A Gift to Remember: Watch and learn how doctors and scientists eat to mind their matter at the Brain-Healthy Cooking Series
Dr. Drew Ramsey leans toward the camera in his home kitchen in rural Indiana, where just-cooked salmon burgers rest on a counter behind him. Food, he narrates, is a powerful first step toward combatting mood disorders and anxiety and fending off cognitive disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as our brains age.
In the case of depression, he explains, “I can go to therapy … it’s personal hard work, tough, expensive. Or medications: really helpful (but) they take a month. Whereas you’re eating today — three meals, hopefully, and some snacks. Food is a huge piece of (how we feel).”
Ramsey, a nutritional psychiatrist, Columbia University professor, and author of three books including “Eat to Beat Depression,” also prepared a dish he calls Gnocchi à la Glenda. In a small, cast-iron skillet he combined garlic-steeped olive oil with lemon zest, pine nuts, tinned sardines and tomato sauce to coat cooked potato gnocchi, a quick pantry-staple dish rich in omega fatty acids and lycopene.
This surprise bonus recipe is a virtual shout-out to Glenda Greenwald, president and founder of the Aspen Brain Institute, which produces the Brain-Healthy Cooking Series. Greenwald serves as an on-camera moderator for the series. Hosted by Dr. Annie Fenn from her own kitchen in Jackson, Wyoming, the collection is a culinary spinoff of ABI’s video “Expert Series,” launched in September to engage viewers with the latest science on brain health.
“Canned fish is a great source of protein and (nutrients) we know our brains need,” Ramsey continues. “And there’s not a big fish smell in my kitchen right now.”
Like Ramsey’s “Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety: Mood-Boosting Holiday Cooking,” which originally aired on Nov. 10, each segment in ABI’s Brain-Healthy Cooking Series features an expert discussing their focus on brain health during an in-home cooking session. New videos premiere Tuesdays at 3 p.m. MST through Dec. 15; past episodes are available on ABI’s website and YouTube channel for viewing anytime. All are free — “a five-part holiday gift to our global brain health network.”
“People are cooking at home more than they ever have,” notes Fenn, herself spending this pandemic writing a cookbook, tentatively titled “The Brain Health Kitchen,” due out from Artisan Books in 2022. “And people are starting to connect the dots between what they eat and how they feel — their mental and physical health.” And, crucially, “What you eat has been proven to have an impact on how quickly your brain ages.”
Fenn cites 10 brain-healthy food groups (see factbox), based largely on a Mediterranean diet, studied for their positive impact on the brain. On Nov. 17, for example, world-renowned neuroscientist and Alzheimer’s prevention specialist Dr. Lisa Mosconi, PhD, beamed in from her New York City kitchen to prepare Sweet Greens Soup, an anti-inflammatory recipe from her new bestselling book, “The XX Brain.” Meanwhile, Fenn made a flourless chocolate cake with blood orange marmalade — a low-sugar treat rich in cacao flavanols and phytonutrients. Citrus peel, we learn, may enhance nutrient absorption.
Fenn founded the Brain Health Kitchen, a research-based website and newsletter in 2015, after having a post-retirement epiphany. As an obstetrician-gynecologist for 20 years in Jackson, Fenn saw primarily menopausal patients near the end of her practice. “I spent all day most days talking to women about their symptoms, revolving around memory loss and brain fog. I was convinced there was a lifestyle link,” she recalls. “I noticed that people who had a healthier diet and included exercise had (fewer) symptoms. They did better after surgeries and when pregnant and postpartum.”
She retired and attended culinary school, seeking to learn how to teach people to prepare food that could improve their quality of life. Around this time, in 2015, data on nutrition as preventing Alzheimer’s “exploded.” Then her mother was diagnosed with dementia. In 2017, Fenn launched the Brain Health Kitchen Cooking School, to share “a proactive approach to brain aging and building cognitive reserve.”
Upcoming in the series, Eric Adams discusses how adopting a plant-based lifestyle helped to reverse his diabetes, a preventable disease known to slow mental functioning and increase risk of Alzheimer’s. “All his symptoms went away — including he was having blindness in one eye!” Fenn says. “It’s remarkable.”
Adams is the rare Brain-Healthy Cooking guest who is not a doctor or scientist — he’s Brooklyn’s borough president (formerly a four-term U.S. senator and NYPD cop for 22 years before that) who announced his bid for New York City mayor in November. Amid this intense commitment to public service, Adams drastically changed his habits. Then he wrote “Healthy At Last,” a memoir-lifestyle guide that features 50 whole-food, plant-based recipes. Two on his upcoming show: Thai millet “meatballs” with orange-chile dipping sauce and a pumpkin-black bean quesadilla with sweet pepper salsa, plus Dr. Fenn’s cashew lime crema. “All of our guests are all out in their communities, modeling that lifestyle,” Fenn. says “It’s attainable.”
Harvard Nutritional Psychiatrist, chef, nutrition expert and author of “This Is Your Brain On Food,” Dr. Uma Naidoo and neurologist husband-wife team Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, co-directors of the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University Health in Southern California, all present plant-based creations such as tikka masala cauliflower “steaks” (Dec. 15) and vegan portobello mushroom cap “pizza” (Nov. 24), respectively. The latter introduces cashew “ricotta” and “mozzarella,” since eating less dairy is part of the brain-healthy approach.
Still, “You don’t have to give up cheese, meat, bread, or things you love, like desserts,” Fenn maintains of the Brain-Healthy Diet. “But there are guidelines to how often you should enjoy (those foods). Dr. Ramsey and I, we like grass-fed beef. I like eggs, I eat whole grain bread. It’s a progression. I keep plugging away and finding plant-based foods I like to cook.”
Fenn credits the Aspen Brain Institute’s mission via video series — making scientific data accessible in a fun, digestible format — as potentially having the power to change grim statistics. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death, affecting roughly 6 million Americans currently; that number is estimated to soar to 14 million by 2050, even though research shows the disease in preventable through diet and exercise.
“Five years ago it would just be scientists and doctors who had access to the medical journals,” Fenn says. “By giving doctors like me and our guests a platform to talk about brain health directly to everyone who has an internet connection — that’s a really powerful thing.”
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