Lose weight AND protect yourself from illness: Try these brain foods to help ward off dementia 

One of the scariest things I have done in recent years is to take a genetic test to see if I am at increased risk of dementia.

I did it partly because my father had begun to show signs of forgetfulness in the lead up to his death at the age of 74.

He was still on the ball, but sometimes seemed to get a bit confused. I wondered, at the time, if this might be early signs of dementia.

So a few years later I decided, as part of a TV programme I was making, to get a genetic test. After looking around I opted for one from a California-based company called 23andMe.

After I logged on to its website and paid £125, it sent me a package with instructions — I had to deposit some saliva in a tube and send it back. Then, a few weeks later, the results pinged up on my computer.

Because we are living longer the risks are increasing rapidly, which is why dementia is now the leading cause of death in women in the UK and the second leading cause of death for men

Because we are living longer the risks are increasing rapidly, which is why dementia is now the leading cause of death in women in the UK and the second leading cause of death for men

I paused for a while before looking. Did I really want to know? Could I cope with it if it was bad news? What would I tell our four kids?

After all, this is a genetic test. A bad result would increase the risk that they would also carry any dodgy genes.

But I decided that if the news was bad I would really work on my lifestyle to mitigate some of that high risk.

I was hugely relieved to read that I do not have any ‘bad’ versions of something called the ApoE gene, which is strongly implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.

How a sweet tooth can dampen desire 

A diet high in sugar and refined carbs is linked to inflammation — a risk factor for cognitive decline and sexual dysfunction.

However, research suggests following a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods, such as the Mediterranean Diet (on which the Fast 800 is based), may slow down these conditions.

Many organs are dependent on a network of small blood vessels that can be damaged by inflammation. 

These include the kidneys, the retina, and erectile tissue in men and women.

Renal and eye disease are often undetected until advanced, but many people with raised blood sugars will, over time, have experienced a loss of sexual response.

A cause of enormous distress, this is often blamed on ageing. And yet by simply losing weight, the damage can be stopped and may even be reversed.

Bad news for the manufacturer of Viagra perhaps, but good news for everyone else.

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According to the 23andMe website, my risk of developing Alzheimer’s by the age of 74 is about one per cent.

My risk of developing it if I reach 80 is around six per cent. (If I’d had a bad variant of the ApoE gene it would have been much higher.)

On average, we Brits have a one in six chance of developing dementia by the age of 80, with the risk doubling every five years after that.

Because we are living longer the risks are increasing rapidly, which is why dementia is now the leading cause of death in women in the UK (it is the second most common cause of death in men, after heart disease).

The disease affects more women partly because they tend to live longer, according to the Alzheimer’s Society. But scans also suggest that as we get older the rate at which brain cells die is faster in women than in men.

Given the terrible impact that dementia has on our brains, it is not surprising that surveys have shown it’s the disease that we fear most, ahead of cancer or heart disease, which is why our focus today is on dementia — and the encouraging fact that with simple lifestyle changes, including intermittent fasting, which is a central part of my Fast 800 diet, you can reduce your risk.

Today, in the third part of our unique Eat To Beat Disease series that my wife, Dr Clare Bailey, and I have devised for the Mail, we’ll show you how to put intermittent fasting into practice with the delicious — and simple — recipes Clare and food writer Justine Pattison have developed using kitchen-cupboard basics.

Just what kind of impact lifestyle choices can have on our dementia risk was highlighted by research from Exeter Medical School that was based on data from about 200,000 people from the UK Biobank study.

This showed that even people who were at greater risk, because of their genes, cut that risk by about a third through lifestyle choices such as not smoking, avoiding alcohol in excess, regularly exercising and following a good, varied diet.

Keeping to a healthy weight is also important because excess fat around the tummy not only leads to inflammation in the brain, but also a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Raised blood sugar levels are bad for the brain and roughly double your risk of getting dementia.

The good news is that one of the best ways of reducing your waist size and blood sugar levels is by the sort of rapid weight loss I encourage in my Fast 800 diet.

On top of that, there is mounting evidence that intermittent fasting — part of my 5:2 diet and the second phase of my Fast 800 diet — where you cut your calories two days a week and eat healthily for the other five days, can help prevent dementia.

Some of the clearest findings of the benefits of intermittent fasting have come from a scientific hero of mine, Mark Mattson, professor of neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging in the U.S., who has spent decades researching the impact of intermittent fasting on the brain, showing how it can help combat memory loss and diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s.

The sting in sugar’s tail 

Avoiding sugar won’t just help improve your waistline and blood sugar levels.

People who cut it out of their diets often report a clearer mind, a better memory and more fluent use of language.

This is not a coincidence. Chronically excessive blood sugar inflames and narrows the artery walls; over the long term, this leads to impaired blood flow to the brain, and cognitive decline.

