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Food for Thought: A café in New York City serves up flavorful meals and education about brain health.

Hiscott, Rebecca

doi: 10.1097/01.NNN.0000515867.47826.98
Departments: The Waiting Room

This Way In: A neurologist-owned eatery in New York City features dishes designed to promote brain health.



The menu at Honeybrains, a 35-seat café in Manhattan that opened in November 2016, lists the sort of trendy fare you might expect from a hot new eatery in the Big Apple: whole-grain toast with crushed avocado, lemon, and hemp and chia seed salt; buckwheat soba noodles with raw vegetable slaw, fresh ginger, and sweet sesame soy; and evergreen salad with kale, spinach, green grapes, fennel, spiced edamame, and pistachios. But the café's dishes aren't just designed for health-conscious diners with adventurous palates—they're crafted based on neurologic and epidemiologic research to promote brain health.

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“Good foods can help us live better, longer,” says Alon Seifan, MD, director of neurology at Compass Health Systems in Miami, FL, who co-founded the café with his brother, Tomer, and sister, Galit.

During a fellowship in Alzheimer's disease at Columbia University, Dr. Seifan was struck by the abundance of research linking lifestyle factors to cognitive health later in life. He found the research on diet and nutrition especially compelling—and he began to notice a pattern. “All the diets featured fruits, vegetables, whole grains, good fats, and legumes,” he says.

Honeybrains' executive chef Kevin Chun creates each dish with these five food groups in mind, and symbols on the menu indicate which ones are represented. The honey-roasted organic chicken club sandwich, for example, served with fresh mint and parsley, pickled radishes, scallions, root vegetables, and fresh chiles, contains three of the groups: vegetables, grains, and omega-3 fats. The “Mediterranean mind salad”—with baby spinach, hummus, chickpeas, quinoa, cucumbers, tomatoes, and spiced walnuts—contains all five.

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Several studies support these food choices, Dr. Seifan says. For example, a study published in Neurology in September 2014 found that adults who followed the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet or the Mediterranean diet—both of which emphasize eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and legumes, and limiting foods high in saturated fat and sugar—experienced slower cognitive decline as they aged. The study authors noted that past research has also linked these diets to a lower risk of high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, which are associated with dementia and cognitive decline.

And the MIND (or Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurocognitive Delay) diet was linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease even in people who didn't follow it to the letter, according to a 2015 study published in Alzheimer's and Dementia, the journal of the Alzheimer's Association. The MIND diet recommends eating at least three servings of whole grains; a salad, one other vegetable, and one glass of wine each day; beans and legumes such as lentils or chick peas every other day; poultry and berries at least twice a week; and some type of fish at least once a week.

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Other Alzheimer's disease experts note that these studies are largely observational so they are proof only of an association between diet and cognition. “The only way to prove that a dietary intervention—or any intervention—is effective is through a randomized controlled trial,” says David S. Knopman, MD, FAAN, professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. “Observational studies are subject to a variety of biases, including the many related lifestyle choices that people may follow—avoidance of other foods, exercise, intellectual engagement, or other health-conscious habits. That makes it almost impossible to isolate a dietary pattern from all those other things.”

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Beyond offering a healthy menu, Dr. Seifan hopes to use the restaurant as a space to educate guests. On Thursday nights, visitors can attend lectures by neurologists, nutritionists, and the founders themselves on topics ranging from brain health to fitness and nutrition. “We try to be as reflective of the current science as possible, but we don't claim to know it all,” he says.

The café also has a raw honey bar where diners can sample a rotating assortment of sustainably produced unprocessed honeys, which contain nutrients, enzymes, and antioxidants, Dr. Seifan says.

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Dr. Seifan suggests these simple strategies for making healthy choices in your own kitchen as well:

Make your plate as colorful as possible. The richer the color, the more phytonutrients a fruit or vegetable contains, says Dr. Seifan. In addition to fiber, phytonutrients, which protect plants from ultraviolet radiation and disease, are believed to be the source of plants' health benefits for humans. So choose nutrient-rich kale or spinach instead of pale iceberg lettuce.

Go nuts. All nuts contain healthy fats, but walnuts in particular are high in omega-3 fatty acids, Dr. Seifan says. Sprinkle chopped walnuts over a salad or on top of oatmeal for a crunchy garnish loaded with good fats.

Spice it up. Spices such as turmeric, saffron, and black pepper, herbs such as rosemary, parsley, sage, and thyme, and fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, and vinegar can be used instead of salt to liven up meals. Don't be afraid to get creative with your seasonings, Dr. Seifan says. “We are limited only by the extent of our imagination.”

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© 2017 American Academy of Neurology