Cooking Up A Better, Healthier Brain

By Dr. Hira Shaheen

If you are reading this while enjoying a donut, you may want to put it down because it may not end well for you. Sugar, processed foods, and meat are known to increase the risk of Alzheimer's Disease (AD).

The role of dietary constituents in the development of AD has gained immense popularity.  From nutrients and food elements to cooking methods, this Pandora’s box is wide open. Thankfully, there are many research studies available that guide us towards better, healthier brains (and bodies) into our old ages.

This article will guide you in the impact of various dietary constituents on AD and beneficial foods that reduce the risk. It will also shed light on different dietary patterns that science proves to be advantageous for cognitive health and dementia.

The Power of Cooking

One of the conclusions that we can infer from research is that cooking and fine dining or “slow” food can prove a gateway to a healthier brain.

There is a unique pleasure in combining different ingredients to bring out their flavors and prepare a meal. The process starts from your trip to the farmers market, which itself is an underrated leisure activity. After all, who doesn't love colorful fruits on low-key but beautiful stalls and the smell of the fresh produce? 

However, there is something far more philosophical about cooking, points Yuval Noah Harari in his famous book "Sapiens", he associates the advent of cooking with the evolution of a jumbo, energy-sucking brain in humans and, eventually, their position at the top of the food chain.

He argues that the domestication of fire fueled the cognitive revolution because it changed food chemistry and our intestinal biology. Since digestion became more efficient, intestines shortened, and more energy could divert to brain development (and reduce the amount of time we spend eating). So, the relationship between cooking and the brain goes back to prehistoric times.

Perhaps it would not be far-reaching to say that cooking was one of the reasons humans, and not our cousin chimpanzees, dominated the earth; after all, they spend most of their days chewing their food!

Cooking And Our Generation

For our generation, cooking is not a new concept; an abandoned and less commonly used, yes, but not newly discovered!   Our problem is that we are the "drive-through" generation. We don't hesitate to pick up a burger and a jumbo soda because our busy routines are always there to provide us an excuse.

However, the cost of this is the high prevalence of chronic diseases and brain issues, including AD. Add into it the narratives driven by the powerful food industry and poor understanding of science, and we are in the midst of a health disaster.

Author Michael Pollan describes this phenomenon in his piece "Unhappy Meals" and simplifies the complexities of diet to this:   “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

How Does Food Affect Brain?

A human brain at rest consumes 20 to 25% of the total energy produced in the body. It is the most food-dependent organ. So, it is easy to predict that food has a significant role in determining the function of the brain.

However, it goes far beyond energy and lies in the realm of neuroprotection. Food is responsible for the development, sustenance, and protection of neurons from age-related damage. The impact of nutrition on the brain has several underlying mechanisms.

Here's an illustration to give a brief idea:


#1 Food Influences Vascular Health

Vascular health refers to the smooth pathway for blood circulation. Small arteries and brain capillaries get damaged due to the accumulation of cholesterol, hardening of their walls with age, or toxic ions resulting from metabolism. This damage translates into neurodegeneration and poor cognition.

Evidence suggests that more than half of the cases of AD globally are due to issues related to vascular health, which include hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity. These issues indeed have a genetic basis, but they are also affected by diet.

Diet is the modifiable cause of vascular problems and an indirect determinant of brain health. So, incorporating a diet that makes blood vessels healthier proves beneficial for the brain.

#2 Food Impacts Neuroinflammation

Neuroinflammation is just a fancy term for the brain's defense mechanism.

Microglial cells are your brain's janitors, they are responsible for clearing waste material and harmful particles from the brain - including protein plaques in AD. It is why they are now a central point of research studies on the treatment of AD.

Although they can prevent beta-amyloid accumulation in the brain, their exaggerated microglial response causes neuroinflammation. It is because over-activated microglial cells produce toxic chemicals called cytokines, which degrade many neuroprotective constituents.

For instance, dietary vitamin A promotes neuron formation in the hippocampus, but neuroinflammation prevents it by degrading the vitamin.

A diet that contains excess sugar and harmful fats perpetuates inflammation. However, foods that have tons of anti-inflammatory constituents, such as phytochemicals, can reduce this impact.

#3 Food Alters Oxidative Stress

Your body produces reactive ions as a result of metabolic processes, due to their highly reactive nature, they bind with neuronal wall components and damage the integrity of cells.   Oxidative stress is one of the primary underlying mechanisms in dementia and AD, though to fight this, dietary elements which contain anti-oxidant substances can reduce this possibility.

Green leafy vegetables and good fat like olive oil, nuts, and other dietary elements are rich in anti-oxidants. Therefore, they prove highly effective in reducing the possibility of AD.

#4 Food Has A Role In Gut Dysbiosis

Many research studies prove that the relationship between the gut and brain (the gut-brain axis) has a significant role in the onset of AD and other dementias. Therefore, gut dysbiosis or disturbance in the microbiome is detrimental to brain health.


