Maggie Beer’s crusade to combat Alzheimer’s disease
Maggie Beer fiercely believes that good food can dramatically improve our quality of life – particularly as we age. Now, writes Genevieve Gannon, the much-loved cook is teaming up with a leading expert to combat Alzheimer’s disease.
The name Maggie Beer conjures up visions of fat, blushing tomatoes, rich vanilla bean ice-cream and golden pheasant pie. The beloved cook’s personal food philosophy is that nothing should be left off the table and food must bring pleasure. She loves to indulge and confides she can’t keep peanut butter in the house. “I love it. I’m as weak as a kitten with it,” she says.
So when you think of Maggie Beer’s culinary legacy, health food doesn’t exactly spring to mind. Yet that’s just what the 72-year-old’s latest book is: 200 recipes geared to support brain health and fight Alzheimer’s with a battery of nutrientrich ingredients.
Of course, when Maggie does health, she does it the Maggie Beer way. “There’s room for everything,” she says. The importance is balance.
Even though her culinary career is far from over, Maggie feels she is coming full circle. With her latest endeavour she is galvanising everything she has always intuited about food, but didn’t really think about until a chance meeting with leading health expert Professor Ralph Martins in 2010.
“When I grew up in Sydney, it was a time when there was no such thing as processed foods. I came from a food family where it was all about cooking and using every part of the animal,” she says.
“I’d certainly never thought about it. Yet I’ve been lucky enough to live it to a great extent.”
She first contemplated the connection between food and brain health in the 1970s while trying
to wrangle a “severely hyperactive child”.
“I found from a very cluey doctor that preservatives were the biggest no-no,” she says. “So I had that grounding, but I never thought about it until meeting Ralph and learning so much more about the priorities of the food.”
Maggie has always been an advocate of using vegetables fresh from the garden. But meeting Professor Martins prompted her to think about the way food fuels our body, and can protect us from disease. The pair were seated next to each other at an awards ceremony in 2010. The conversation quickly turned to food – and they soon became firm friends.
For more than 30 years, Professor Martins has been working to identify specific nutritional and lifestyle factors associated with avoiding cognitive decline. Regular exercise, mental stimulation and a healthy diet with seasonal fruits and vegetables, fish, fats and dairy are key. Insulin resistance, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.
Maggie’s latest book, co-authored with Professor Martins and titled Maggie’s Recipes for Life, marries her two passions of food and improving the lives of the elderly through better nutrition.
“As we age, we need to take more care of our bodies and our brains and our nervous system,” Maggie says.
“I believe from my own life, but I believe more from Ralph’s science, that diet and lifestyle is the most effective way of doing this.”
Around the time that Professor Martins’ research was opening her eyes to this new way of thinking about food as fuel, Maggie needed surgery. It took her time to recover and, naturally, she lost weight. She also started to exercise more, and found it was easier for her to say no to those extra indulgences, such as the midweek glass of wine.
“I’ve stepped back and reassessed the importance of my choices,” Maggie writes in her book. “I now think more deeply about how often or how much I eat certain food.”
This ethos is not just for older people. “This is about giving everyone their best chance. And I hope I’ve given my family their best chance, but it could have been better,” Maggie says.
Professor Martins says that even people with a genetic predisposition to an increased Alzheimer’s risk can delay the onset of cognitive decline with a good diet.
“It’s about flavour and texture and balance,” Maggie explains. “It’s been easier for me, I guess, because
I cook everything from scratch and always have. But it’s within everybody’s grasp.”
Along with “every bright coloured plant”, antioxidant-packed parsley, pumpkin, kumara, mango and papayas, she also embraces chocolate, so long as it is at least 70 per cent, and pasta, particularly spelt or wholemeal.
“We look for the best use of it. It’s about beautiful food
that will give us
As we age, we need to take more care of our brains.
pleasure. It’s a lifestyle,” Maggie says. “There’s no way I’m going to take sugar totally out of my diet, but it’s an indulgence.”
When she catches up with The Australian Women’s Weekly to discuss her latest project, she has a lingering cough after battling a bout of the flu. She says when she was ill she wasn’t following everything she knows about nutrition. “I didn’t feel like eating,” she admits, in a confessional tone. “I wasn’t eating enough protein to give myself energy to get over the flu.” Her husband, Colin, and daughters, Saskia and Elli, were making chicken soup. Fortunately, she is on the mend. “I have as much energy as I did 20 years ago.”
“When I grew up, there was no such thing as processed food,” Maggie says.
Maggie has co-authored her new book with leading Alzheimer’s expert Professor Ralph Martins.