Making the diet and nutrition connection to brain health

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT: Jackie Dobrinska, Asheville-based holistic health educator and owner of A Simple Vibrant Life, points out mullein as she instructs students about healthy lifestyle choices at the Himalayan Institute in Pennylvania. Photo by Binah Crabtree Photo by Binah Crabtree

Reconsider that bacon breakfast this week, say three brain-health advocates: The ability to think clearly and make decisions is exactly the reason for choosing healthier foods in the morning or any time of day, say Laura Buxenbaum, Paul Barrett and Jackie Dobrinska.

“The Mediterranean diet, which includes fish, olive oil, nuts and healthy fats, may help prevent brain atrophy in old age,” says Buxenbaum, dietitian for the Southeast Dairy Association. She recently spoke in Asheville, aiming to spread awareness of nutrition for brain health.

While people in their younger years may not be concerned with brain health, it’s No. 1  for people over the age of 50, outranking physical health and Social Security, the AARP reported in 2014.

With that in mind, Buxenbaum promotes the My Plate model ( and the DASH diet, which both emphasize portion control of fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy and grains. “Dairy may help in keeping brains healthy,” she says. “A study … conducted at the University of Kansas [linked] milk consumption and the naturally occurring oxidant in the brain. There is also a correlation between low levels of vitamin D, which is found in yogurt and milk, and increased risk of dementia.”

Barrett, an Asheville psychologist specializing in the neuropsychological assessment of memory loss and other cognitive problems, has two suggestions for maintaining brain health: “The No. 1 recommendation I make … is exercise, because that is where the most research is for brain health. No. 2 is diet.”

In the last five years, there’s been more research to support the brain-diet connection, he says. “I agree with the Mediterranean diet … though the portion control in my opinion is difficult in that model. I recommend the MIND — Mediterranean-DASH Intervention Neurodegenerative Delay — diet to my patients, which includes specific portion control of brain-healthy foods.”

The MIND diet includes berries, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish, poultry, olive oil and red wine. Red meat, butter, cheese, pastries and fried food are limited in the diet. While research shows that consuming brain-healthy foods decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s, Barrett notes, research is still in the beginning stages.

There are many reasons someone could be having memory issues, including attention deficit disorders or disease, he says. As part of the neuropsychological assessments he performs, Barrett tests the ability to recall or remember what was just shown or spoken.

Memory and the ability to learn can be improved with exercise, a healthy diet and sometimes medications, he continues. “One of the difficulties is getting people to actually make a lifestyle change. They say they are going to exercise more and maybe eat less fast food, but to make the change is tricky. Habits are tough to break,” Barrett says.

As a holistic health educator, Dobrinska helps clients implement a sustainable lifestyle for long-term health. “I work with lots of different kinds of people,” she says. “Some are already on a health path, and some are on fast food. I often quote [author] Michael Pollan: ‘Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.’ If we do that, we are going to be pretty good. Eat items that are close to the earth and not too processed. For instance, have an orange instead of orange juice.”

A healthy brain is linked directly to what people consume, and a healthy lifestyle begins with exploring the outer rings of the supermarket as well as farmers markets, says Dobrinska. “Perfection is the enemy of good,” she says. “If we think we need to eat only organic, we will not succeed. We can’t all afford to eat only organic, and sometimes just being organic doesn’t mean it is better for you. Don’t let the idea of ‘perfect eating’ keep you from reaching for what is close to the earth.”

Dobrinska recommends the Lord’s Acre Farm in Black Mountain for people in need and the various farmers markets in Western North Carolina for good, low-cost options.

In addition to eating a healthy diet, Barrett emphasizes the importance of keeping one’s brain active. “Many people retire and don’t realize that they actually need to keep working in order for their brains to be healthy,” he says. “Simply reading or doing crossword puzzles is not going to keep your brain working. Sometimes even those things end up being sedative habits. Exercise and diet, as well as social interconnectedness, are incredibly important, especially as you age.”

Buxenbaum notes that it can be difficult to make big changes in lifestyle, including food choices, but she offers this advice: “Eat breakfast, and try eating whole grains, yogurt and berries. It breaks the overnight fast. Most people haven’t eaten for 6 to 8 hours and go without energy to feed the brain. It is like adding fuel to a car: When running on an empty tank, you don’t go very far. We are giving the body and brain energy to start on the right note.”


 Paul Barrett

Jackie Dobrinska

MemoryCare Caregiver Education Program
Six 2-hour lectures for caregivers of persons with memory disorders; led by Dr. Margaret Noel of MemoryCare; 771-2219; or at



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5 thoughts on “Making the diet and nutrition connection to brain health

  1. Larry Jackson

    Interesting link that I have always thought about. When i don’t eat much, i can kinda feel my brain is not acting properly. The key is to just stay consistent eating good yummy food. I just browse around looking for good recipes that are healthy. Right now this is my best resource and my wife loves me for it haha. I promise you will find some good ideas if your browse around

  2. Lisa Sarasohn

    Kate, would you please clarify this passage in the article:

    “Dairy may help in keeping brains healthy,” she says. “A study … conducted at the University of Kansas [linked] milk consumption and the naturally occurring oxidant in the brain. There is also a correlation between low levels of vitamin D, which is found in yogurt and milk, and increased risk of dementia.”

    What’s the “naturally occurring oxidant in the brain”? Or do you mean an anti-oxidant? Isn’t it the oxidants that pose a risk to brain health? And are the risky “low levels of vitamin D” in the brain or in yogurt and milk?

    Later in the article there’s “Red meat, butter, cheese, pastries and fried food are limited in the diet.” Does that mean dairy is not recommended for healthy brains after all?

  3. Laura Buxenaum

    You are correct, it should read anti-oxidant. A recent study at the University of Kansas Medical Center found a link between milk consumption and the levels of the naturally-occurring antioxidant glutathione in the brain in older adults. Glutathione can help stave off oxidative stress known to be associated with various diseases and conditions including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The new study showed that the closer older adults came to the daily recommended consumption of three cups of milk, the higher their levels of glutathione were. (Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Feb. 2015)
    As for vitamin D, low levels of vitamin D correlate with an increased risk of developing dementia. Milk and yogurt fortified with vitamin D are some of the best dietary sources of vitamin D.
    Cheese is a nutrient rich versatile food that can fit into almost any eating plan. Cheese contributes high-quality protein as well as calcium, phosphorus and vitamin A to the American diet. Additionally, Cheese accounts for only 9 percent of the total fat and 16 percent of the saturated fat in the U.S. diet.
    Milk, cheese and yogurt provide essential nutrients including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin, and niacin, that are important for a healthy body from our brain to our bones.

  4. The Real World

    Laura – Given your recommendations, I’m interested in whether you have any data that indicates Asians experience measurably deteriorated brain health in advanced ages as compared to Westerners? The reason I inquire is because the majority of Asians, in their native countries, consume little to no dairy in adulthood.

    Secondly, (although I assume readers noticed) it is only fair to point out that, naturally, you would support, promote and put forth any scrap of evidence in order to encourage people towards eating more dairy…..given who your employer is. A sincere bias, indeed.

    • Laura Buxenaum

      Thank you for your inquiry. I am not familiar with data that compares brain health of elderly Asians and Westerners. This particular study included participants (nationality was not indicated) who were ages 60-85 and found an interesting positive association between cerebral glutathione and dairy intake.

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