Diabetes is a common and established risk factor for vascular dementia.

Additionally, in a study from the University of Bath, researchers found that raised blood sugar damages an enzyme that prevents the build-up of abnormal proteins in the brain — another driver of cognitive loss.

Patients with type 2 diabetes are at increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to healthy people.

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Much of Mark’s work has been with animals, trying to understand exactly why intermittent fasting is so good for brain health. When I last visited his lab he showed me some mice that had been specially bred to develop Alzheimer’s disease at an early age.

These mice normally develop the condition when they’re about 12 months old, the equivalent of being a middle-aged human.

But when he put these mice on an intermittent-fasting diet he discovered that they didn’t develop dementia until they were well into old age.

Even more remarkably, when he examined their brains he found that those put on an intermittent-fasting diet had grown new brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus area, which is essential for learning and memory.

It turns out that intermittent fasting encourages the brain to produce higher levels of a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).

BDNF acts a bit like a fertiliser, stimulating the preservation and creation of new brain cells and new brain cell connections.

Other researchers have found that intermittent fasting may delay the onset of some forms of dementia and the development of symptoms such as cognitive decline.

In a review of existing studies published last year in the Journal Of Lipid And Atherosclerosis, the researchers said that intermittent fasting also appears to improve the activity of antioxidants — natural compounds that can protect cells from everyday damage — and have a protective effect on the hippocampus, the area deep in the brain that has a major role in memory.

More science is emerging all the time about the potential benefits of intermittent fasting, which I find terrifically exciting, particularly when talking about a disease like dementia, for which there is no cure at the moment.

Other well-established ways of reducing your risk of dementia include cutting out smoking, taking regular exercise and eating a Mediterranean-style diet, one that is rich in oily fish, olive oil, vegetables and nuts, the sort of diet the Fast 800 is based on.

Also, activities that are sociable, mentally challenging and which involve being active are good for the brain — such as dancing.

Although, sadly, we are not going to have much opportunity for being social for some time.

Easy ways with wraps

Pictured: A nori wrap, an omelette wrap and a lettuce wrap

Pictured: A nori wrap, an omelette wrap and a lettuce wrap

Build a lettuce wrap

Serves 1

  • ½ romaine lettuce heart (you can eat green and non-starchy vegetables freely on the Fast 800, so no calories to count)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Remove the large outer lettuce leaves and set aside 3-4 of them to provide the cups.

Slice the smaller leaves and place in a medium bowl, along with the filling ingredients of your choice. Season with salt and ground black pepper and mix well.

Spoon filling into the lettuce cups and serve.

Build a Nori Wrap

Serves 1

  • 1 sheet dried nori seaweed, around 20cm square (5 cals)
  • 75g cooked and cooled brown rice (122 cals)

Combine the filling ingredients of your choice. Place the nori sheet on a board, shiny side down, and spread the rice almost all the way over it. Press down with the back of a spoon.

Spoon the filling in a line across the centre of the rice.

Roll the nori around the filling, using two hands. Trim the edges and cut into six pieces.

Build an omelette wrap

Serves 1

  • 1 large egg (78 cals)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp olive or rapeseed oil (14 cals)

Beat the egg in a small bowl until smooth. Season with ground black pepper.

Brush a non-stick pan (the base no larger than 19cm) with the oil and place over a medium heat.

Pour the egg into the pan and swirl so that it covers the base. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until set.

Loosen with a spatula then flip and cook for 10 seconds more. Turn out on to a board and leave to cool for a few minutes.

Prawn Courgetti

Pictured: Prawn Courgetti

Pictured: Prawn Courgetti

Swapping out half your spaghetti for extra vegetables is a great way to boost your veggie intake without feeling like you’re missing out on a big bowl of pasta — while building on Mediterranean principles to reduce the dementia risk.

Serves 2 l Prep 10 mins l Cook 12 mins

PER SERVING 271 cals

PROTEIN 21.5g CARBS 16g

FAT 12.5g FIBRE 4g

  • 40g wholewheat spaghetti
  • 1 large courgette, trimmed and spiralised or made into ribbons, or buy a pack of courgetti
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 200g cooked, peeled prawns, thawed if frozen and drained
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed or finely grated
  • 1-1½ tsp crushed dried chilli flakes
  • Finely grated zest and juice
  • 1 small lemon

Half fill a large pan with water and bring to the boil. Add the pasta and cook according to pack instructions.

Stir in the courgetti for the final 15-20 seconds of cooking time. Drain the pasta and courgetti in a colander then set aside. 

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large pan, add the prawns, garlic and chilli and fry over a medium heat for about 2 minutes, or until heated through, stirring regularly.

Don’t overcook the prawns or they will become too tough.

Add the spaghetti and courgetti, lemon zest and juice to the pan.

