Power Foods for the Brain: An Effective 3-Step Plan to Protect Your Mind and Strengthen Your Memory
By Neal Barnard, MD
Grand Central Life & Style 2013
Neil Barnard, the author of the new book, Power Foods for the Brain, is known for his staunch and steadfast promotion of vegan diets. He is president of the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine and is a monthly columnist for the Vegetarian Times. Dr. Barnard is also featured in the vegan fest film, “Forks over Knives.”
From beginning to end, this book is an exercise in futility as Barnard tries hard to sell his creative twists and interpretations on nutrition and science to support his fundamentalist stand on veganism and health. Dr. Barnard takes the term, “cherry picking”―which refers to the subterfuge of selecting certain facts to support a premise while totally ignoring others that refute it―to new heights. He attempts to rewrite nutritional knowledge in his own image of a world devoid of saturated fats, vitamin A and animal products such as eggs, meats, milk. His sanctioned four food groups are constrained to fruits, grains, legumes, and vegetables.
The answer to all health problems, according to Barnard, including weight loss, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes is to avoid “fatty” animal products and adopt a plant-based diet despite any and all scientific evidence to the contrary. “A much more powerful step” to reduce blood pressure, he says, “is to avoid fatty foods, especially animal products,” so that “your blood is less like grease and more like water.” Cholesterol is to be stringently avoided. “Special cholesterol-lowering foods” are oats, beans, barley, soy, almonds and cholesterol-lowering margarines.
Many researchers have linked low cholesterol levels to behavioral aberrations such as violent crime and suicide, as well as depression. Cholesterol is one of the body’s main building materials, in particular in the brain and nervous system, for building nerve cells. It is also the primary “stuff” from which hormones and bile are made. The specious high-cholesterol theory came out of misunderstood evidence from the famous Framingham Study. Yet when researchers examined the same subjects thirty years later they determined that high cholesterol was not a risk factor for older people, and more than twenty studies have in fact demonstrated that older people with higher cholesterol live the longest.
Barnard stresses “building a shield” with certain vitamins, such as vitamin E and folate, which are plentiful in a plant-based diet, and vitamins B6 and B12 “around the brain,” to protect it against the “threats to brain health” which include metals, unhealthy fats and prescription drugs. The dangerous metals include iron, zinc, copper and aluminum. The unhealthy fats according to Barnard are mainly saturated fats.
Barnard claims that the “heme” iron in animal products is well-absorbed and “can overload you with iron.” He warns that iron oxidizes in the body and produces “rusty brain cells.” Zinc and iron are contained in red meat and other animal products. Copper is contained in liver but high amounts are also found in soy, tea, cereals, and many vegetable products.
Iron is absolutely necessary for human life. Without iron, cells will die. About one-half of iron in the body is contained in hemoglobin needed for oxygen transport. The body has mechanisms to tightly control iron usage in the body and to protect it from pathogenic bacteria. Iron is critical for the pregnant woman and her unborn child. Iron deficiency anemia is caused by lack of iron in the diet and absorption issues. Phytates in vegetables and tannins in black tea inhibit the absorption of iron.
Barnard also condemns vitamin and mineral supplements because they contain metals, but neglects to discuss the fortification of processed foods with iron and other artificial substances. People eating a lot of processed foods fortified with iron, such as breakfast cereals, may be ingesting too much of this form of iron, which may lead to iron overload.
Barnard states that the “best sources of vitamin B12” are to be found in highly refined products such as breakfast cereals, fortified soy milk, and multivitamins and supplements, which he previously condemned in his discussion on metals. It is well established that B12 is found mainly in animal products. He points out, rightly so, that the elderly who take acid-blocking medications and metformin for diabetes will not absorb B12 from food and that many elderly do not produce enough stomach acid to free the B12 from food. With this in mind, it is highly unlikely that these elderly will absorb the B12 from soy milk or from fortified foods or supplements that are not taken sublingually.
The best sources of vitamin B6 are found in meat, fish, poultry, and venison, but some B6 can be found in bell peppers, asparagus, potatoes, seeds, spinach and bananas, although absorption of this vitamin from fruits and vegetables can be problematic because of anti-nutrients in the same foods.
Another issue with vegetables and fruits is the high levels of toxic pesticide sprays used in commercial agriculture. Dr. Mercola wrote an excellent review on this topic, “How to Find the Healthiest Fare in Meat and Produce Aisles,” at www.Mercola.com (May 8, 2013), in which he discusses the vegetables and fruits that have the highest pesticide load, among them kale (the current darling of the vegetarian crowd), spinach, cucumber, apples, celery, potatoes and strawberries.
Folate is found in abundance in green leafy vegetables, beans and lentils and liver, but liver , a verboten food from Barnard’s point of view, is also a good source of highly absorbable folate, B12, zinc, and iron.
Even mild B12 deficiency is associated with accelerated cognitive decline. A Tufts University study released in 2012 showed that “rapid neuropsychiatric decline is a well-known consequence of severe vitamin B12 deficiency, but our findings suggest that adverse cognitive effects of low vitamin B12 status may affect a much larger proportion of seniors than previously thought.” Research from Sweden in 2010 shows that vitamin B12 protects against Alzheimer’s disease.
