“So beta amyloid plaques and tau tangles are the two most prominent markers associated with Alzheimer's disease. So essentially what the group did is they figured out the foods that were most closely associated with healthier brains, and that would be dark green leafy vegetables, a lot of colorful other vegetables.”
In today’s episode, we introduce Jennifer Ventrelle, a renowned expert in cognitive health and lifestyle habits. With over two decades of experience in clinical nutrition, physical activity, and mindfulness-based interventions, Jennifer’s work has a profound impact on preventing cognitive decline. She’s been a key player in MIND Diet and leading the U.S. POINTER study, largest clinical trial exploring the connection between lifestyle and cognitive health. Join us as we discover how Jennifer’s expertise can empower you to make informed choices for a healthier mind and body.
Jennifer Ventrelle, author of The Official MIND Diet, integrates over 20 years of experience in nutrition, physical activity, and mindfulness-based programs to help people lose weight, manage stress, and reduce risk for dementia. She is a registered dietitian and fitness trainer certified in adult weight management and qualified through the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. At Rush University Medical Center, Jennifer worked closely with the late Dr. Martha Clare Morris, the creator of the MIND diet, and now co-directs the U.S. POINTER Study lifestyle interventions, putting her at the forefront of the largest initiatives exploring the impact of lifestyle on preservation of brain health and cognition in the U.S.
Shireen: In today’s episode, we introduce Jennifer Ventrelle, a renowned expert in cognitive health and lifestyle habits. With over two decades of experience in clinical nutrition, physical activity, and mindfulness based interventions, Jennifer’s work has a profound impact on preventing cognitive decline. She’s been a key player in the MIND diet and leading the U.S. Poynter study. the largest clinical trial exploring the connection between lifestyle and cognitive health. Join us as we discover how Jennifer’s expertise can empower you to make informed choices for a healthier mind and body. Stay tuned.
Jennifer Ventrelli, author of The Official Mind Diet, integrates over 20 years of experience in nutrition, physical activity, and mindfulness based programs to help people lose weight, manage stress, and reduce risk of dementia.
Jennifer Ventrelle: Thanks, Shireen. Happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Shireen: An absolute pleasure having you on, Jennifer. I’m really looking forward to this episode today. I do want to take a step back and before we go into a little bit more details for our episode here, can you tell us a little bit more about your background and just your journey in the field of clinical nutrition, really looking at physical activity and also mindful based interventions?
Jennifer: Yeah, certainly. Well, I am an assistant professor at Rush University Medical Center, so it really all started there. I’ve been lucky enough to continue my time there. I was a nutrition student, graduate student, doing their dietetic internship program. And after I graduated, I was lucky enough to get a position in their counseling center, the Nutrition and Wellness Center at Rush, counseling people on, call it medical nutrition therapy, how to improve lifestyle and I really was focused on the prevention aspect of it. I wanted to help people not only change their diet, but incorporate a more holistic approach to wellness. And so I really got into the fitness side of things once at my fitness center, they were looking for what was called a nutrition coach.
And I started working there and helping people. Get closer to physical activity while integrating their nutrition with it. You know, then I thought I had all the tools. Well, if I can teach him what to eat and how to exercise, then, you know, then we can really get down to how to change lifestyle and prevent disease.
And I learned very quickly that it’s about more than that. It’s about behavior, right? So then I was able to move over to the preventive medicine department at Rush. And since that time, I’ve been working with mostly psychologists talking about not just what to do, but how to do it.
Shireen: Jennifer, what inspired you to focus on this intersection of lifestyle habits and cognitive decline?
Jennifer: Yeah. You know, my, my father actually died, uh, at a young age. He was only 45 years old and probably everything you can think of in lifestyle. He did not do it the right way. Really heavy smoker, ate unhealthy foods. He was actually a Vietnam war veteran. And I think there was probably some PTSD mixed in there before we talked about things like that back then.
And so I always knew that I wanted to be in the helping field and the healthcare field. And I was, I was really pre med to start and then took a basic nutrition course. And I think like this light bulb went off that the ability to prevent disease, it can be so much more impactful. So that’s how I sort of got on the road to health and wellness in general.
