According to recent research, at least one in three Alzheimer’s disease cases worldwide is preventable. One of the closest things we know of to a natural Alzheimer’s treatment is a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet. That’s because foods like vegetables, fruit, nuts and fish are high in antioxidants, healthy fats and other phytochemicals that help protect the brain from disease.
According to many studies, the Mediterranean and DASH diets have the ability to slow aging and cognitive decline in older adults. For years, both of these diets have been considered two of the best for protecting against diseases related to aging, inflammation and oxidative stress. For example, many studies have found that the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet can be helpful for lowering adults’ risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, PCOS and a number of age-related neurological conditions.
Given the anti-aging effects that these two diets have to offer, it’s no surprise that elements of both are now being combined in order to boost mental/cognitive health in those who are most susceptible.
What Is the MIND Diet?
The MIND diet — short for the Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet — is a healthy eating plan that has the goal of lowering your risk for cognitive disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The MIND diet (also sometimes called the Med-DASH plan) was first introduced in 2016. It is based on principles of both the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or in other words high blood pressure diet). The DASH diet and Mediterranean diet have both been named at one time the “#1 best overall diet” in the United States by U.S. News and World Report.
What does the MIND diet consist of? Just like the two eating plans it combines, the MIND diet includes lots of “brain foods” that boost focus and memory — such as leafy greens, berries, nuts, olive oil and fatty fish. Examples of MIND diet recipes might include salmon cooked in olive oil with wilted greens and quinoa or oatmeal topped with almonds and blueberries.
MIND Diet Benefits
Studies show that MIND diet benefits include:
- Reducing oxidative stress/free radical damage
- Helping lower inflammation
- Protecting against dementia, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease
- Protecting against other chronic health problems that are common among aging adults, such as heart disease, weight gain and metabolic syndrome
- Improving blood sugar
- Lowering risk for obesity
- Improving mobility and quality of life
How the MIND Diet Can Help Reduce Dementia and Alzheimer’s Risk
The MIND diet is valued most for its ability to support brain function and reduce neurodegeneration (the progressive loss of structure or function of neurons, including death of neurons).
A 2015 study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia (the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association) that followed over 900 adults found that those who ate in a similar way to the MIND diet had a 53 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to the adults who ate very differently than the MIND diet. Another positive finding was that adults didn’t have to stick to the MIND diet perfectly or be very strict with themselves to see real benefits. Even those who only “moderately” followed the MIND diet were found to have about a 35 percent reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease, on average.
Another study found that the “difference in decline rates for being in the top tertile of MIND diet scores versus the lowest was equivalent to being 7.5 years younger in age.” This suggests that the MIND diet substantially slows cognitive decline with age.
The brain is very susceptible to the effects of oxidative stress, especially as someone ages. This is partially responsible for loss of memory, learning capacity, mood stabilization, etc. What is one food that fights dementia and protects the aging brain? There are actually a number of foods that have been shown to help support memory and brain function, especially those high in protective antioxidants, such as strawberries and blueberries (which contain flavonoids like anthocyanidins), olive oil, dark chocolate, and green tea (which contain polyphenols).
For example, according to the large study called the Nurse’s Healthy Study, anthocyanidins and flavonoids found in plant foods like berries are associated with slower rates of cognitive decline. This particular study found that frequent berry consumption may help delay cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years.
Researchers believe that high-antioxidant foods included in the MIND diet positively impact learning, memory and cognition. Here are some of the reasons why:
- They protect aging neurons against the negative impact of stress-related cellular signals, increasing the capacity of neurons to maintain proper functioning during aging.
- A key component of the MIND diet, green leafy vegetables like kale or spinach, are believed to protect the brain because they contain high levels of compounds that fight oxidative stress. Antioxidants found in dark leafy greens include lutein, zeaxanthin, phenols and flavonoids.
- The MIND diet encourages consumption of healthy fats that fuel the brain, such as fish like salmon and certain nuts/seeds like walnuts or flaxseed that contain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties that support the neurological and immune systems, and healthy fats in general (including some cholesterol) are important for brain health because they help form neuron connections and also help manage levels of blood glucose (sugar).
