SeAnne Safaii-Waite would like to remember her mother as a vibrant fortysomething with perfect hair and nails, a rifle in her arms and a freshly shot antelope at her feet. Instead, her first thought is of a frail octogenarian, sedated so she will not give her caregiver another black eye.
Sue Stillman Linja wants to remember her mother ensconced in the kitchen, teaching the grandchildren how to make pasta. But Linja’s main memory is of a sweet and funny woman who could no longer figure out how to open a refrigerator door.
Alzheimer’s disease robbed Safaii-Waite and Linja of their mothers and their most precious memories. Now the registered dietitians want to help you protect yourselves and your families from the same scourge.
Their not-so-secret weapon is food.
One hundred and five foods to be exact, described in their new book, “The Alzheimer’s Prevention Food Guide.” In a fast, informative 175 pages, the Treasure Valley women present what they consider to be the first line of defense against a leading cause of death in the elderly.
They are deep believers in what they call “brain healthy foods” such as turmeric and cardamom, walnuts and wasabi, pomegranates, potatoes and lots of leafy greens — a combination of semi-exotic ingredients and old faithfuls that enjoy a permanent place in your pantry.
“I want people to know that we can make a difference with the foods that we eat to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s,” Linja said in a recent interview. “People don’t know that — that there’s something you can do with how you eat.”
Healthy and delicious
On a recent scorching Tuesday afternoon, the dietitians were hard at work in Safaii-Waite’s East Foothills kitchen. Their goal was to cook a fast and brain-healthy meal. The result was food so fresh and tasty you’d eat it whether it was good for you or not.
The menu, which included 20 brain-friendly ingredients, was deceptively easy to make: salmon with walnut basil pesto, sprinkled with Gorgonzola cheese and pomegranate seeds; spinach salad with a turmeric and black pepper vinaigrette; whole grain bread with apricot compote; and a glass (just one!) of red wine, Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva.
“Sue and I are both pretty healthy,” Safaii-Waite said as lunch preparations began. “But both of our moms have had Alzheimer’s. Sue’s mom passed away from it. My mother is in a memory care facility. Many scientists think the Western diet is a huge contributor to Alzheimer’s. ... Some foods, though, can be more brain protective than others.”
Safaii-Waite and Linja acknowledge that the root cause of Alzheimer’s disease is still unclear, but they also note that ongoing research suggests possible connections between the ailment and diabetes, insulin and inflammation. Most of the foods they suggest incorporating into everyday meals are high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
“Many experts are convinced poor lifestyle and diet are leading contributors to Alzheimer’s, as they are for other chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes,” they write. “Because we know that exercise and a healthy diet reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity and cancer, it is also likely these lifestyle adjustments can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s through the same or similar mechanism.”
The first order of business was to make the pesto and start the apricot compote. Linja whirled basil leaves, fresh garlic and walnuts in a food processor. Safaii-Waite zested lemon peel. Soon the house was perfumed with the mingled scents of herb and citrus.
“The Alzheimer’s Prevention Food Guide” includes two weeks of menu plans; the meal the dietitians are preparing is introduced on Day 1. Which is not surprising, considering how potent its ingredients are.
2 foods to note
Spinach is filled with B vitamins, including folate, which regulates an amino acid called homocysteine. Alzheimer’s patients, the dietitians said, have high levels of homocysteine in their blood. The leafy green also contains beta-carotene and lutein, which lowers the presence of oxidized red blood levels in the brain.
According to one study, they write, “by consuming one serving of spinach a day, you can help prevent cognitive decline.”
Turmeric root, an ingredient in curries, is the real brain-health powerhouse. In dry form, it is a bright, earthy orange and is easily available in the spice aisle of most grocery stores. Fresh turmeric root resembles its relative, ginger root, but with a distinctly larval look.
“Cultures that use turmeric have a very low incidence of Alzheimer’s disease,” Safaii-Waite said. “We think you should use it daily. When you combine turmeric and black pepper, it makes the beneficial components of it more available to the body.”
That’s why freshly grated turmeric is the main ingredient in the vinaigrette Linja is whipping together, along with apple cider vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.
The vinegar and other fermented foods, such as yogurt and sauerkraut, have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Extra virgin olive oil — a staple of Mediterranean cooking for centuries — is high in oleic acid, another important anti-inflammatory.
The women recommend consuming extra virgin olive oil daily. And Linja has two other suggestions for maximizing that oil’s beneficial impacts.
As she measures out the viscous gold liquid, Linja notes that olive oil should be stored in a dark glass bottle, kept in a cold, dry cupboard and used before it expires.
Linja’s final piece of advice as she adds ingredients to the small jar before shaking it into a full-flavored emulsion? She grins. “You have to make sure,” she said, “that the lid’s on really tight.”
Even the most brain-healthy food loses nutritional value when splattered on the kitchen wall.
Maria L. La Ganga is a freelance writer living in the Treasure Valley.
Turmeric Black Pepper Vinaigrette
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh grated turmeric OR 2 teaspoons ground dried turmeric
1 clove garlic, minced or crushed
2 teaspoons honey or maple syrup
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt
Add ingredients in pint jar with tight-fitting lid. Shake and serve.
Walnut Basil Pesto
2 to 3 cups fresh basil
1/2 cup walnuts
2 large garlic cloves
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Salt and pepper to taste
Blend all ingredients except oil and cheese in a food processor until mostly smooth. Drizzle olive oil in slowly while processing. Stir Parmesan cheese into the pesto at the end.
Salmon with Walnut Basil Pesto
4 four-ounce salmon filets
Fresh lemon juice
Extra virgin olive oil for the pan
16 tablespoons walnut basil pesto
Preheat oven to 425 F. Drizzle the oil in baking pan and place the salmon in the pan.
Squeeze lemon juice over the filets and spread each filet with 2 tablespoons of pesto.
Bake 10 to 14 minutes.
Place two cups of baby spinach on each plate. Top with Walnut Basil Pesto Salmon. Sprinkle each serving with 1/4 cup of pomegranate seeds and a tablespoon or two of crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of Turmeric Black Pepper Vinaigrette.