Toss together well, season with salt and plenty of ground black pepper and serve in warmed bowls.

Whole roast chicken and veg

Pictured: A whole roast chicken with veg

Pictured: A whole roast chicken with veg

A classic roast chicken is a perfect example of a dish that may not have originated from Mediterranean cuisine but follows the same principles — eating a Mediterranean-style diet may reduce the risk of dementia.

Serves 4 l Prep 10 mins l Cook 80 mins

PER SERVING 246 cals

PROTEIN 36g CARBS 11.5g

FAT 4.5g FIBRE 8g

  • 1.6kg whole chicken
  • 1 small lemon, quartered
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp dried thyme or
  • 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves

For the green veg:

  • 300g frozen peas
  • 1 head broccoli, cut into small florets
  • 2 slender leeks, trimmed and cut into 1.5cm slices
  • 50g kale, spring green or cabbage leaves, trimmed and thickly shredded

Preheat the oven to 200c/180c fan/gas 6.

Place the chicken in a roasting tin, with the lemon pieces inside it. Season well with salt and black pepper and sprinkle the thyme.

Roast for 1 hour 15 minutes, or until cooked and the juices run clear.

Remove from the oven and transfer to a warmed platter. Cover with foil and leave to rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the vegetables. Third-fill a large saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Add the peas and return to the boil.

Add the remaining vegetables and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until tender.

Drain everything in a colander, reserving the cooking water, then tip the vegetables into a warmed serving dish.

To make a simple gravy, spoon off and discard any fat floating on top of the chicken juices in the roasting tin, then place the tin on the hob over a medium heat.

Add 3 tablespoons of the vegetable water and cook until bubbling, stirring to incorporate any sediment from the bottom of the pan.

Pour the gravy carefully into a warmed jug.

Carve the chicken and serve around 120g per person, without skin, alongside the vegetables and with the gravy spooned over the top.

Roasted fish with cheese

Pictured: Roast fish with cheese

Pictured: Roast fish with cheese

Fish is an important part of the Mediterranean diet, and eating it regularly is thought to have a protective effect on the brain.

Serves 2 l Prep 10 mins l Cook 27 mins

PER SERVING 349 cals

PROTEIN 24g CARBS 8g

FAT 24g FIBRE 3g

  • 1 medium courgette, cut into roughly 1.5cm chunks
  • 120g roasted red peppers from a jar, drained and roughly sliced
  • 2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 sea bream or sea bass fillets (each around 90g)

For the topping

  • 20g wholegrain sourdough bread, blitzed into breadcrumbs
  • 20g mature Cheddar, coarsely grated
  • Few sprigs fresh parsley, leaves finely chopped
  • Finely grated zest ¼ lemon, plus extra lemon wedges, to serve

Preheat the oven to 200c/180c fan/ gas 6.

Place the courgette and roasted pepper pieces on a small baking tray, drizzle over the oil, season with black pepper and toss together lightly. Roast for around 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley and lemon zest together in a small bowl to make the topping.

Season with a little salt and lots of ground black pepper.

Remove the tray from the oven and turn the courgette and pepper pieces.

Place the fish fillets on the vegetables, skin-side down, and sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture on top of the fish.

Bake for about 12 minutes, or until the fish is cooked and the crumbs are lightly browned.

Serve with lots of green vegetables or a large mixed salad and extra lemon wedges for squeezing over.

Shakes

Shakes are great for a meal if you’re on the go — combine fruit, vegetables and protein to make a balanced liquid meal incorporating the Mediterranean diet principles to help slow the onset or development of dementia.

Pictured: a fruit shake and a green shake

Pictured: a fruit shake and a green shake

Fruit shake

Serves 1

 2 tbsp full-fat live Greek yoghurt or yoghurt substitute (40 cals/1.6g protein)

100ml full-fat milk or milk substitute (63cals/ 3.3g protein)

½ medium banana, peeled and roughly chopped, about 50g prepared weight (43 cals/0.6g protein)

1 tbsp jumbo porridge oats, about 7g (28 cals/ 0.8g protein)

Add 1 fruit:

50g strawberries, hulled and halved (19 cals/0.3g protein)

50g raspberries (16 cals/0.7g protein)

50g mango, cubed (33 cals/0.3g protein)

60g frozen pineapple (27 cals/0.2g protein)

50g frozen mixed berries, such as strawberries and blueberries (20 cals/0.4g protein)

 Add 1 protein source:

1 tbsp ground almonds (44 cals/1.8g protein)

1 tbsp chopped mixed nuts (60 cals/2.7g protein)

1 tbsp mixed seeds (61 cals/2.7g protein)

1 tbsp whey powder (25 cals/5.5g protein)

1 tbsp chia seeds (71 cals/1.9g protein)

Add any 1 optional extra:

1 tsp vanilla extract

½ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp finely grated fresh root ginger

Finely grated zest ¼ lemon or lime

Squeeze lemon or lime juice

 

Put all the ingredients for the basic shake in a blender.