- Foods that are brightly colored — like carrots, tomatoes, kale and sweet potatoes, which all contain carotenoid antioxidants — may help prevent the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. Beta-amyloids are proteins that can build up in the brain, forming plaque deposits and neurofibrillary tangles that are thought to contribute to the degradation of the nerve cells. Production and accumulation of beta-amyloids in the brain are now believed to be a major contributing factor to Alzheimer’s disease.
Foods to Eat
What can you eat on the MIND diet? The MIND diet emphasizes these healthy food groups:
- Vegetables, especially leafy greens like spinach, kale, etc.
- All other fresh vegetables are also included, such as cruciferous veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, green beans, etc.
- Fresh fruit, especially all types of berries, including strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, cranberries, etc.
- Nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, almonds, chia seeds and flaxseeds
- Beans and legumes, such as chickpeas, black beans, lentils, etc.
- 100 percent whole grains, such as oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, barley, farro, 100 percent whole-wheat breads, etc.
- Fish, particularly wild-caught, fatty fish like like salmon, sardines, halibut, trout, tuna and mackerel, which are the best sources of omega-3 fats
- Lean meats like poultry, ideally that are pasture-raised and not breaded or fried
- Olive oil, which is used as the “main cooking oil” and can also be drizzled over salad, veggies, etc.
In addition to the foods above, the MIND diet allows room for about one glass of wine per day (ideally red wine, which is higher in the antioxidant called resveratrol), as well as treats like sweets in moderation.
Are eggs allowed on the MIND diet? What about the MIND diet and dairy? Eggs are not specifically mentioned in the book “The MIND Diet,” however many experts believe that eggs can be included in a healthy, balanced eating plan that supports brain health. That’s because eggs are capable of supporting cognition, according to certain studies. They are nutrient-dense and a great source of B vitamins, choline, carotenoids like lutein and more. Eggs are also versatile, inexpensive, and a good source of healthy fats and protein.
Dairy is another food group that is not discussed in great length in the MIND diet book. It’s recommended that full-fat dairy products be limited to small quantities, such as one ounce of cheese one to two times per week. Many health authorities recommend consuming fermented dairy products, such as unsweetened yogurt or kefir, due to their beneficial supply of probiotics, minerals like calcium and many other nutrients. Dairy foods are also included in the Mediterranean diet, and low-fat dairy products are encouraged on the DASH diet.
Foods to Avoid
Now that you know which foods to eat on the MIND diet, let’s talk about foods you want to limit.
Foods to avoid on the MIND diet include:
- Most types of red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb — it’s recommended that red meat be consumed no more than one to three times per week
- Butter and margarine (olive oil is encouraged instead)
- Cheese/full-fat dairy products
- Sugary snacks/sweets and sweetened beverages, including soda, ice cream, cookies, brownies, donuts, candy, etc.
- Fast foods, fried foods and packaged foods
- Any food that contains trans fats or hydrogenated fats and most foods with saturated fat
Many of these are known to be foods that raise your Alzheimer’s risk. Regarding whether saturated fat should be limited, this remains a controversial topic. There’s some evidence that high intake of saturated fat and trans fats may increase the risk for neurological conditions. However, overall findings about fat intake and risk for dementia/Alzheimer’s have not been consistent. Certain studies have also found that intakes of total fat, animal fat and dietary cholesterol are not associated with Alzheimer’s disease risk.
It’s recommended that you limit these less favorable foods on the MIND diet to these servings per week:
- Sweets — less than 3–5 servings per week.
- Butter and Margarine — Up to 1 tablespoon per day.
- Red Meat — Less than 3–4 servings per week.
- Whole Fat Cheese —Up to several servings per week or less.
- Fried Fast Foods — Less than 1 serving per week.
MIND Diet Meal Plan
The focus of the MIND diet is whole foods that are nutrient-dense. The best nutrient-dense foods are minimally processed, additive-free, ideally organic and often plant-based/vegetarian. The MIND eating plan is overall relatively low in total fat, especially saturated fat and cholesterol for the most part, and includes lots of fiber from fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
As part of the MIND diet eating plan, incorporate the foods below, which are high in carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals, into as many meals as possible:
- Green tea and other teas, plus coffee
- Tart cherry juice
- Dark cocoa
- Winter squash or butternut squash
- Carrots and carrot juice
- Sweet potato
- Collard/turnip greens
- Citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges and tangerines)
- Red peppers
- Red wine
Aim to have these number of servings of the healthy MIND diet food groups listed above:
- Several servings of vegetables per day, especially leafy greens, which should ideally be eaten daily.
