Why carbohydrates may be bad for brain health

Jun 20, 2014

In recent years, many people have adopted a low-carbohydrate diet to help with weight loss or because they want to eat less gluten. But some new research shows there may be a connection between carbs and cognitive function. This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care,” hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with Dr. David Perlmutter, a board-certified neurologist and author of "Grain Brain: The surprising truth about wheat, carbs, and sugar -- your brain’s silent killers."  Dr. Perlmutter talks about his book and the potential health benefits of a low-carbohydrate diet.

Loraine Rapp: What is it about carbs that makes [them] bad for our brain health?

Dr. David Perlmutter: Carbohydrate immediately induces [an] increase in inflammation and an increase in the production of chemicals that are called free radicals, which damage your protein, your fat, and even your DNA.  So basically what we’re talking about here is preventing that very disease, Alzheimer’s, that people dread the most and for which there is no treatment.

Linda Lowen: Let’s talk about the role of inflammation.  When we have inflammation in our joints, we understand what that feels like, but the types of inflammation you’re talking about are chronic and yet we don’t “feel” them, although you’re saying we do.  What role does inflammation play in disease-making?

Dr. Perlmutter: Alzheimer’s, for example, is an inflammatory condition of the brain.  The most important approach to dealing with Alzheimer’s not only in terms of treating it, but in terms of preventing it in the first place, is to do everything you can to reduce inflammation, and that means a low-carbohydrate diet.  When your blood sugar elevates, that blood sugar binds to proteins.  It’s called glycation, and that leads to a huge increase in inflammation in the human body, and affects not only the brain, but every organ in a very detrimental way.  Everybody’s [talking about] low fat, no fat, this and that, and that’s the worst thing for your body.  Your brain is 60 percent fat; it’s built from the fats that you consume in your diet, and fat can reduce inflammation.  Let me be clear about one thing though.  Not all fats are good for you.  When we talk about increasing you consumption of fats, we’re talking about olive oil, nuts, seeds, grass-fed beef, wild fish, coconut oil; the good fats.

Lorraine Rapp: What does “Grain Brain” share with other nutritional approaches that avoid wheat, sugar, and carbs such as the Paleo diet and how does it differ?

Dr. Perlmutter: In the broad strokes, the Paleo diet, the Atkins diet, and the South Beach diet really are diets that are focused on increasing fat and decreasing carbohydrate consumption.  It’s only been in the last 150 years that sugar has started to creep into the American diet.  Where we differ is [that] we’re really super selective in terms of the meat in animal products that we recommend.  We really want people to focus on grass-fed choices.  Grain-fed beef is pro-inflammatory; that’s something we desperately want to avoid.  The grass-fed beef, however, is much higher in the anti-inflammatory Omega-3s, and beyond that it has not received genetically modified foods, hormones, and antibiotics.  Same thing with wild fish versus farm-raised fish.  Farm-raised fish is really depleted in nutrients, it contains antibiotics frequently, and it’s really not a healthy choice.  That’s where we differ from Atkins and South Beach.  We’re really very selective in the choices made in terms of these higher fat food products like eggs, beef, and poultry.    

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care,” WRVO’s health and wellness show
Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.