Interview with Dr. Christopher Ochner of The Alzheimer’s Diet

With so many fad diets force fed to us, it’s hard to know which eating regimen is best for our individual needs. For those who have a family history of Alzheimer’s and are concerned about brain health you must wait no longer."The Alzheimer's Diet"

Harvard-trained neurologist, Dr. Richard Isaacson, and Columbia alumnus Dr. Christopher Ochner, have created an eating itinerary and guidebook called “The Alzheimer’s Diet,” that is catered just for you.

The Alzheimer’s Diet

Filled with techniques, tips and even a brain-healthy weekly menu, “The Alzheimer’s Diet” is a 228-page book written especially for caregivers, family members and healthcare professionals.

All the information in the book is based on empirical research and a summation of the science behind Alzheimer’s nutrition and the experience that both authors have gained from their studies and applying the knowledge in their practice for the past 15-years.

Recently, APFM had the opportunity to have a conversation with Dr. Ochner about his latest publication. His advice and explanation of what eating a brain-healthy diet can do for your body will have you ordering his book, stat.

A Place for Mom (APFM): How did you find your way into nutrition and the Alzheimer’s community?The Alzheimer's Diet

Dr. Christopher Ochner (CO): I’m a nutrition guy, that’s how I’ve spent the majority of my career. I have a PhD in a clinical psychology with a focus on clinical research, especially nutrition, weight loss and obesity. That’s my area of expertise. My coauthor is a colleague, collaborator and friend of mine. He is the Alzheimer’s expert, though we both have expertise in both areas. A couple of years ago we both started to notice that there was a lot of research out about nutritional preventions for Alzheimer’s. Not only were they shown effective in empirical research, but they were showing effects as large or larger than current FDA-approved medication, which is sort of amazing. Sure we knew eating healthy is probably better for the body but didn’t know it was that big of a deal. Turns out it is a really big deal, especially for those with Alzheimer’s. We wanted to put that information out to help people, and that’s how we came up with the book.

APFM: What makes “The Alzheimer’s Diet” different than any other diet?

CO: The obvious is that it is optimized for brain health. There’s nothing else out there right now that is specifically for brain health. There have been studies done on The Mediterranean Diet, which has good supporting data for prevention, but it’s not completely optimized for brain health. What we’ve done is look at all the literature out there, all the studies of nutritional provisions for protecting and regenerating memory, put them together. “The Alzheimer’s Diet” is sort of like ‘The Greatest Hits’ for your brain, with elements from Mediterranean, low-carbohydrate, low-glycemic and low-saturated fat diets.

APFM: Which kind of diet do you partake in?

CO: Both my coauthor and I follow the diet, probably him more than me because he has a family history of Alzheimer’s on both sides of his family. So he very strictly adheres to “The Alzheimer’s Diet,” including our techniques and tips. For example, caffeinated coffee has shown to have a strong neuroprotective effect along with dark cocoa powder. So every morning Dr. Isaacson will have a cup of caffeinated coffee with dark cocoa powder.

I also follow the diet because what’s good for the brain is good for the heart and body, and vice versa. We have heard back from people who have followed “The Alzheimer’s Diet” and the results have been things like losing weight, feeling better about yourself, and so on. So we try to practice what we preach, for sure.

APFM: Is this a diet that people must stick to for the rest of their lives or more of just a 1-2 year plan?

CO: Great question. It’s definitely not a diet. In fact I don’t love using that word. “Diet” implies it’s something you go in order to reach some kind of goal and then you’re over it. That’s not what we advocate and that doesn’t work. If we look at obesity literature people go on “diets” all the time. Then they go off of the diet and wind up right back to where they started.

We want people to start a new, healthy relationship with food. We provide a lot of ideas for people in the book, and we don’t expect or even want everyone to do everything. We are strong advocates for doing what works for the individual. If someone feels like they’re in dietary jail they’re not going to stick to it. It’s not going to work. We want it to work. We would rather have people do one or two things than nothing at all.

The other thing we try to do is encourage people to continue to eat the foods they love, but in a brain healthy way. For example, if you like pizza. Don’t go down to the shop and get it, make it at home using our recipe. I personally have the taste buds of a 5-year-old so I love this kind of food. And based on the increases in obesity in America I think there are a lot of other people out there like me too. People don’t need to and shouldn’t stop eating this kind of food, but instead find ways to make it healthy.

APFM: If there are foods that help prevent Alzheimer’s are there foods that can bring on the disease?