But I would say the specific focus and cognition was when I worked closely now with the now late Dr. Martha Claire Morris, who created the lead creator of the mind diet, invited me to join her team on the first trial to explore nutrition and cognition. And so since then, I’ve been more dedicated to thinking about cognitive health and response to seeing how impactful lifestyle can be not only on our physiology and our body, but the makeup of our brain and even mental health and wellness.
Shireen: And you’re referring to the mind diet trial itself. Now you were the lead dietitian on the mind diet intervention to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Could you explain what the mind diet is first and its impact on cognitive health?
Jennifer: Yeah, of course. The MIND diet is a hybrid between the mediterranean and dash diets and the Initiative there, and again, I credit the work of Dr. Martha Claire Morris, Dr. Christy Tangney, and the third creator by the name of Dr. Frank Sachs at Harvard School of Public Health. They knew for a long time, we all knew for a long time, that nutrition can significantly help cardiovascular disease prevention, obesity, even prevent some types of cancers. But, where the gap was what types of nutrients and foods would help with cognition, specifically help in reduction of cognitive decline and delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. And so this research came mostly out of two big cohort studies in Chicago, the “Memory and Aging Project” and the “Chicago Health and Aging Project”.
And it was, it’s now a body of over 10,000 people who have been studied and they were willing to answer these, what are called food frequency questionnaires, ask them what types of foods they ate, how much they ate and how often they ate them. And then they did cognitive testing every year. So what they were able to do is take a look at the foods that were most closely associated with the folks who had the slowest level of cognitive decline, and then even some of them volunteered to donate their brains after death so that researchers could look at the actual pathology of the brain. And so, by the same token, those who ate certain types of foods in a certain amount and frequency had smaller pathophysiological markers in their brain. So beta amyloid plaques and tau tangles are the two most prominent markers associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So essentially what the group did is they figured out the foods that were most closely associated with healthier brains, and that would be dark green leafy vegetables, a lot of colorful other vegetables.
One interesting thing that’s different from what most diets promote is the only fruit that is associated with brain health is berries. And then the unsaturated fats would be another category. That’s really hopeful. So extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds and nut butters and then fish and seafood. So those are just a few foods that are on the list of the foods to choose, so to speak. And then there was also five foods that were associated with acceleration of disease. So higher pathology in the brain that’s linked to Alzheimer’s disease. So that’s mostly your saturated fat foods, which you can probably guess. Your deep fried foods, red meat. full fat cheese, butter, and then sweets and some other desserts.
Shireen: I do want to get you to comment on some of your key findings and insights from the U. S. Pointer Study. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jennifer: Yeah, so the U. S. Pointer Study is part of a worldwide initiative actually called Worldwide Fingers that looks at not just diet, but whole lifestyle. Because we know now that there are several lifestyle factors that can reduce up to 40 percent of all dementias.
And so what U. S. Pointer aims to do is take the four domains that we have the most research on and We were able to create a lifestyle intervention design around that. So that of course is nutrition. So we use the mind diet in that study. And the second is physical activity. So we’re trying to get folks to get at least 120 minutes of moderate intense physical activity, along with some strength activity and stretching and balance. The third domain is cognitive and intellectual training. So we have a brain training computer program that we ask them to complete. And then we ask them to be social. They always all think that’s the fun part, right? What things are you connecting with other humans and doing?
Maybe they’re trying a new activity. We have some folks that are doing simple things like. Learning new card games and other folks that are out learning new languages. It’s pretty incredible. And then the last domain is health monitoring. So it’s what we already know about health and wellness, right? You should know your numbers, what type of cholesterol is going to be linked to the ability to be healthy, not only for the body and the brain, manage your blood pressure.
If you have diabetes, manage your blood sugar and things like that. So that’s what U.S. Pointer aims to do.
Shireen: You know, hearing you talk about the different dimensions and the specific focus on diet, physical activity, and even mindfulness just play this role in cognitive health. Can you speak to how these factors really influence cognitive health and the prevention of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease?