- Berries at least several times per week (aim for 4–5 weekly servings).
- Fatty fish 2–3 times per week.
- Poultry 2 or more times per week.
- At least several servings of nuts and beans/legumes per week (aim for 3–5 weekly servings).
- Whole grains on a regular basis, up to several servings per day.
- Olive oil just about daily, used as the main cooking oil and source of fat.
Here are ideas for making healthy MIND diet recipes:
- Berry green smoothies made with superfoods like spinach, blueberries, flaxseeds and almond milk.
- Salmon and kale salad with pomegranates, almonds, sliced oranges and fennel.
- Roasted red pepper chicken with sweet potatoes and broccoli drizzled with olive oil.
- Hummus served with eggplant, olive oil, roasted red peppers and whole grain pita.
Is it possible to follow a vegetarian MIND diet? Yes, you can stick to the MIND diet if you’re vegetarian by getting protein from beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and perhaps fish if you consume fish.
MIND Diet vs. Mediterranean Diet vs. Keto Diet
Because the MIND diet is based partially on the Mediterranean diet, the two have many things in common, such as emphasis on eating lots of plant foods, making olive oil and nuts the primary sources of fat, and having wine in moderation.
What are some differences among these two diets? The MIND diet puts added emphasis on veggies like dark leafy greens, fruits like berries, beans, fish and poultry. It also limits dairy, which is included in both the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet. Overall there is not much of a difference between the two plans, however many associate the Mediterranean diet with more ethnic foods like hummus, olives, whole wheat pita, tabouli, etc. The MIND diet is a bit more inclusive and puts equal value on different whole grains like brown rice, oats, legumes, etc.
While both have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects and support weight loss, the MIND diet and ketogenic diet are considerably different. The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet, while the MIND diet is basically the opposite: a higher-carb, high-fiber diet that includes moderate amounts of mostly unsaturated fats.
Some major differences between the two:
- The keto diet excludes all whole grains, fruit (with the exception of about 1/4 berries per day), legumes/beans (with the exception of about 1/4 berries per day) and any added sugar.
- It also emphasizes high consumption of healthy fats, which provide about 75 percent or more of calories, from foods like coconut oil, butter, ghee, olive oil, eggs, nuts, avocado and fattier cuts of meat.
- The MIND diet may be a better option to follow lon -term, but the keto diet is more likely to lead to substantial weight loss, often quickly.
Risks and Side Effects
There are not many risks involved with the MIND diet, although it’s best to tell your doctor about any major dietary changes you plan to make if you’re currently being treated for a chronic condition.
If you choose to follow the MIND diet meal plan, remember that you don’t need to adhere to the diet perfectly to improve your health, so try to take a long-term approach to sticking with the diet. Of course, in addition to following a nutrient-dense diet to protect your brain, it’s also wise to reduce your risk for cognitive disorders by avoiding the “main seven risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease,” which include:
- Mid-life hypertension
- Mid-life obesity
- Physical inactivity
- Low educational attainment
- The MIND diet is short for the Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet. It’s a healthy eating plan that has the goal of lowering the risk for cognitive disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- The diet combines principles of both the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).
- The MIND diet meal plan emphasizes these healthy food groups: vegetables, fruit (especially berries), nuts/seeds whole grains, olive oil, fish, beans, poultry and wine. These foods are anti-inflammatory and protective due to their high levels of antioxidants, phytochemicals like phenols and flavonoids, fiber, trace minerals, and omega-3s.
- MIND diet recipes do not use the following foods, which have been linked in certain studies to increased risk for cognitive disorders and therefore are limited or avoided on the diet: butter and margarine, cheese, red meat, fried foods and processed foods, sweets and sugary beverages, trans fats, and most saturated fats.