Mind the Minerals

Have you ever thought about iron and copper and what they do in your body? There’s a lot of debate about what’s good and bad for your body — and your brain, including minerals. So we asked physician Neal Barnard, MD, for his perspective on the impact of food and minerals in our diet. It’s his mission to change your diet and keep your brain healthy, which is what his book “Power Foods for the Brain” lays out a plan to do.

24Life: You took a very holistic approach to keeping our brains healthy with sleep, exercise and nutrition in your book. But we’d like to focus on the nutrition aspect. Why is it what we eat has such a profound affect on our brains?

Neal Barnard, MD (NB): Our research finds there are some things that we eat that can help us and some things that can hurt us. When we think about foods that contain healthy antioxidants — for example, I will have some almonds that have some vitamin E in them — those antioxidants can knock out free radicals, which are malicious molecules that will rise in the blood and damage all the tissues including the brain. If you have more vitamin E in your diet, you will have more opportunity to knock those free radicals out — at least that is what we believe is happening.

On the other side of the fence, our research finds there are other things that hurt us: animal fat, for example, the saturated fat that is in cheese, or other dairy products or meats. When individuals consume a fair amount of saturated fat, as most Americans do, their risk of Alzheimer’s is much, much higher.

And we believe there is something about the cholesterol-raising effect of bad fats that harms the brain the same way that it harms the heart. So we have learned the lesson that anything that is good for the heart is good for the brain too.

24Life: What about the relationship between metals and the brain? You discuss how metals like copper, iron and zinc are necessary for our body but we can get too much of them. So how can we make sure that we are not getting too much of these nutrients?

NB: Yes, copper and iron are the two that I am particularly concerned about, and aluminum can be added to that list as well. You do need a little bit of copper and a little of iron but you don’t need any aluminum at all. Your body has a fairly good way of regulating these in the diet. If you get iron from plants, it is called non-heme iron. Your body will absorb more if you’re low in iron and less if you’re high in iron. So that’s terrific. If you get your iron from green leafy vegetables or beans then your body will get the amount it needs without the excess.

If, on the other hand, you only get iron from red meat, your body cannot really get rid of excessive amounts if you are getting too much, because much of the iron in red meat is heme iron.

It just barges into your party whether you want it there or not. Meat eaters tend to run too high in iron, unfortunately. Copper is in shellfish and liver and for whatever reason vegetarians tend to be good in it as well.