Jennifer: Yeah. Yeah. So as I mentioned, there’s a research study, a report in the Lancet that identified these 12 different risk factors. And many of them were linked to lifestyle and mod, what we call modifiable risk factors. So, you know, we’re all aging. We can’t do anything about the fact that we’re getting older every moment.
Right. But. What can we do something about? And so, as I mentioned, we’ve known a long time about the cardiovascular risk prevention. We know what’s healthy for the heart is also healthy for the brain. So, managing your blood pressure, cholesterol, things like that. But, what’s insightful about What’s sort of newer that we’ve learned about the preservation of the brain and cognition is these other lifestyle factors, such as diet, as I mentioned, but also physical activities, socially engaging with others, it’s the opposite of isolation, right?
So I’m sure you can probably think of some older adults that, you know, or friends that you may have that they know that. As they get older, they begin to isolate and non interact with, with others. We know that that can accelerate cognitive decline. Sleep is another big factor that we know is important to preservation of brain health.
And so making sure you got not only just the number of hours, but good quality sleep is an important thing. And what I like to believe is sort of the foundation of all of this, because I think It leads to good or bad outcomes and other lifestyle factors is stress. I think that when the body and the mind are stressed, we don’t make good choices.
And so, the ability to have tools to regulate the nervous system. When I say manage stress and mention things like mindfulness meditation, I think sometimes people think it’s that, you know, kind of woo woo sitting with your legs crossed and sitting in silence. And that’s not what it is. It can be that you can get silent and.
And sit cross legged, but that’s not all mindfulness meditation is about. It’s another technique to be able to help control the way that we want to show up and respond in the world. And that could mean interacting with others, or it could mean just making the simple choice to go for a walk after dinner instead of sit down with the ice cream and watch another Netflix show.
It’s, you know, we all have choices that we make every day. So I think it’s all intertwined and, and for me and the way I practice and help people and their lifestyle is treating that, you know, the ability to allow your lifestyle habits to happen, and being mindful and aware in that way as a foundation for all of the other lifestyle practices.
Shireen: You are qualified to teach mindfulness based stress reduction. How can mindfulness practices really benefit cognitive health and overall well being? Help us understand the science of it and then the practice.
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s a great question. So, Aside from the sort of secondary risk prevention, right, what I was just talking about, if you’re more mindful and more centered and more aware, you’re more likely to engage in those practices, we have direct research on this.
We have over 40 years of research that shows that mindfulness can reduce stress, depression, anxiety. But also can change the physiology of the brain, can begin to create new neural pathways to make these choices. A neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin by the name of Dr. Richie Davidson, he’s one I like to quote in this area a lot because he took the extreme.
He was studying Tibetan monks and put them through MRI machines. So as you might imagine, a Tibetan monk devotes much of their life to this practice of silence. meditation introspection. And what were found on the MRI images were a lot higher activation in the left prefrontal cortex. So your left prefrontal cortex is responsible for a lot of your thinking, your planning, your reasoning.
It’s also where empathy and compassion live. So These individuals were happier, they were healthier, they also had more hippocampal volume. The hippocampus is where the learning happens, where memory is housed, and reasoning. And what was smaller was the area of the amygdala. Your amygdala is where your emotions are housed.
So when some stressful situation happens, instead of reacting emotionally and perhaps doing things you wish you could take back later, you are able to deactivate that center and then have your logic, reasoning, memory, learning more higher activated to be able to respond in better ways. So, the good news about that is that he didn’t just study Tibetan monks, he also studied normal individuals like you and I every day and going through this meditation practice.
So specifically, MBSR is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. It is a eight week program where the instruction is to meditate for up to 45 minutes per day. And he saw that individuals who went through that training also had that higher activation in the left prefrontal cortex. But there’s newer research out now that also shows that you don’t have to sit for 45 minutes every single day.
