They say you are what you eat, and few people would agree with that statement more than physician and chef Annie Fenn. After years as a physician dedicated to women’s health, Fenn switched her focus to Alzheimer’s prevention—prescribing her patients a diet of healthy brain foods in a bid to keep their bodies healthy and their minds active.
Ever a student, Fenn’s love of clean eating grew into an expertise in healthy cooking. She’s attended culinary schools around the world, and began teaching classes in brain-healthy cooking in 2015. Since then, she’s founded Brain Health Kitchen as a way to share her knowledge through classes and online with eager students seeking to cook more mindfully.
Now, she’s the featured chef at the Caldera House’s Wellness Weekend, running July 11–14 and September 12–15. Fenn’s plant-based recipes will fuel guests as they spend some time improving their personal wellness.
During the retreat, stunning views of the Tetons at the Caldera House will call participants to rise early for morning yoga and take part in guided hikes, all while Fenn’s satisfying meals nourish body and mind. Referring to herself as a “flexitarian,” Fenn touts the brainy benefits of leafy greens and berries, and both will feature heavily during the Wellness Weekend.
While a physical fitness routine is certainly important for wellness, Fenn’s cooking reminds us that we can all use a little more brain food in our lives. A generous teacher, Fenn shared her cooking ethos and wellness secrets to help us understand the intrinsic connection between mind and body health.
Can you tell us briefly about your career in medicine?
I am board-certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology. After attending medical school in Chicago and completing a 4-year residency there, I move to Jackson Hole to set up practice. Over more than 20 years (many of them as a solo practitioner), I delivered nearly 1,000 babies, took care of multiple generations of women, and performed hundreds of surgeries. In my last 8 years of practice, I specialized in menopausal health as the only certified menopausal health expert in Wyoming.
What inspired you to start Brain Health Kitchen?
I retired from clinical practice in 2010, but I never stopped reading my medical journals. Around 2015 I was reading a lot of compelling research about food and health, especially as it pertains to longevity and dementia. When the MIND diet study came out in 2015, it showed that eating a plant-based diet of brain healthy foods reduces Alzheimer’s risk by as much as 53 percent in just 4.5 years. Other studies of the Mediterranean diet and dementia-free centenarians living in Blue Zones also supported the role of diet and lifestyle. I launched the Brain Health Kitchen cooking school in 2017, along with an online community, to help people learn how to cook with these foods.
What made you focus on the brain—Alzheimer’s and dementia prevention, specifically—in your cooking?
Around the time that I was getting interested in food and longevity, my mother was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment—the earliest stage of Alzheimer’s. Through my research, I learned that experts are predicting an epidemic of Alzheimer’s in the next 40 years. The statistics are mind-blowing: one in ten risk of Alzheimer’s at age 65. One in two risk of Alzheimer’s at age 85. Women are at an even higher risk than men; two-thirds of all Alzheimer’s victims are female.
So, while learning to help my mom preserve as much cognitive function as possible, I discovered the science-based ways we can all fend off Alzheimer’s and stay sharp as we age.
Early on, was there anything you learned about food and brain health that surprised you?
Yes! Certain foods are specifically brain healthy. Like leafy green vegetables. Eating a cup of leafy greens every day can actually slow down the aging of your brain. Studies of people who eat a salad every day show that their brains are on average 7.5 years younger than those that don’t. Same with berries—just eating two or more servings of berries each week improves memory, other cognitive powers, and reduces Alzheimer’s risk. Needless to say, we’ll be feasting on leafy greens and berries at the Wellness Weekend!
What is your philosophy when it comes to food?
Food is to be shared, savored, enjoyed, and respected. Food should ground us and connect us with others. I don’t like the word diet because how we eat is more of a lifestyle. My way of eating is best be described as flexitarian—90 percent plant-based, 10 percent high quality fish, chicken and meat, along with small amounts of dairy. I don’t believe in eliminating major food groups—except all the junky foods! I don’t count calories or tally up fat grams. I do encourage people to eat a wide variety of whole foods. Choose the foods that contribute to health and longevity. Avoid the foods known to contribute to cognitive decline. But never sacrifice delicious for healthy. Food should be beautiful to behold, crave-worthy, and deeply satisfying.
How vital is food to the support of our well-being?
The food we choose to eat should nourish both our bodies and our brains. Our food choices should be aligned with our belief systems about how we treat each other and the earth. Inflammatory foods are now shown to contribute to many of the mental health problems that plague us, such as anxiety and depression. Eating a Mediterranen diet, for example, as an adjunct to therapy and possibly medication, has been shown to improve depression symptoms by 25 percent. That’s one week each month of feeling happy just by choosing brain healthy foods!
What was your approach for the Caldera Retreat menu?
I thought a lot about how the guests will feel once immersed in an environment of peacefulness and incredible natural beauty. The mountains here are so much to take in that it can be a little overwhelming!
I also thought about what they would crave after being outdoors at high altitude. So the food is comforting, hearty but not heavy, and deeply satisfying. That’s because I cook liberally with healthy fats from nuts, avocados, and olive oil. The dishes reflect the natural beauty of our mountain community with vivid colors, tons of nutritious greens, and lots of little surprises to wake up and delight the palate. And there will be lots of treats—from refreshing non-alcoholic elixirs to two-bites snacks designed for the trail, along with some of my very favorite not-too-sweet desserts at the end of each day.
What three foods should we be eating every day?
Leafy greens, other vegetables (especially the colorful and cruciferous ones), and extra virgin olive oil.
Beyond food, what steps can we take to keep our minds sharp and healthy?
It’s not just what we eat that impacts our brain longevity; it’s how we live our lives. Our brains need to be constantly learning something new. We need enough exercise to keep the blood flowing to the brain, about 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, but not so much that we are making our bodies inflamed. We need to maintain muscle mass as we age; yoga is an excellent way to do this gently.
We need to manage our stress. Our brains become inflamed when constantly placed in a state of fight or flight. Meditation has been proven to increase brain volume and create collateral neural pathways. The study of healthy centenarians shows us the importance of tapping into our higher purpose and learning how to be of service to others. And we need each other. Social interaction is very important for brain health. Just the simple act of sharing meals with others can keep our brains healthy, and help us live longer and happier.