These bacteria ferment fiber and prebiotics and initiate signaling mechanisms that control brain health. It ranges from mental health issues like depression and anxiety to cognitive problems such as dementia. It is why a diet that is rich in probiotics and promotes microbiome diversity and growth is better for brain health.


Considering these underlying mechanisms, it is evident that plant-centric food with low calories is a better choice. This kind of dietary control certainly comes when you cook at home.

How Different Food Components Impact AD?

The late 20th century has witnessed a rise in the phenomenon of "nutritionism." This concept considers food items as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and vitamins instead of being a single unit. While studying their role and incorporating them into lifestyle may be confusing, their individual impact on brain health should not be ignored.

Here's a summary of different macronutrients and micronutrients that are beneficial for brain health:

  • Fats


Please repeat after me: Not all fats are bad!

Fats get a lot of misplaced and undue hatred because people are not aware of their types. Saturated fats are indeed bad for vascular health and the brain. Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) and monounsaturated, on the other hand, are critical for brain function.

The research suggests that they have a potential role in preventing AD. It is because PUFA is a vital component of the neuronal cell membrane and maintain their fluidity. They also facilitate neural communication by boosting neurotransmitter action.


European research suggests that long-chain PUFAs such as omega-3 regulate neural function and enhance learning and memory.


Moreover, they alleviate inflammation by reducing the inflammatory chemicals, but more research is warranted to explore its scale. Therefore, taking healthier fats while cutting down on saturated fats is the key.

  • Carbohydrates

The role of carbohydrates in increasing the risk of AD has comprehensive documentation. An MIT study sheds light on the underlying mechanism consisting of the interaction between carbohydrates and other nutrients. It proves that sugar and carbohydrates such as fructose combine with lipids and proteins to form advanced glycation end products (AGE).  These reduced products add to the oxidative burden of the body and degrade cellular walls.

Ironically, AGEs also live up to their name and damage neuronal walls, leading to neurodegeneration.

  • Proteins

Proteins in your diet provide you with essential amino acids. Many of these amino acids are crucial for producing neurotransmitters in your body, such as serotonin. Since these neurotransmitters carry out coordination in the brain, their adequate production is critical for brain health.

Although protein does not directly decrease the possibility of AD, its inadequacy in diet can increase the risk. The research also suggests that insufficient protein intake may fuel a cognitive decline in the elderly.

One potential reason for this can be the possibility of harmful ingredients replacing proteins. For instance, if you do not take enough meat, you may be splurging on carbs to satisfy your appetite.

  • Vitamins

The role of vitamins in the prevention of AD is due to their ability to neutralize free radicals. As the brain consumes most of your energy, its oxygen consumption is also higher than other body parts.

This oxidation reaction produces tons of free radicals, making the brain a highly oxidative environment. Vitamins exert their anti-oxidant ability to alleviate this problem and slow the progression of brain damage.

Some of the brain-protecting and anti-oxidative vitamins are vitamin C and E. Others such as vitamin D, B6, and B12, and folic acid participate in the formation of neurotransmitters and neuron growth.

  • Polyphenols

Polyphenols, like vitamins, also provide an anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative role. For example, flavonoids, epigallocatechin-3-gallate, and other polyphenols abundant in fruits, vegetables, and green tea regulate inflammation and carry out neuronal signaling.

As proven by the research, they improve memory and cognition and reduce the risk of AD.

What Are the Different Dietary Patterns Favorable for AD Reduction?

Looking at food from a lens of nutrients has helped us formulate an understanding of numerous health problems. However, is it practical? Hardly.

It is challenging to navigate every meal according to its nutrients. Many of us tend to add one beneficial nutrient to our diet while simultaneously eating several harmful constituents.
For instance, adding omega-3 to your diet for your brain health won't help if your plate also contains high carbs and saturated fats.

The research also suggests that modifying your dietary pattern is a better approach for preventing AD instead of focusing on individual nutrients. Overall, sticking to traditional diets is an excellent approach because most traditional diets are abundant in fresh ingredients. For instance, Japan has experienced a rise in AD from 1% to 7% in people over 65 years during the last 25 years.

Wondering why?

Western dietary patterns have become common in the last 25 years, and people have moved away from the traditional Japanese diet.

Some of the dietary patterns studied by experts for brain health are as follows:

  • Mediterranean Diet

The residents of countries around the Mediterranean consume a plant-centric diet. This dietary pattern is traditionally prevalent in Greece and the Southern parts of Italy, and arguably includes the most colorful cuisine. Its vast variety of ingredients is full of aroma, taste, flavor, and color. After all, what is the point of eating something that doesn’t offer any joy? Health shouldn’t be a chore.  So, Mediterranean diet makes it easy for you to enjoy a healthy lifestyle instead of adhering to it out of mere necessity.

It consists of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, cereals, and whole grains. It allows the consumption of fish, dairy products, and alcohol in moderate amounts. Mediterranean diet is also devoid of processed and refined meat and mainly contains fresh produce. In addition, it encourages the consumption of extra virgin olive oil and seeds as a source of monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats, respectively. The nuts, legumes, and plant-centric constituents have high amounts of vitamins such as A and E and minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, etc.

