David Lauderdale

Food matters in brain health: Do’s and don’ts from Hilton Head dementia fighters

Kim Baretta in the Memory Matters office on Hilton Head Island.
Kim Baretta in the Memory Matters office on Hilton Head Island. dlauderdale@islandpacket.com

Kim Baretta handed me a fork and asked me to feed my brain.

She had prepared samplings of four different grains, each of them sort of a Mediterranean version of the grits I scarf down like a bird dog, always drowning them in butter.

Her grains were enhanced with a little garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and fresh parsley.

Flashing through my aging mind was a version of the old TV commercial: This is you brain on grits; this is your brain on quinoa.

The quinoa was good. And so was the farro, sorghum and freekeh.

That’s a mouthful for someone who decided long ago that if grits, eggs, bacon and hot buttered biscuits kill me, so be it. What better way to go?

But now there’s this new thought. Eating right can optimize your brain power, and you’re going to need your brain for as long as you live. But for too many people the brain goes first. That sad slide into dementia is so common in America today that it is a tragic human tsunami.

Kim Baretta’s mother-in-law was one of the many victims of dementia who benefited from the Memory Matters nonprofit on Hilton Head Island.

Now Baretta contributes her knowledge of food there. She graduated with distinction from the Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. She then became a caterer and cooking instructor. And today, she is a board member and the volunteer chef-in-residence at Memory Matters.

Her eating tips will be part of the second Brain Summit hosted by Memory Matters on March 7 at the Hilton Head Beach & Tennis Resort (mymemorymatters.org).

Here’s some of what she has to say.

Mediterranean diet

Think Mediterranean.

A diet of fresh, local foods prepared simply in the world’s “blue zone” circling the Mediterranean Sea is associated wtih lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slower cognitive decline. The Mediterranean Diet was named the 2019 best overall diet in the world by U.S. News and World Report.

Her food for thought includes these tidbits:

It’s plant-based. Eat vegetables, fruits and beans. Some people go 100 percent plant-based; she goes 95 percent, eating some fish and dairy products, and occasionally red meat or chicken in small portions.

“Eat seven to 10 servings of fruit and vegetables each day,” she said. “That’s two servings, the size of a baseball, at each meal and two snacks a day.”

Eat smaller portions.

“Think of a plate,” Baretta said. “Two-thirds of that plate should be plant-based, including beans and whole grains.”

Use healthier fats, such as extra virgin olive oil, nuts, olives and seeds. Never animal-based.

She talked about local stores that specialize in olive oils in a wide variety of flavors.

Eliminate processed foods.

She recommends shopping at local farmers’ markets. In the grocery store, she said, “stay on the outside perimeter” where the fresh food are generally displayed.

Eliminate all that is white, especially refined sugar.

Cut way back on dairy products and eggs.

“I use nonfat Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise or a fat,” she said.

Eat whole-grain breads, pastas and grains.

The grains she shared with me are now so mainstream they are available in supermarkets.

Head & Shoulders

Brain food is not a diet, Baretta said, it’s a lifestyle.

And it involves everyone in town.

Memory Matters is a nationally-recognized nonprofit that helps clients with dementia and their caregivers by offering testing, respite, classes, support groups and education.

But last year it expanded its mission to encompass the brain-healthy as well as the brain-compromised.

Baretta is helping with the re-brand. She put her degree in French from Dartmouth College into use as a brand manager for 13 years at Proctor & Gamble, the branding king.

Now in retirement, with one child living in New York City and the other in his last semester at the University of Richmond, the brand Baretta is pushing at Memory Matters is “Brain Optimization for Everyone.”

“I equate it to Head & Shoulders,” she said about the P&G shampoo brand she managed. “It used to be just about dandruff, but then it also became about the great things it does for your hair. It became the No. 1 shampoo brand in the world.

“At Memory Matters, we do care for families, plus we focus on the entire community’s brain health.”

That’s where the Brain Summit comes into play: teaching people how to keep their brains healthy.

One forkful at a time.

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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