Uh, and for me, what I like to tell people is about beginning to develop the habit. So, you know, frequency is more important than duration. I can tell you, I don’t sit on my cushion for 45 minutes in silence every day, right? If I can carve out 10 minutes, even as small as five minutes a day on most days, say to gain some space and just focus on the moment and what’s here. That research shows is enough to start to begin to develop those new pathways in the brain so that responding is more activated versus that emotional reactivity.
Shireen: I appreciate the last part because as soon as you said 45 minutes, it’s like, oh, that’s, that’s going to be a tough one. It’s not practical to necessarily carve out that much time. I think the reason why that often gets quoted is because MBSR is a well known program and it’s easy to study, but we do know that shorter bouts can be effective as well. And so is the idea then, Jennifer, to start at like the 10-15 minute mark and work your way up? Or is the takeaway here that 10-15 minutes is just. even if you’re not able to work your way up.
Jennifer: Absolutely. The latter. I think that if you never make it to 45 minutes, that’s okay. You will still see benefits by initiating the habit of carving out even 5 to 10 or 15 minutes.
Shireen: Makes sense. I do want to switch over to some of the things we were talking around lifestyle changes earlier. How can people really personalize their lifestyle and nutrition to best suit their cognitive health needs and goals?
Jennifer: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that when it comes to personalizing it and getting back to you, the biggest message I can say is start small. I think that people get really excited about oh, I’m gonna start a new diet or I’m gonna, you know, do this lifestyle program and sort of revolutionize everything in my day to day and I just Don’t, I would not recommend that approach.
I think choosing one or two small things that you can aim for is much more doable. So we outlined a framework for this and we call it smart mind habits. So telling people to begin by just taking inventory. So S is for self monitoring and so if we’re talking about diet, for example, if you want to improve your diet.
Keep track of what you’ve been eating. See where there might be the ability to make some small changes. Even if it’s, I’ll pick one food, you know, one of the most powerful foods on the mind diet is leafy green vegetables for the brain. So maybe you just want to decide you want to increase your leafy green vegetables.
So then a little meal planning and when I use that word that can sound really intimidating, I think, for people, especially if they don’t already plan meals. And I think A meal plan can be something as simple as I want to start eating a salad three days a week before my meal and If you eat out every day, you could even order the salad instead of, you know, ordering the fried appetizer or something like that.
I think that improving lifestyles can be accessible to everyone, whether they’re in the kitchen cooking meals from scratch every day, or they’re a busy person that’s overscheduled and feels like they don’t have time to cook. So then creating an action plan, that’s what the A stands for in SMART. And just looking at your calendar, I think, is the most important thing.
Actually going to happen this week. If you’ve decided you’re going to get a salad, but you’re eating out every week at a restaurant that doesn’t serve vegetables, right? Like it could be as simple as choosing where you want to go and what you’re going to do, and then, you know, integrating some small movement, like taking a walk after dinner or something like that. And I think the important part here is reflecting on what does and does not work. So that’s what the R is, is reflection. And you wouldn’t continue to start new things each week or day or whatever. If you learned that it didn’t go well, figure out what didn’t go well and then make a new plan, or reconnect to the plan before.
It’s this ability to go inward and figure out what is really working for me and what’s not working for me. And then the last segment is trust and support. So finding not only the ability within yourself, but we call that building self efficacy. I feel like I can do this. And that could mean just… choosing things that are realistic versus saying that you’re going to completely change your whole entire diet and follow a new plan, maybe with foods on it that you don’t even like or aren’t accessible to you and having support, you know, so it could be a buddy that You might team up with and let them know, you know, what you’re working on or a partner that’s in your home.
Maybe you preparing meals with them together, or if you need to have help of a professional, like a registered dietician or a coach, I think that that can be useful to depending on. You know, if you have the means for something like that, it’s not necessary a bit. Can it be an extra support piece? I think.
Shireen: Just given your extensive experience on the research side, your clinical practice, and also in teaching, how have these aspects of your career really informed your understanding of lifestyle and nutrition changes on cognitive health?
And can you also share any notable moments or success stories?
