The MIND diet for better brain health

More studies show that the MIND diet really is good for your brain

If you aim to continue to be sharp and witty and to have a good memory years and decades from now, this study is for you!

Imagine there was a diet that can not only reduce your risk of getting dementia (like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases), but it can even slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease after it starts in the brain. A recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has found just this. (And you probably won’t be surprised what kinds of foods it recommends.)

The diet is called the MIND diet. The MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. People who follow this diet—even moderately—over the years are better able to understand, think, solve problems, make decisions, and remember things. In other words, the MIND diet is said to contribute to “cognitive resilience.”

This particular study began in 1997 and recruited 569 older adults to participate. These participants did not have signs of dementia at the time they were enrolled. Every year participants underwent a clinical evaluation and cognitive tests. A few years later in 2004, researchers added an annual questionnaire asking how often participants ate certain foods. They looked at what participants ate and gave their diets a rating based on how closely their diets resembled a MIND diet. Participants also agreed to allow an autopsy of their brains after they died so researchers could look for evidence of typical Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles.

The MIND diet consists of 10 “brain-healthy” food groups and 5 “not-so-brain-healthy” food groups. The brain-healthy food groups include:

  • whole grains (at least 3 servings per day)
  • a green leafy vegetable (at least 6-7 servings per week)
  • other vegetables (at least 1 serving per day)
  • nuts (5-7 servings per week)
  • beans (3-4 servings per week)
  • berries (2 servings per week)
  • poultry (2 servings per week)
  • seafood (1 serving per week)
  • olive oil (fat of choice)
  • wine (1 glass per day, if you drink alcohol)

The five not-so-brain-healthy food groups include recommendations to limit:

  • butter and margarine (less than 1.5-3 teaspoons per day)
  • red meat (less than 4 servings per week)
  • whole fat cheese (less than 1 serving per week) 
  • pastries and sweets (less than 1 serving per week)
  • fried or fast food (less than 1 serving per week)

In this study, researchers found that the more closely participants’ diets aligned with the MIND diet, the better their cognition as they got older. Simply put, this diet appears to help protect the brain.

Yes, we already knew that a healthy and nutrient-dense diet is good for your brain (and the rest of your body). Here’s what was really interesting about this study: some of the participants who ate a brain-healthy diet and did not show signs of Alzheimer’s disease were later found to have the classic protein plaques and tangles in their brains that would have diagnosed them with Alzheimer’s disease. While only one-third of participants were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s during their annual tests, two-thirds of them ended up having the protein plaques and tangles (identified through autopsy) that are seen in people with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. This means that the MIND diet seems to help protect some people with physical signs of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains from experiencing clinical symptoms in their lives. So, some of them had Alzheimer’s protein plaques and tangles in their brains, but this had no impact on their functions and they didn’t show signs of Alzheimer’s.

According to the researchers, the bottom line of this study is that the “MIND diet is associated with better cognitive functioning independently of common brain pathology, suggesting that the MIND diet may contribute to cognitive resilience in the elderly.”

Why is the MIND diet so good for the brain? One reason is that it is rich in nutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds such as beta-carotene, folate (vitamin B9), vitamin E, and flavonoids.

In addition to eating a nutrient-rich diet such as the MIND diet, your brain and body benefit when you also stay active for 150 minutes per week and participate in cognitive activities to challenge your brain, like reading books, learning a new language, and doing puzzles. Nutrition, physical activity, and cognitive activities all contribute to cognitive resilience.

How to eat more “brain-healthy” foods:

  • Start your day with oatmeal or quinoa
  • Swap out white or processed grains for whole grains (e.g., brown or wild rice, whole wheat bread, etc.)
  • Enjoy a daily salad with green leafy vegetables, plus at least one other vegetable
  • Snack on some nuts or berries when you’re hungry
  • Try a protein-packed, meatless meal every other day using a can of beans or tofu
  • Ditch your butter, margarine, or other oil for olive oil

Backgrounder articles:

About the study:

  • Called the Rush Memory and Aging Project (MAP), out of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
  • There have been several studies done on the ability of the MIND diet (Mediterranean + DASH diets) to reduce the risk for dementias like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This particular study looked at older people with no symptoms of Alzheimer’s and followed them from 1997 to see what they ate and whether they eventually developed signs of Alzheimer’s. They found that the closer someone’s diet was to the MIND diet, the less chance they had of developing Alzheimer’s. They also found that—surprisingly—upon death, some of the participants who did not develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s had the typical protein plaque and tangle pathologies in their brains that would indicate Alzheimer’s. 
  • Conclusion: “MIND diet is associated with better cognitive functioning independently of common brain pathology, suggesting that the MIND diet may contribute to cognitive resilience in the elderly.”
  • There is no evidence that eating or avoiding a specific food can prevent Alzheimer’s disease or age-related cognitive decline. This was a very interesting observed association.
  • Note that all studies have limitations. That’s why it’s important to look at multiple studies, giving more weight to the ones that have a better design to answer the questions being asked. For this one, the researchers specifically looked at older people and followed them for years, until they died. They did not require anyone to change their diets or any other aspect of their lifestyle, so that makes this an observational study (no experiment or intervention was done, only asked people to describe their lives and take tests without implementing any lifestyle changes). This means it’s not as strong as a randomized control trial (which would be even better than observational because it would be experimental—but that’s nearly impossible to do for a multi-year nutrition study).
  • Therefore, we can’t say that the MIND diet “prevents” Alzheimer’s, just that it appears to reduce risk or it’s associated with a lower risk (correlation does not equal causation).
  • Study strength is rated a 5/7 according to this chart (observational cohort study):