The trouble with a title like Brain Health for Life is that it could mean many things, even with a descriptive subtitle like Beyond Pills, Politics, and Popular Diets. Fortunately, this is not a collection of crossword puzzles or Sudoku exercises, nor is it a rehashing of either play-it-safe or alarmist claims.
Instead, Karen V. Unger has written an engrossing, timely, and well-researched book about the impact of diet and lifestyle on the human brain and overall well-being. Taking a whole-person, nutrition-based approach — with the assistance of nutritional therapy practitioner LuAnne H. Cavender — Unger provides an in-depth overview of how the brain works in tandem with other major body systems to derive and process what it needs for optimal performance. But where this book differs from similar treatments is that Unger quite matter-of-factly points out various economic and political interests that have combined to subvert the common good and public health.
Actually, Unger does more than point: she hands over evidence from multiple sources, such as when she topples the food pyramid and takes the FDA and the USDA to task for being overly influenced by those they should be regulating more robustly.
This profits-over-people theme is echoed throughout the book. A few especially strong examples stand out, such as the examination of how the once healthy foodstuffs soybeans and canola oil became supposedly toxic ingredients in the American diet. Another example that illustrates Unger’s no-nonsense approach: she debunks the belief that bottled water is healthier than tap water, both in terms of tested water quality and in the danger of plastic bottles themselves. Her discussion of the prevalence of bottled water also reveals her method of amassing the pertinent evidence, laying it out, and meticulously referencing her sources.
Unger tells us that her impetus in writing Brain Health for Life was to address the importance of good nutrition for brain health among people struggling with mental illnesses. “There is a growing body of evidence that links mental health and brain function to proper nutrition,” she writes. “As the American diet has deteriorated, due to the prevalence of fast food, processed food, and genetically modified food, nutritional deficiencies that correlate with mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder have become more common.”
Presenting her case convincingly, Unger succeeds in providing up-to-date information that those in the mental health field will find worthy of consideration. (Her extensive references will also be of use to practitioners.) She also examines how the unwholesome American diet has resulted in a host of physical maladies, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and celiac disease. Unger weaves most of these discussions into more general chapters — ones like “Pills for Profit,” “The Gut: Key to Health and Happiness,” and (a personal favorite) “Redeeming Fat.” By the time she turned her attention to such obviously brain-related ailments as Alzheimer’s disease, it was difficult not to be persuaded by her position that we must be vigilant advocates regarding our personal health.
For an older audience concerned about longterm brain health and wanting to challenge the inevitability of impaired cognitive function and dementia, Unger’s conclusions will be especially thought provoking.
Brain Health for Life culminates with an in-depth discussion of the perils of chronic inflammation, especially as the source of most preventable diseases. Unger, who presents detailed coverage of what inflammation is and how it impacts the body, is unequivocal in her view that “inflammation is the root cause of numerous diseases, and many foods in our Western diet cause inflammation.”
As such, she promotes a non-inflammatory diet as both preventative and curative, and provides several pages of suggestions of foods (more fats and proteins, fewer carbohydrates, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables). She also gives practical advice on moderate exercise, stress reduction, and good sleep hygiene.
If Unger’s advice that we should eat balanced, “clean” meals, exercise daily, avoid stress and seek happiness, and get a good night’s sleep seems somewhat anticlimactic, even something of a no-brainer, there is at least a certain reassurance to be found in her confidence that brain health is an achievable goal.
Brain Health for Life: Beyond Pills, Politics, and Popular Diets
Inkwater Press, January 2015
Paperback, 306 pages