January is the time we think about resolutions and regimens. If you have the slightest interest in toning up or feeling better after feasting, the media will enthusiastically tell you which diet fad to try and which to avoid. Back in November, Forbes posted, What Grain Is Doing To Your Brain, about anti-gluten guru Dr David Perlmutter. The doctor has a bestselling book, Grain Brain, and a PBS special, Brain Waves, based on his belief that grains, gluten and carbs are destroying our brains. Wait, what … Oh yeah, should you believe him?
Perlmutter’s book is propelled by a growing body of research indicating that Alzheimer’s disease may really be a third type of diabetes, a discovery that highlights the close relationship between lifestyle and dementia. It also reveals a potential opening to successfully warding off debilitating brain disease through dietary changes.
Perlmutter says we need to return to the eating habits of early man, a diet generally thought to be about 75% fat and 5% carbs. The average U.S. diet today features about 60% carbs and 20% fat. (A 20% share of dietary protein has remained fairly consistent, experts believe.) …
So we’re in Paleo territory.
“Lifestyle changes can have profound effects later in life,” he says. “I’m watching people who’d already started to forget why they walked into a room change and reverse this. We have this incredible ability to grow back new brain cells. The brain can regenerate itself, if we give it what it needs.”
What it needs most of all, Perlmutter says, is “wonderful fat.” There’s no room in anyone’s diet for modified fats or trans fats, he says, but a diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil, grass-fed beef and wild fish provides “life-sustaining fat that modern American diets are so desperate for.” …
“We like to think a whole-grain bagel and orange juice makes for the perfect breakfast,” Perlmutter continues. “But that bagel has 400 calories, almost completely carbohydrates with gluten. And the hidden source of carbs in this picture is that 12-ounce glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. It has nine full teaspoons of pure sugar, the same as a can of Coke. It’s doing a service with Vitamin C, but you’ve already gotten 72 grams of carbs.
In The Atlantic, Richard Hamblin recently posted, This Is Your Brain on Gluten, and wonders if Perlmutter is really on to something, or just trying to support a preconceived notion. He asks anti-fructose crusader Robert Lustig what he thinks:
“There is no doubt in my mind,” Lustig told me last week, “that insulin resistance drives dementia. We have causative data in animals, and we have causative medical inference data in humans. Basically, Alzheimer’s is a metabolic syndrome of the brain.” … “If anything affects how our mitochondria function, it’s going to be felt in the brain first. We know that metabolic syndrome is defective mitochondrial function. I have no doubt that at least one form of dementia — the most common form; the one that’s gotten worse over the past decades — is due to our diet. There is no question that refined carbohydrates play a role in this. The question is, what role, and is it the starch or the sugar? I think the jury is out.”
I am reminded of Minding Your Mitochondria by Terry Wahls, but Lustig carefully does not actually endorse Perlmutter. Another of Hamblin’s sources attacks Perlmutter’s embrace of fat and high LDLs, yet another notes that some cultures live perfectly well on high carb diets, and another points out that paleolithic man didn’t have cooking oil, and probably didn’t get the 75% fat that Perlmutter claims. One of them endorses his own book. Hamblin remains skeptical.
I’m skeptical, too. Though I think Paleo is a decent strategy, I think avoiding processed foods is the most believable aspect.