By: Laura M. Ali, MS, RDN, LDN
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, over 6 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s Disease. One in three elderly Americans will die of some form of dementia. For anyone who has had a loved one who has struggled with Alzheimer’s Disease or age-related dementia you may wonder if there is anything you can do to protect yourself.
While we know that there are risk factors, like family history, age, and genetics, that are beyond our control, we are learning that there are things we can do to protect our brains and potentially lessen the risk or delay the onset of dementia.
What we eat and our lifestyle play a big role in that. In fact, many of the same foods that are recommended to protect against heart disease and stroke are also recommended for brain health.
Research with the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets have found that people who follow these diets have slower rates of cognitive decline. A hybrid of these diets, called the MIND Diet – The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay has been particularly promising.
What is the MIND Diet?
The MIND diet combines the basic principles of the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH diet. Research on both diets shows improvement in brain health and motor control, but the MIND diet puts more emphasis on specific foods that have been shown to support brain health. (1) (2)
The diet was originally developed and researched at Rush University in Chicago. It emphasizes regular consumption of berries and leafy green and other vegetables along with limiting saturated fat intake and sodium intake. (3)
While all 3 diets have shown improvements in brain health, research in the elderly who closely followed the MIND diet found a delay in cognitive decline by seven and half years and a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 53%. Even people that only followed some of the principles of the diet had an estimated 35% reduction in risk of developing the disease. (3)
Principles of the MIND Diet
The goal of the diet is to provide nutrients that have the potential to inhibit or lessen the formation of plaques in the brain. The foods and cooking methods involved are similar to what we’ve encouraged people to eat to reduce the risk of heart disease with the added focus on specific foods we know are important for brain health.
Specifically, blueberries and strawberries are the fruits to focus on. Why berries? Berries are full of antioxidants called anthocyanins, which is what gives the berries their blue and red color. Blueberries and strawberries have some of the highest levels of these nutrients. Research with a large group of elderly women found that those who ate a lot of berries had slower rates of cognitive aging and decline. (4) A minimum of two servings of berries a week is recommended.
Green leafy vegetables, like spinach, kale, swiss chard, and dark green salad greens are rich in vitamin K, the antioxidants lutein and beta carotene, vitamin A and folate.
In the Rush University study, those that ate slightly more than one serving of leafy greens a day had a significant delay in brain aging and consistently performed better on memory tests and coordination.  Six servings of leafy greens a week is recommended.
In addition to leafy green vegetables, other vegetables also contribute nutrients that are important not just for brain health but our overall health. At least one serving (½ cup cooked, 1 cup raw) a day is recommended, in addition to the serving of leafy greens.
Whole grains, like oats, barley, and brown rice or quinoa are rich in antioxidants and fiber that have a role in reducing inflammation. They are also rich in minerals including potassium and magnesium that play an important role in blood pressure control, nerve function, and muscle control. Three servings of a variety of whole grains a day are encouraged as part of the MIND diet.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Nuts are high in unsaturated fats and antioxidants that have been shown to reduce inflammation and the formation of the main protein found in the plaques in the brain.  One serving of nuts a day is recommended.
BEANS AND LEGUMES
Plant-focused foods, including beans, legumes, and pulses are rich in fiber and antioxidants and are a major component of both the Mediterranean and DASH diets. The MIND diet encourages at least three servings of beans a week.
Fish is one of the main sources of DHA Omega-3 fatty acids. People who eat fish regularly have been found to have lower rates of cardiovascular disease. Research has also shown DHA to be essential for brain development in young children and has shown that older individuals who have diets rich in seafood have lower rates of mental decline.  The MIND diet includes at least one serving of seafood weekly, preferably an omega-3-rich source.
POULTRY AND LEAN MEAT
Poultry and lean meats are good sources of lean protein and B vitamins that are essential for brain health. The MIND diet recommends eating poultry and lean meat a few times a week and focusing on leaner cuts of meat.
Olive oil is the main oil used in the Mediterranean diet and has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that are essential for brain health. Olive oil is the main oil recommended for people following the MIND diet.
Red wine is high in the antioxidant, resveratrol and has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Population studies have suggested that people who consume red wine have lower rates of cardiovascular disease and much of this has been attributed to its high content of health-promoting antioxidants. One serving a day is allowed on the MIND diet. 
FOODS TO LIMIT
While there aren’t any foods that are eliminated completely, there are some that are recommended to be limited. Foods that are high in saturated fat and sodium are on this list. So foods like sweet desserts, pastries, and fried food should be limited to no more than a couple of times a week. Butter and cheese are limited to 1 ounce a week.
5 Simple Tips for Including Some of the Mind Diet Principles into Your Meals
This really is an eating plan that everyone can follow. Here are five easy things you can try to work some of the principles of the diet into your daily life and help support your brain health.
- Top oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts as part of your breakfast.
- Mix a variety of greens together with cannellini beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and quinoa for lunch or as a side for dinner.
- Prep some foods ahead that you can use throughout the week. Cook up a pot of quinoa, barley, or rice ahead so you have it ready for the week. Chop vegetables when you get home from the store or cook an extra chicken breast or salmon steak to use on salads or sandwiches throughout the week.
- Keep a variety of canned beans, canned tomatoes, whole grains and nuts and seeds in your pantry so you have a variety of things to choose from and can pull a quick meal together.
- Mix up snack bags for the week that include a variety of nuts and dried fruit. Pack them in your lunch or keep them available for an easy snack to grab in the afternoon when working from home.
- Bonus tip: It’s not just what you eat. Getting physical activity every day is also important. Take a walk with the family after dinner so everyone gets some extra movement!
About the Author
Laura Ali, MS, RDN, LDN is a food-focused Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and experienced food and nutrition writer with over 30 years of experience. She is passionate about helping people discover ways to incorporate nourishing food into their lives. She is the author of the book, MIND Diet for Two, available on Amazon. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @LauraAli_RD and find delicious recipes and tips on her website www.lauramali.com
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8. Fernandes I, Pérez-Gregorio R, Soares S, Mateus N, de Freitas V. Wine Flavonoids in Health and Disease Prevention. Molecules. 2017;22(2):292. Published 2017 Feb 14. doi:10.3390/molecules22020292
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