How a Brain Works Cooking Class Teaches Alzheimer’s Prevention
Cooking good-for-your-brain recipes from scratch is an empowering way to combat Alzheimer’s disease. Every Brain Works cooking class gets us into the kitchen to create a brain healthy meal together. We learn which foods to eat more of and which to avoid. We learn how to use bold flavors and modern techniques to bring out the inherent deliciousness of whole foods. While we cook, we learn about Alzheimer’s prevention both in and out of the kitchen.
The recipes I create for Brain Works cooking classes are designed for busy people. After years of cooking for my family while working crazy hours as an ob/gyn, I’ve collected dozens of cooking shortcuts and tweaks. Each Brain Works cooking class is literally packed with practical information we can use every day. What are the best oils to cook with? What happens to oils when heated above their smokepoint? How important is it to choose organic over conventionally grown produce? Should we eat meat? If so, what kind and how much? How do we increase the nutrient density of our foods? How do we eat more vegetables? More beans? More nuts?
Brain Works cooking classes are a lot of fun. But they are also meaningful beyond getting to enjoy all the beautiful food. By talking about Alzheimer’s prevention, we acknowledge our fears together, as a team. It feels good to be proactive about fighting dementia.
Dr. Martha Stearn’s Brain Works dementia prevention program
My first Brain Works cooking class was part of an 8-week Brain Works dementia prevention course that was born in early 2015. Dr. Martha Stearn, a cognitive health specialist at St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson, Wyoming, designed the course for healthy people who want to reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Brain Works participants learn how to incorporate scientifically proven habits that prevent or delay Alzheimer’s into daily living. The curriculum is based on rigorous scientific studies from unbiased sources that add to what we know slows down or delays the process of cognitive decline.
“We like to think of reducing Alzheimer’s risk as delaying the disease,” says Dr. Stearn. Delay is an important concept as it pertains to Alzheimer’s. Diet and lifestyle interventions attempt to have an impact on the length of one’s brainspan— the number of years a brain is functioning at a high level. The Brain Works program strives to cultivate a brainspan that is just as long as one’s lifespan.
Brain Works students are immersed in several hours of course work each week of the program, which Dr. Stearn now fits into 6 weeks. Cognitive testing evaluates their strengths and weaknesses, and computerized brain training is individualized to each person’s level of cognitive function. Students learn stress reduction techniques, such as meditation and Tai Chi. They learn which physical exercises are the most brain healthy, and how to incorporate movement into every day. There’s a strong focus on building cognitive reserve — challenging the brain to be engaged and constantly learn new things. And they learn how to eat and cook with brain healthy foods through my Brain Works cooking classes.
The science behind each Brain Works cooking class
I consider a food to be “brain healthy” if it is backed up by solid scientific research indicating a positive effect on the aging brain. The Brain Works cooking curriculum constantly changes as new data emerges regarding Alzheimer’s risk. The Brain Works way of eating is most aligned with the Mediterranean diet, which many consider the healthiest diet on the planet. We take the classic Mediterranean diet and adjust it to be even more brain-centric — specific to combating Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain Works draws its framework from the MIND diet study, published by Rush University researchers in 2015, in which researchers defined the 10 Brain Healthy Food Groups and the 5 Brain-Unhealthy ones. Participants who ate more brain healthy foods (and less brain un-healthy ones) showed a 53% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s over 4.5 years. Even those that only ate brain healthy foods sometimes showed a 37% reduction in risk.
Because we aspire to be thriving at the age of 100, we are very interested in data from the Blue Zones, a National Geographic project conducted by Dan Buettner to examine the food and lifestyle in the parts of the world with the highest density of centenarians. (You can watch his TED talk here.) You’ll find many of the Blue Zones foods Buettner in Brain Works Kitchen recipes. (Hello: chickpeas, almonds, salmon, sweet potatoes and avocado!)
Reducing Alzheimer’s risk, improving brain function
Although Brain Works cooking classes focus primarily on reducing Alzheimer’s risk, we are also keen on learning about foods that can improve cognitive function. After all, who wouldn’t welcome an improved short term memory, less brain fog, and a faster, more efficient brain? So we draw inspiration from the FINGER study, a large prospective study published in 2013, that showed improved brain function in a group of men and women over the age of 60 who started a diet and exercise program. We also learn from numerous smaller yet intriguing
studies looking at the effects of certain whole foods, such as berries and turmeric, on brain function. (Yes, we will be eating a lot of berries and cooking with turmeric, both fresh and dried, in the Brain Works Kitchen!)
Learn more about the science behind the Brain Works cooking classes here.
Who knew Alzheimer’s prevention could be so delicious?
Brain Works cooking classes are all about creating truly satisfying food that delights and nourishes. We don’t eliminate entire food groups. We don’t count calories, keep track of fat grams, or obsess about every little thing we eat. Sure, we want to eat what’s best for our health, but we also don’t want to forget that sharing good food is a joyful part of life.
In a nutshell, we try to include brain healthy ingredients in most of the foods we eat and drink. But we also give ourselves permission to indulge in the foods we really love. I’m not giving up chocolate chip cookies, and I wouldn’t expect you to either! (But I do have a version made with chickpea flour, dark chocolate and olive oil that my Brain Works students adore. I’ll post the recipe soon.)
My Brain Works alumni tell me eating for brain health has a welcome, unintended consequence — weight loss. Many have shed unwanted pounds, feel trimmer, and keep excess weight off. And that’s a very good thing: Being overweight at mid-life doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
Each Brain Works cooking class is part of the movement to wipe out Alzheimer’s
My Brain Works cooking classes took on a life of their own as people heard about the program and wanted to learn more about brain healthy cooking. First, I taught classes for all of my friends in Jackson, Wyoming, where I live. Then I cooked Brain Works recipes with the dynamic group of women that makes up my cookbook club there. Soon after, I visited friends in other cities to cook with their friends and their cookbook clubs. Now I teach on a regular basis for both public and private groups from California to Italy and many places in between. One of my favorite teaching venues is at La Cocina Que Canta, the cooking school at Rancho La Puerta, a health and fitness spa in Tecate, Mexico.
I’ve cooked with Alzheimer’s caregivers, their children and their widows. I’ve helped empty nesting couples find their way back into the kitchen. Brain Works students range from seasoned home cooks to those who have never cooked a meal from scratch. The experienced cooks always learn a few new tricks for cooking with plant-based, whole foods. And the novices start by learning how to assemble a meal from brain healthy ingredients.
My Brain Works cooking classes have reached hundreds of healthy, proactive folks who are taking the first step to creating a future free of dementia.
(Check my Events page for dates of upcoming cooking classes and talks. I’d love to cook with you!)
Cooking from scratch using whole food ingredients is the best way I know, as a physician, to radically improve health.
The St. John’s Medical Center Brain Works class runs every 3 months except in the summer. Contact Holly at the Cognitive Health Department for information and to sign up for the next session: 307 739 7434
Read more about the Brain Works program in Jackson, Wyoming here.
To book a private group Brain Works class, contact Annie at firstname.lastname@example.org.