Add one fruit and one protein source. Include an optional extra, if you prefer.

Add 3-4 tablespoons of water or 3-4 ice cubes and blitz until smooth. Add more water, if needed. Serve immediately.

 Green shake

 Serves 1

 ½ avocado, peeled, stoned and quartered (160 cals/1.6g protein)

 200g cucumber, trimmed and cubed

Add 1 green vegetable:

25g young spinach leaves

25g young kale leaves, tough stalks removed

25g rocket leaves

25g watercress

Add 1 protein source:

1 tbsp ground almonds (44 cals/ 1.8g protein)

1 tbsp mixed nuts, chopped (60 cals/ 2.7g protein)

tbsp mixed seeds (61 cals/2.7g protein) 

1 tbsp whey powder (25 cals/5.5g protein)

1 tbsp chia seeds (71 cals/1.9g protein)

2 tbsp full-fat live Greek yoghurt (40 cals/1g protein)

Add any 1 or 2 of these optional extras:

Small handful fresh mint leaves

Small handful fresh basil leaves

1 tsp finely grated fresh root ginger

Finely grated zest ¼ lemon

Squeeze lemon juice

Good pinch crushed dried chilli flakes

Splash Worcestershire sauce

Splash Tabasco or sriracha sauce

Put both ingredients for the basic green shake in a blender.

Add 1 green vegetable and 1 protein source. Add an optional extra or two, if you like. 

Pour in 150ml cold water and season with salt and ground black pepper. Blitz until smooth.

Add more water, if needed, to reach your preferred consistency. Serve Immediately.

Sleep better to conquer munchie cravings

Getting a refreshing night’s sleep can be the ultimate win/win situation for a dieter.

Losing weight can make you sleep better, which can make you lose weight.

Many of us know that after a bad night’s sleep we get ‘the munchies’, which for me include cravings for sugary treats.

Being sleep-deprived disrupts our appetite hormones, making us more likely to feel hungry and less likely to feel full.

In fact, sleep-deprived people consume, on average, an extra 385 calories a day — equivalent to a large slice of cake, a review of studies carried out by researchers at King’s College London found.

Research shows losing weight can help you sleep better which in turn helps you lose weight

Research shows losing weight can help you sleep better which in turn helps you lose weight

Also, the areas of your brain associated with reward become more active. You become much more likely to eat unhealthy foods such as crisps and chocolate.

Another study showed children are affected, too. Researchers took some three and four year olds, all afternoon nappers, deprived them of their sleep and kept them up for two hours past their bedtime.

The following day, the children ate 21 per cent more calories than usual, including 25 per cent more sugary snacks. They were then allowed to sleep as much as they wanted. The next day, they still consumed 14 per cent more calories than previously.

OVERWEIGHT AND LACKING SLEEP

Lack of sleep makes you fatter, but piling on extra fat (particularly around the gut and neck) also means you sleep more badly. It is a vicious circle.

When I was an overweight diabetic, I slept badly — in part, because I snored heavily. When I lost weight, not only did my blood sugar levels return to normal, but I stopped snoring.

My wife, Clare, was delighted! Being overweight also greatly raises your risk of having sleep apnoea, a disorder that causes you to stop breathing hundreds of times a night. This will make you really tired and hungry and it is terrible for the brain.

So, if you are a snorer, then losing weight will really help your sleep.

TOP TIPS FOR A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP

Scrolling through the web on your phone or iPad will excite the brain and keep you awake

Scrolling through the web on your phone or iPad will excite the brain and keep you awake

Setting a sleep routine — and sticking to it — is an important step towards getting better rest each night.

Here are some of my other tips for improving your sleep routine.

When you wake up your body starts to release a chemical called adenosine, levels of which build through the day and, ultimately, help make you sleepy at night.

If you sleep in, you restrict the time for adenosine levels to grow — so you won’t feel tired enough to sleep at night. That’s why I go to bed at 11pm and rise at 7am — even at weekends.

Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. Banish TVs or laptops so you associate it only with sleep.

Scrolling through the web on your phone or iPad will excite the brain and keep you awake.

Avoid too much time in bed. If you find you go to bed and lie awake for hours, you will learn to associate it with sleeplessness.

If you wake in middle of the night and can’t get off again, get up, find a quiet place to listen to music or read a book.

Go back to bed only when you feel tired and don’t go up to bed too early.

Eat a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruit, vegetables and healthy fats such those found in olive oil and nuts — the anti-inflammatory properties will reduce the agony of painful joints, so aiding sleep.

It will also help with neuro-inflammation (inflammation in the brain and nerve tissue), which can strike as we get older and can interrupt our sleep.

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