Nutritionists are well aware that diet influences health and well-being. So, it should come as no surprise that research on how well the brain functions with age, also points to the importance of a healthy diet.
Research on the MIND Diet
The Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet patterns are both associated with healthy aging and reduced risk of chronic age-related diseases. Both are rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. They include smaller servings of lean proteins, mainly from fish, chicken, or yogurt. Both patterns limit highly processed foods and those with refined sugars.
It turns out, a hybrid diet of both patterns also helps to maintain healthy brain function with aging. And, it may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, or slow its progression.
Researchers studied the effects of a diet pattern they called MIND (short for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), and how it impacts cognitive decline, and risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, over a 10-year period. They found: (1,2)
Closely following the MIND dietary pattern reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 53%.
Following the MIND pattern some of the time, still resulted in a 35% reduced risk.
Those who followed the MIND diet pattern also had better brain function, as indicated by cognitive testing.
The 2015 MIND diet study was the first one to relate diet to cognitive function. However, the brain health benefits are supported by more recent studies:
In the NutriNet-Santé study on 6,011 older adults in France, researchers noted the MIND diet could prevent or delay subjective memory complaints. (3)
In a study on 106 stroke patients, those who followed the MIND diet had a slower rate of cognitive decline over the study period (average 5.9 years). (4)
Among nearly 3,200 adults, greater adherence to the MIND diet was associated with less depression and psychological stress. (5)
What Goes in the Grocery Cart?
The MIND diet is appealing to patients because it’s flexible and easy to follow. It focuses on 10 foods to eat more often, and 5 foods to eat less often. For many, the biggest challenge is learning ways to eat more of the MIND foods. Here is the list and some practical suggestions.
The brain-healthy foods include: (6)
Leafy greens: like kale, spinach, arugula, bok choy, and other greens. Explore ways to eat these in both raw and cooked forms like salads and stir-fries. Also, note that the carotenoid compounds are better absorbed when consumed with olive oil, nuts, seeds, or avocados.
Berries: especially strawberries and blueberries, although blackberries, raspberries and even cranberries provide many benefits as well. Berries are typical for breakfast or dessert, but they can also be added to leafy green salads.
Any and all vegetables: explore ways to incorporate more carrots, sweet peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans, Brussels sprouts, and tomatoes, each week. Soups and stews are an easy way to get variety in every bite.
Fish: especially salmon, sardines, trout and mackerel which are high in omega-3 fats.
Poultry: Skinless chicken or turkey, dark or white meat – but not fried.
Whole grains: Help patients step out of the whole-wheat bread box, and try farro, freekeh, wheat berries, wild rice, or quinoa – perhaps incorporated into a grain and vegetable salad, instead.
Nuts: especially walnuts, almonds, and pecans. All nuts have different health benefits. One handful each day as a snack or sprinkled over oats or a salad is all that’s needed.
Beans or legumes: Each week include a few half-cup servings of lentils, chickpeas, black, kidney, pinto, or cannellini beans, instead of meat, as a side dish, mixed into soups or stews or as a vegetable dip.
Olive oil: Use it not only in salads but also for sautéing and as a primary cooking oil.
Wine: There is more research on resveratrol, the antioxidant found primarily in red wine, but moderate intake of red or white wine may have benefits for the brain.
The brain-unhealthy foods to eat only occasionally include: (6)
Butter and margarine and cheese
Red meat, including beef, pork and lamb
Pastries and sweets, including ice cream, cookies, sodas or other sweetened beverages
It’s important to note the foods that promote brain health and memory and cognitive function aren’t there by chance. Each food on the brain-healthy list contributes certain compounds and nutrients that when isolated, have been shown to improve brain health. Together, these nutrients likely have a synergistic effect.
Some of the important compounds in the brain-healthy foods include carotenes like lutein, lycopene, and beta-carotene in plant foods, which reduce damage from harmful free radical compounds in the brain. Fish is rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocados are rich in unsaturated fat which helps to reduce inflammation. Legumes, whole grains and nuts contain magnesium which helps to regulate glucose and serotonin (the feel-good hormone) in the brain.
Remember that the MIND diet is an overall eating pattern. Patients don’t have to follow it exactly or monitor most portions. Instead, they should identify ways to eat more of the brain-healthy foods, and less of the brain-unhealthy foods over time.
1. Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Barnes LL, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimer's & dementia. 2015 Sep 30;11(9):1015-22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4581900/
2. Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's & Dementia. 2015 Sep 30;11(9):1007-14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4532650/?mod=article_inline
3. Adjibade M, Assmann KE, Julia C, Galan P, Hercberg S, Kesse-Guyot E. Prospective association between adherence to the MIND diet and subjective memory complaints in the French NutriNet-Santé cohort. J Neurol. 2019;266(4):942‐952. doi:10.1007/s00415-019-09218-y https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30706155/
4. Cherian L, Wang Y, Fakuda K, Leurgans S, Aggarwal N, Morris M. Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) Diet Slows Cognitive Decline After Stroke. The journal of prevention of Alzheimer's disease. 2019 Oct 1;6(4):267-73. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7199507/
5. Salari-Moghaddam A, Keshteli AH, Mousavi SM, Afshar H, Esmaillzadeh A, Adibi P. Adherence to the MIND diet and prevalence of psychological disorders in adults. Journal of affective disorders. 2019 Sep 1;256:96-102. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31170621/
6. Marcason W. What Are the Components to the MIND Diet? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2015 Oct 1;115(10):1744. https://jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(15)01251-4/fulltext