
It’s probably not what you think
You already know a high-carb, low-fat diet is a bad idea; it’s why our waistlines have gotten bigger and our diabetes numbers are through the roof. It’s hard on our hearts. It’s hard on our immune systems. It’s just plain bad for our bodies, and now it looks like it might be even worse for our brains. The evidence is piling up: a high-carb diet might actually be a direct cause of dementia.
Despite the “official” dietary guidelines, we’ve known for a long, long time that high-carb diets raise blood sugar. And since as far back as 2005, there’s been tantalizing evidence that high blood sugar levels and cognitive decline might be linked. But of course, no one makes money by just telling you to change your diet. So instead of taking a closer look at this interesting correlation, Big Pharma keeps creating new drugs and Big Medicine keeps prescribing them to patients—with little effect.
The real solution may be extremely simple.
Several recent studies have found that people with higher blood sugar are more likely to fall prey to dementia. And shockingly, we’re not talking about type 2 diabetes or even “prediabetes” levels. Even slightly elevated blood sugar—levels that are still within the upper end of the normal range—dramatically increased the risk of dementia. The same studies found that a high-fat diet can reduce your risk of dementia by nearly half!
Combined with the knowledge that low-carb diets lower blood sugar, this means just one thing: less carbs and more fat = less dementia.
All carbs are not created equal
A Mayo Clinic study in 2012 found that people eating a high-carb diet were 89% more likely to develop dementia than those who didn’t. That means, for every ten people eating high-carb, nearly nine of them will end up with dementia.
The takeaway from all this is clear. Carbs are even worse for your brain than they are for your waist. But before you start ruthlessly cutting carbs from your diet, consider carefully. Different high-carbohydrate foods have different effects on blood sugar, and sometimes these effects are quite surprising.
Keeping track of your total carbs is good, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. But when it comes to brain health, what’s even more important is their glycemic index or Gl. This is a measure of the impact a food has on your blood sugar over the space of 2 hours. When you look at carbs this way, the picture is sometimes shocking.
For instance, a bar of Dove dark chocolate has 19 grams of carbohydrates. A slice of whole wheat bread has 12. However, the whole wheat bread has a glycemic index of 71 (high), while the chocolate bar has a Gl of…23.
That’s right. The candy bar doesn’t affect your blood sugar as much as the “healthy” whole grain bread.
When you think of carbs, things which most readily spring to mind are probably sugary drinks, sweets, white bread, white rice, and pasta. These are often the first things we eliminate when we decide to start “eating healthy.” And although these are all high-carb, low-nutrition foods, they have wildly different effects on blood sugar. When you’re eating for brain health, what kind of carbs you’re eating is just as important as how much.
What’s the bottom line?
Going low-carb and high-fat is one of the best moves you can make for brain health and reducing your risk of dementia. To reap the brain benefits of low carb, here’s where to start:
- Reduce your total carbs to 60-80 grams per day. Your body needs a certain amount of carbohydrates in order to function properly. Cutting out all carbs is neither healthy nor practical, and the most successful low-carb diets keep them in this range.
- Choose your carbs carefully. Look beyond the total grams and choose carbs that have a low glycemic index. This includes many vegetables (though not potatoes or carrots), a surprising number of fruits, and even a few grain-based items.
- Feed your brain fat, not carbs. As I said, the same studies linking carbs and dementia also link high-fat diets with reduced risk—of 44%. Many low-carb experts recommend getting 50-70% of your total calories from fat. But don’t let that scare you off—as we’ve discussed before, the idea that fat is bad for you is…well…a big fat lie. Just avoid the manmade trans fat.
When I shared all this information with Sarah, she put it into practice. Today she’s eating what is basically a modified Paleo diet that allows some dairy and only low Gl carbs. She’s lost 20 pounds, and although life is still pretty stressful, her immune system is stronger and she’s much more able to deal with it. Better yet, she says she hasn’t felt so clear-headed and focused in years.
*Results may vary from person to person