CO: Absolutely. There are foods that can exacerbate the disease and help bring it on, particular high carbohydrate, high sugar and high glycemic foods. You may not have heard this but a lot of people are referring to Alzheimer’s as Diabetes III because eating sugary foods can cause insulin resistance in the brain.

Think of your brain like a furnace. You want your furnace to burn steady and long and true. Eating high glycemic foods is like kindling the fire, causing it to flame up and become really hot, and then fire down into coals needing more fuel. Ultimately the fire goes up and down and up and down. And then the body tries to regulate the up and downs but ends up crashing… which is how and why some people end up with diabetes. The same thing happens in your brain and it affects the part of the brain that is responsible for doling out new memories. This is why many individuals with Alzheimer’s will have intact memories from a young age but not remember what they did yesterday.

Now we don’t advocate for calling Alzheimer’s Diabetes III because it’s not just due to insulin resistance in the brain, but it is a large mechanism of it. So definitely avoid eating high glycemic and sugary foods when possible.

APFM: Can you give me a rundown of “high glycemic” foods?

CO: Sure. It’s all the usual suspects. Candy, chocolate bars, donuts… sugary sweet things like that. Along with refined carbohydrates like white pasta, white rice, white bread.

APFM: What new nutritional research are you working on now?

CO: We are still putting together the empirical review of all of this data. I personally have some other projects that are going on, one explaining why dieting fails. It was recently published. I’m also working on a study that explains why obese people make poor food choices, and more projects like that.

APFM: What do you think Alzheimer’s will look like thirty years from now?

CO: In the absence of a cure, which we all certainly hope for, it will be far more prevalent. This is partly due to the advancing age of our general population and partly due to poor dieting, especially in our children.

APFM: How do you think we can bring more awareness to this issue?

CO: Fantastic editorials! Most people are aware of the problem— I hope — but I don’t think people get just how serious Alzheimer’s is until it happens to somebody they love, and that’s happening more and more. Both the public and the government are paying more attention but awareness is a slow moving ship and people are unfortunately not likely to give it the attention it deserves until we are facing what many predict to be one of the largest epidemics in history.

You can somewhat relate this to the obesity pandemic, which is now finally getting attention but only after 2/3 of US adults are overweight or obese. Not to forget it costs us around $150 billion each year. Unfortunately, our government hasn’t put a lot of money in research for Alzheimer’s. We’re doing what we can but we desperately need more resources.

So the simplest prevention is to eat properly? There’s never a guarantee. Some people have healthy diets and still end up with Alzheimer’s. But it is risk reduction. Following a brain healthy diet will cut your risk down a hell of a lot. Until we find a cure, it’s the best we got.

About Dr. Ochner:Dr. Ochner

Columbia University faculty for the past three years, Dr. Christopher Ochner conducts cutting-edge research on nutrition and the brain. With a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, he also serves as a Research Associate at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center. Dr. Ochner completed a research internship at the National Institutes of Health working on a study of memory consolidation, a clinical internship at the University of Maryland School of Medicine training under a geriatric neuropsychologist, and a fellowship at the Columbia University Institute of Human Nutrition.

Top 10 Alzheimer’s Diet Recommendations

1. Minimize carbohydrates with a “high glycemic index.” (Read The Alzheimer’s Diet to learn more.)
2. Try a Mediterranean–style diet, including fruits & vegetables, lean protein (fish, chicken, turkey), low-fat items, nuts & seeds.
3. Avoid “bad” (saturated and trans) fats & eat “good” (unsaturated) fats in moderation.
4. Increase omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) from dietary sources (like certain types of fish) and supplements.
5. Increase antioxidants, foods like beans, berries, herring, kale, mushrooms, seeds, trout and wild salmon.
6. Vitamins, ensure adequate intake of folic acid, B6, B12 and D.
7. In general, the fewer ingredients listed on the label, the better.
8. Select low — or nonfat — dairy products.
9. Coffee, a few cups earlier in the day may be beneficial over time.
10. Suggested breakdown of “macronutrients” include, carbohydrates: 30-40% (low glycemic index), fat: 25% (less than 7% saturated), protein: 25-30%.

Have you tried “The Alzheimer’s Diet?” What other diet recommendations do you have to share?

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Please leave your thoughts and comments

  • Bogo

    I was of the understanding that a diet of sugar and carbs are contraindicated for patients with AZ. By minimizing carbs and sugars and replacing them with MCTs such as coconut oil, you provide the brain with energy from ketones, rather that glucose (which is thought to promote tau tangles and beta amyloid). Dr Ochner, your comments please.

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