Grain Brain Book Review
The Folly of Fat Phobia & the Curse of a Carb-Addicted Society
Gluten-free diets have gained incredible popularity over the past few years with research focusing primarily on gluten’s contribution to autoimmune disease and obesity. In his best-selling book Grain Brain, renowned neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter builds on the list of reasons to avoid wheat specifically and carbohydrates more generally.
In an alarming “this-is your-brain-on-carbs” exposé, Dr. Perlmutter argues that we’ve become a fat-phobic, carb-addicted society, heading for massive neurodegenerative disorders as we age. We’ve long been fans of going gluten-free to prevent damage to the gut (the body’s “second brain”) and to avoid autoimmune disorders and even brain fog but the plot just thickened quite a bit!
Carbs: Do They Have a Place on Our Plates?
Dr. Perlmutter says there is virtually no dietary need for carbohydrates of any kind (that means fruit, too). When the body is fed a diet rich in carbohydrates, insulin pumps are continuously on, which limits the body’s ability to break down fat for fuel.
Eventually, the body gets addicted to glucose, while being starved for fat in the form of cholesterol, which the author calls a “brain antioxidant.”
Fast Facts: Fat and cholesterol are vital for optimal brain function. In fact, 60% of the brain is fat. Essential fatty acids cannot be manufactured in your body, so they must come from foods or supplementation. These fatty acids are used by the brain to create ALL of the cell membranes in your body and support peak performance in nerve cells.
Not Against Grains Altogether
While several nutrition experts, including Dean Ornish, alert us to the heart health benefits of whole, unrefined grains, the sad reality is that many Americans view this as a green light to gorge all grains.
Whole grains make up less than half of all grains on supermarket shelves, and the rest are processed to a pulp (just check out this graph that illustrates the amount of nutrients lost when grains are processed). The grains we consider good include wild rice, quinoa, gluten-free oats, amaranth, buckwheat, and sorghum.
The Case for LDL Cholesterol
The author makes the case that low-density lipoprotein isn’t such a bad guy. LDL transports cholesterol to neurons and is responsible for making sure the brain functions smoothly. Oxidation of LDL cholesterol is what’s dangerous, not LDL itself. How to avoid this damaging oxidation, you ask? Since glucose molecules ratchet up oxidation, avoiding carbs is a simple path to cutting inflammation and oxidation in one fell swoop. Citing remarkable patient success stories, Dr. Perlmutter claims that eliminating gluten and carbs can undo years of neurological damage!
‘All or Nothing’ Diets Aimed an Unhealthy Individuals
While we agree that refined carbs can spike blood sugar and cause unhealthy cravings, Dr. Perlmutter’s suggestion to ditch carbohydrates altogether is undoubtedly a bit dramatic (but what exclusion diet isn’t). In our opinion, fruits and some grains are great in moderation (keywords: some and moderation).
The issue, as T. Colin Campbell, PhD (co-author of The China Study) puts it, is “if someone has been diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, it’s smart to go ahead and do the whole thing. If I start saying you can have a little of this, a little of that, it allows them to deviate off course.”
Though Dr. Campbell believes in a plant-based diet, he draws an important parallel between his diet and Dr. Perlmutter’s: total elimination is for people who are already suffering from a disease state or who need an “all or nothing” model in order to succeed in making lasting dietary changes (healthy folk need not be so extreme).
A Model Designed to Boost Brain Health
Dr. Perlmutter’s advice is really aimed toward people who are eating the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is packed with refined carbohydrates and sugar and sorely lacking healthy fats, plants, legumes, and lean proteins. He is also speaking to people who have insulin resistance (and therefore an increased risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases), for whatever genetic or environmental reasons. Those individuals, he says, need to reboot their cellular health in the quickest way possible: By eliminating all carbohydrates to reverse insulin resistance, and by bulking up on fats to protect the brain.
All Fats Are Not Created Equal
One part of Dr. Perlmutter’s argument made many of our members (and team members) raise their eyebrows a bit: his friendly relationship with saturated fats. Fat and cholesterol are vital for optimal brain function (our brain is 60% fat), but that doesn’t mean we should start smearing butter and shoveling bacon with reckless abandon.
The well-researched link between cholesterol and heart problems still exists, and while our brains may thrive on any fat (except toxic trans fats), our cardiovascular system and metabolic processes much prefer the healthy fats found in olive oil, nuts, fish, and avocados.
Getting Rid of Gluten
We are, however, proponents of going gluten-free (gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley). Many of our members and friends (not to mention Teri and Cindy) have seen an entire spectrum of seemingly unrelated symptoms (like ear infections, autistic symptoms, allergies, gut sensitivities, neurodegenerative issues, depression, etc.) diminish or clear up completely from getting rid of gluten. Gluten can disrupt the absorption of essential nutrients, and the anecdotal evidence is simply overwhelming (click here for more on this topic).
Our Feelings on Fruit
It’s true that some fruits have a lot of sugar. It’s also true that they are packed with fiber, antioxidants, polyphenols, and all sorts of beneficial vitamins and minerals. Because the sugars in fruit live alongside fiber and other nutrients, the body absorbs them more gradually than refined sugars, thereby preventing blood sugar spikes.
Again, Dr. Perlmutter’s caution against carbs of any kind should really be directed toward people who are battling insulin resistance in the form of pre-diabetes, diabetes, and/or obesity. Like most things, fruit is great in moderation, but if you really need to get your sugars under control, fruit is definitely on the “cut back” list.
Dr. Perlmutter’s Top Supplements for Boosting Brain Function
Even after eliminating carbs, Dr. Perlmutter believes we still need to supplement with essential vitamins and minerals to achieve optimal brain function and reverse years of dietary damage. Here are our versions of his top six supplements for brain health:
- Fish Oil: DHA represents more than 90% of the omega-3 fats in the brain and 50% of the weight of a neuron’s plasma membrane is composed of DHA.
- Resveratrol: Resveratrol slows the aging process by activating genes called sirtuins, which boost blood flow to the brain, and inhibit fat cell development.
- Turmeric: Turmeric activates genes to produce a flood of antioxidants that help protect the mitochondria and improve glucose metabolism.
- Probiotics: Good bacteria play a role in producing, absorbing, and transporting neurochemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and nerve growth factor, which are vital for brain health.
- Alpha Lipoic Acid: Present in every cell in the body, ALA can cross the blood-brain barrier and carry out powerful antioxidant activity.
- Vitamin D3: Vitamin D helps regulate enzymes in the brain and cerebrospinal fluid that are involved in making neurotransmitters and stimulating nerve growth.