Grain Brain is the catchy title of a new self-help diet book on the New York Times Advice and How-to Best Sellers lists. The author, neurologist David Perlmutter, makes the case for a slow death to brain cells caused by wheat, “carbs,” and sugar. Those foods, he says, are behind most of the common but incurable neurologic diseases including Alzheimer’s, dementia, autism, anxiety, depression, and others. To prevent and treat those conditions, he recommends a diet of fish, seeds, nuts, and olive oil, sans the “carbs” from grains, milk, fruit, and sugary sweets. Grain Brain is in the same vein as Wheat Belly and other best-selling Paleo-type diet books.
David Perlmutter and his co-author, writer Kristin Loberg, followed the diet book formula: reel in the lay audience with indisputable scientific facts and then lead them to ungrounded conclusions because they all sound good. With technical expertise, Dr. Perlmutter explains the workings of the brain and central nervous system. He is up on the hot nutrition topics and buzzwords of the day: inflammation, free radicals, bacteria in the gut, and metabolic fuels.
Sure, we agree that neurological diseases are scary and seem to be everywhere, but are gluten and carbohydrates the cause? Not so fast. David Perlmutter is often called “cutting edge,” which means research verification is needed.
Grain Brain was brought to my attention by Oldways, a non-profit organization that promotes healthy eating based upon traditional regional diets. They reviewed Grain Brain and found that it distorts current science. They disagree with Dr. Perlmutter’s estimates of the prevalence of celiac disease and gluten intolerance in the population, and with his advice to avoid all grains, even healthy whole grains and gluten-free grains like rice. Oldways says research supports the reverse premise: whole grains like oatmeal, millet, and brown rice supply the very nutrients the brain needs. I disagree with other Grain Brain tenants: nutrient excess – too many calories from all foods – is thought to be the main culprit behind general inflammation, and the brain does not prefer to burn ketones over glucose. Ketones, lactate and glucose are burned under varying metabolic conditions.
David Perlmutter is right: a diet full of sugar and refined starch is unhealthy, but he did not convince me to give up bulgur and farro because they are not the same as bagels, pizza, and cookies. Nutrition experts recommend eating at least forty percent of calories from carbohydrates, and those “carbs” should come primarily from whole foods. I prefer to take from Grain Brain what I already know: fish, seeds, nuts, olive oil, and vegetables, plus legumes, whole grains, fruit, plus lean meat and dairy products, if you take them, are the best foods for health – but only in the amount that you actually need.