Other research from Tufts shows that homocysteine, an independent risk factor for heart disease, is at much higher levels in individuals who have a B12 deficiency along with high blood folate levels—a profile that fits an individual on a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Although he mentions in passing the fatsoluble vitamins D (as a supplement) and K (only in its relationship to the blood-thinning drug warfarin), Bernard ignores the major roles of the fat-soluble vitamins in health and neglects to mention vitamin A at all. Not one reference to pre-formed vitamin A can be found in the book. Because these vitamins need fats to be utilized and are obviously found in animal foods, they do not conveniently fit into his ordained dietary paradigm and are therefore omitted or trivialized.
Barnard also conveniently ignores animal foods as sources of neurotransmitters, with the exception of dopamine. He considers cheese and meat as drugs, or convenient sources of opiates. These “drugs,” along with sugar, chocolate, alcohol, sex and exercise, trigger dopamine, which “push[es] you in front of the train,” and causes dangerous behaviors like food cravings and drug abuse. Best to avoid them, according to Barnard’s puritanical and just plain erroneous reasoning.
The book is aimed mainly at the elderly and aging populations who are more at risk for malnutrition, specifically of vitamin (especially B12), and mineral deficiencies than other population groups. Although brain injury and memory loss can happen at any age, adhering to Barnard’s prescription will not improve the mind or strengthen the memory of any human, especially the elderly.His message: avoid animal products, saturated fat, iron, zinc and copper, and make a bee line for the fruit, veggies and beans for a healthy body and mind.
New research shows that individuals with fasting blood sugar levels at the high end of normal are at risk for brain shrinkage and diabetes. It is well known that glucose control decreases and incidence of diabetes increases with aging. In fact, research strongly links high glucose levels to Alzheimer’s disease. It is high carbohydrate consumption that raises glucose levels in the blood. Alzheimer’s patients benefit from daily ingestion of coconut oil because it appears that their brains can no longer use glucose for fuel. This important finding is not mentioned in the book, perhaps because coconut oil contains saturated fat and does not fit into his model that “the brain runs on carbohydrates.”
Barnard claims that the way to control high blood sugar is not through avoiding natural sugars and starches but to avoid animal products and saturated fats because “fat interferes with insulin’s ability to work.” He conveniently ignores the scientific literature that has established the fact that fats do not decrease insulin sensitivity nor do they provoke insulin spikes, while high intake of sugar has been proven to reduce insulin sensitivity. “Avoiding fats is a much more powerful step than avoiding healthful carbohydrates,” he says. Barnard also neglects to include a conversation about triglycerides, independent risk factors for heart disease, which reach high levels with a high-carbohydrate diet.
Barnard provides fifty-seven pages of recipes in the book that are high in carbs but low in protein, fat, salt, and cholesterol. At the end of each recipe, he lists amounts of carbohydrates contained in that recipe but does not include sugar or fiber into that category. Sugar and fiber are listed separately which may give a false impression of the amount of carbs in the dish.
“Polenta Breakfast Bars” have 66 grams (gm) of carbohydrate per serving, 28 gm of sugar, and 5 gm of fiber for a total of 99 grams of carbohydrates. My personal favorite is “Black Bean Fiesta Salad” with 80 gm carbs, 13 gm sugar, and 21 gm fiber in one serving for a total of 114 grams of carbohydrate per serving!
Mouthwatering instructions for sautéing in his recipes go something like this throughout: “Heat two tablespoons water in a large saucepan over medium heat, add the onion, garlic, and thyme and cook… add the celery and carrot . . .the low-sodium vegetable broth or water.” Enjoy.
Barnard advises readers to “skip fish” because it contains fat, even the much recommended salmon, which contains omega-3 fatty acids. Barnard insists that “a serving of fish is more like beef than it is like broccoli.” Certainly one must agree with this observation from the simple vantage point of taxonomy. However, he claims that fish is not a good nutritional choice because it also contains the dreaded cholesterol along with mercury and is therefore to be strictly avoided.
Barnard’s creative attempts to try to position broccoli as the omega-3 champion fail miserably. He claims that broccoli has some omega-3 fatty acid in the form of ALA, or alpha linolenic acid, and that when a person eats broccoli his body will “lengthen the molecular chain from eighteen carbons to twenty, making a new fat called EPA. You would then tack on two more carbons to make the 22-carbon DHA.” What he doesn’t mention is the fact that a lot of people can’t do this, especially if they are deficient in zinc or B6. He says that there are “traces” of ALA in other vegetables, fruits and beans, and much larger amounts in walnuts, seeds, flax, and canola oil.
Omega-3s are very delicate fatty acids and are destroyed by the heat and processing methods typically used to extract canola oil. Barnard says that people are getting too much omega-6s so they can’t convert ALA to EPA and DHA. But aren’t the seeds and grains he recommends in his plant-based diet high in omega-6s? Eating large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids from seeds and vegetables will block the formation of elongated omega-3 fatty acids.
Throughout the book Barnard continually refers to the “Chicago Health and Aging Study,” a poorly-designed study with many flaws, which he uses to justify his vilification of saturated fat as a factor in Alzheimer’s disease. The Chicago cohort was based on a self-administered food frequency questionnaire to report data, which does not fulfill the requirement for a scientifically rigorous study.
Although this book contains some helpful information on exercising the brain and the importance of sleep and rest, this advice is minimal. The number of nutrition fallacies in this book is many and cannot all be covered in this review. We give this book a very swift and vigorous TWO THUMBS down.