Originally appeared in the New York Post
In recent years, we’ve all been told that to eat healthfully, we have to forgo bread and pasta and up our protein intake.
But according to one researcher, the people living the longest, healthiest lives are doing the opposite. In his new book “The Mindspan Diet: Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk, Minimize Memory Loss, and Keep Your Brain Young” (Ballantine Books, out now), Harvard biologist Preston Estep III singles out what he calls “the mindspan elite” — countries whose residents not only have long life spans but also have relatively low rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“Life expectancy is only one measure of health, and it doesn’t include quality of life. If it is accompanied by a very high dementia rate, then that effectively subtracts years,” Estep tells me. “Life expectancy [can be] misleading.”
According to Estep’s data analysis, Japan came out on top in terms of “mindspan,” with an average life expectancy of 84 and low rates of cognitive decline. Mediterranean France and Italy, Spain and Costa Rica also rank among the elite. Despite having a life expectancy of 79, the US is a “mindspan risk” country, according to Estep, because of its high rates of Alzheimer’s sufferers.
Estep found some surprising similarities among the top-ranked diets. The main food source for many of the longest-lived people is bread, pasta and rice. “Refined carbs are the base of the ‘mindspan diet,’” Estep says.
But these countries aren’t enjoying the same carbs we are. In the US, bread and pasta — whether it’s whole wheat or white — tend to be enriched to contain about three times the amount of iron as their non-enriched equivalents in the Mediterranean, Japan and Costa Rica. Estep believes consuming too much iron damages DNA, cell membranes and neurons. “People with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have substantial amounts of iron and other metals in their brains,” he says.
While the “mindspan elite” have the lowest rates of cognitive decline and brain disorders, places with high iron consumption — such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Finland — lead the world in Alzheimer’s disease incidences. This excess iron can also come from too much meat consumption, according to Estep.
“Parts of northern Europe lead the world in dementia risk,” he says. “High meat consumption and [the] resulting high body stores of iron are likely a primary reason they have such a high dementia burden.”
“It’s a myth that we need to eat so much protein, especially from meat,” he continues. “In fact, it’s hard on the kidneys and may promote cancer and accelerate the progression of dementia. Pinto beans, found in the Costa Rican diet, [contain] just the right amount [of protein].”
Olive oil was another common denominator of the “mindspan elite,” especially among the Mediterranean and Spanish diets. “Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), which is less reactive in the body,” says Estep. Foods with MUFA have been linked to a decreased risk for breast cancer, heart disease and stroke, as well as helping weight loss and lowering cholesterol — all things that help you live longer.
Countries that rely on butter and other animal products, he says, tend to rank among the “mindspan risk.” Despite the controversial nature of some of his assertions, Estep insists he approached his research with an open mind and wasn’t looking to favor bread over beef.
“I just followed the evidence with no particular dietary philosophy in mind,” he says.