Interestingly, growing evidence suggests that adherence to the Mediterranean dietary pattern can help prevent AD later in life. This is because it improves the volume of white matter in the brain and prevents the reduction of grey matter and cortical thickness.

Since these changes are central in the early stages of AD, the Mediterranean diet is an excellent dietary model for decreasing the risk of this disease.

Some of the Mediterranean dietary recommendations useful for AD prevention are:

Whole-grain cereals

1 to 2 servings every main meal


Two or more servings every main meal


1 to 2 servings every main meal

Olive oil

Every main meal


1 to 2 servings every day

Low-fat dairy

Two servings every day

Herbs (onions, garlic, ginger, etc.)

Every day


2 to 4 servings per week


Two or more servings per week


Less than three servings per week


Two more servings per week

White meat

Two or more servings per week

Red meat

Two or lesser servings per week

Processed meat

Not more than one serving per week


Two or lesser servings per week

  • DASH Diet

The DASH diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Unlike the Mediterranean diet, its efficacy in preventing AD is less studied. However, it shares many components of the Mediterranean diet, and evidence points out its potential to alleviate the risk for AD.

The Mediterranean diet is broader in its target, but the DASH diet focuses explicitly on discouraging total fats. DASH diet also allows slightly higher consumption of dairy.

It contains a liberal amount of vegetables and fruits, nuts, and legumes. The consumption of saturated fats, total fats, salt, sweetened beverages, and red meat is minimal.

The goal of the DASH diet is to design an eating model which improves vascular health. It decreases the risk of plaque formation, high blood pressure, and heart diseases. As poor vascular health is a risk factor for AD, the DASH diet can prove effective in controlling its onset.

  • MIND Diet

This model is a hybrid of Mediterranean and DASH diets, designed by experts at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

It contains a group of ten healthy foods and five unhealthy foods, all backed by scientific evidence. In addition, the evidence suggests that this combination of MEDi-DASH diet exerts potent anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant impact; thus, protects from AD. Although this development is recent, you can find many recipe books that can help you incorporate this diet into your life.

It mainly emphasizes using green leafy vegetables, berries, and nuts. The recommendations of the MIND diet are:

Green leafy vegetables

More than six servings a week

Other vegetables

One or more servings per week


Five or more servings per week


Two or more servings per week


Two or more servings per week

Whole grain

Three or more servings per day


One or more servings per week


Two or more servings per week

Olive oil

Primary oil for every meal

Red wine

One glass per day

Red Meat

Less than four servings per week

Butter and cheese

Less than one serving per week


Less than one serving per week

Pastries and sweets

Less than five servings per week

Fried and fast food

Less than one serving per week


Incorporating any of these evidence-based diets requires one thing: cooking! But is there a difference in the cooking method?

Let's explore it in science!

Does Cooking Method Matter?

Cooking strategies are critical because temperature and duration of heat exposure transform the original content of food.

  • Cooking Temperature

High temperature reduces water content in the food and degrades heat-sensitive nutrients such as folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin C. Moreover, high temperature also triggers chemical reactions that produce advanced glycation end products (AGEs).

These products increase oxidative stress in the body. The most worrying factor is that dietary AGEs, unlike AGEs produced in your body, have a longer half-life. As a result, they can stay in your body for a long time and keep damaging your cells, including neurons. This process perpetuates neurodegenerative and inflammatory reactions, which speed up the progression of AD.

It is why research suggests that cooking at high temperatures should be avoided to limit the production of AGEs and prevent AD.

Favorable Cooking Methods

Harmful Cooking Methods

ü  Boiling

ü  Steaming

ü  Poaching

ü  Grilling

ü  Frying

ü  Roasting

ü  Broiling


Ideally, these methods are useful for AD, but you may not always like them. For example, if you feel boiled food tastes bland, it may become taxing to stay consistent with it. One way to overcome it is to cook food at a lower temperature. It may take more time, but food comes out healthier and also has palatability. Secondly, you can always mix and match your cooking methods according to food items instead of sticking to a particular method always.

  • Cooking contents

You can also alter your cooking content to enhance the flavor and palatability. It is where condiments and herbs come into the picture. Herbs and spices are significant parts of traditional cuisines. They add aroma and taste to the food and are also beneficial for brain health.

For instance, South Asians liberally use turmeric in their traditional curry. Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, offers an anti-inflammatory impact. In addition, the research now suggests that it reduces AD risk due to its ability to clear beta-amyloid plaques.

Similarly, cinnamon, pepper, saffron, and thyme are excellent for adding aroma and flavor to your cooking while enjoying their health benefits.

The Final Verdict

Diet is a critical, modifiable risk factor for AD. The key is to consume plant-centric foods and cook them at home with tons of herbs. This way, you can ensure low consumption of sugar, salt, meat, and processed diet. If you want to make it easy for you, you can choose a healthy dietary model and cook up a healthier brain!