Jennifer: Yeah, sure. You know, I think the biggest takeaway for me, you know, I feel a responsibility to know what’s happening in the science and the research world, and give people informed direction and information about what’s gonna be best for their physical health and their cognitive and mental health.
So I like to say I teach people a thing or two. I hope I teach people a thing or two. Right. But as I mentioned before, I think this is all about behavior and all about the choices that you make. Every single day, and I think that. Helping people feel empowered that they can make those choices and practical tips on actually how to do that.
I see that as my job, but then it’s up to the individual to carry it through. So I was thinking about, as you mentioned, you know, are there success stories? I can think of a very recent email that I got, and I feel like I’ve impacted someone not. necessarily when they’re doing well while I’m working with them, but when I hear from them afterwards.
So we have a research participant that’s been out of one of our research studies for quite some time. And she emailed and she said, just thought you’d like to hear what I’m up to. I’m in Hawaii and not only did I choose the Black bean fish tacos to get in my mind diet foods, but I’ve already played pickleball twice since I was here.
I’m tracking on my Apple watch that I’ve got over 10, 000 steps each day. And I’m really feeling mentally clear and physically fulfilled. So just thank you was her message. You know, so I took that as gosh, not only is she not. You know, having someone call her every week and say, okay, please report to me physical activity that you’ve done, but she feels empowered to continue it on her own after the fact.
And to me, that’s true behavior change. When you don’t need the trigger, the reminder, you, it’s just part of your lifestyle now. That was really fun to hear.
Shireen: That’s so lovely and how gratifying, right? And the last in the, we’re almost toward the end of the episode here, but I do have one last question I would like to squeeze in here, Jennifer, what do you see as the future of research and interventions in the field of cognitive health and lifestyle habits?
Jennifer: Yeah, I think it’s more of that how I think that we although we will continue to learn the what you know What are the best foods? What are the best physical activities? What are the best lifestyle practices? We’ll continue to learn that but what’s even more important is what I call the how and how to make people more seamlessly integrate this into their routine and how to prioritize it, right?
So I think that comes not only from one on one work, you know, group work, research work with people, but I think there also has to be culture shifts. I think there needs to be policy change. I think there needs to be greater access to things that are helpful for people. Modification, you know, we’re working with a few groups to modify specifically the mind diet for more culturally appropriate groups, you know, foods that they eat and do they have access to it? And how can we design programs that are affordable and accessible for people? So a little bit of research, a little bit of one on one work, but I think coming together for policy change and culture shift is also going to be important.
Shireen: And that’s helpful. I do have one last question for you. We are at the end of the episode here. How can our listeners connect with you and learn more about your work?
Jennifer: Yeah, sure. So we have a website, the official mind diet.com that highlights the work that we’ve done on the Mind Diet and available program can connect with us one-on-one. Um, I’ve also just partnered with a mental health and wellness firm that does neuroscience based mindfulness programs. It’s called Mastermind Meditate and it’s a local Dallas company, but we deliver programs around the world actually. So we just designed a new program that uses everything we’ve been talking about with the foundation of what I was saying of mindfulness and behavior change to help people improve their cognition and lifestyle practices around brain health.
Shireen: I love that. With that, Jennifer, thank you so very much for your time to really understand how all of these things that we sort of hear about our own lifestyle change and being mindful and just really helping us connect the dot to sort of long term benefits that come out of this, not only immediate help, but impacts but really how it all ties back to even things like cognitive health.
So really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you again for your time. To our listeners, thank you again for tuning in to another episode of the Yumlish podcast. Head over to our social media, you know what time it is, head over to our social media and tell us what is the one big takeaway or message that you got regarding the impact of lifestyle habits on cognitive health.
Again, head over to social media, go to Facebook, go to Instagram, find Yumlish. Find this podcast post in our feed, comment below to tell us what is the one big takeaway or message that you got regarding the impact of lifestyle habits on cognitive health. We will continue the conversation there. And with that, Jennifer, thank you so much again.
Jennifer: Thanks so much, Shireen. I appreciate your time and being here.
Connect with Yumlish!
Connect with Jennifer Ventrelle!