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Interview With Dr. Christopher Ochner of "The Alzheimer's Diet"

Jana Waring Helms
By Jana Waring HelmsSeptember 7, 2018

Last Updated: September 7, 2018

With so many fad diets, it’s hard to know which regimen is best for our individual needs. For those who have a family history of Alzheimer’s disease and are concerned about brain health, you can wait no longer.

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, brain-healthy tips and even a 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.

Recently, 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. (ALZ): How did you find your way into the Alzheimer’s community?

Dr. Christopher Ochner (CO): I’m a nutrition guy, that’s how I’ve spent the majority of my career. I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with a focus on clinical research, especially nutrition, obesity and weight loss. 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.

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

CO: 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 government and public 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 U.S. adults are obese or overweight. 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.

ALZ: 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 glycemic and high sugar 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 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. 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.

ALZ: 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. 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.

ALZ: 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 and put them together. “The Alzheimer’s Diet” is sort of like ‘The Greatest Hits’ for your brain, with elements from the Mediterranean, low-carbohydrate, low-glycemic and low-saturated fat diets.

ALZ: 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.

Top Alzheimer’s Diet Recommendations

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

About Dr. Ochner

Columbia University faculty, Dr. Christopher Ochner conducts cutting-edge research on the brain and nutrition. 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.

Have you tried “The Alzheimer’s Diet?” What other diet recommendations do you have to share? We’d like to hear your tips in the comments below.

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Jana Waring Helms

Jana Waring Helms

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