Nourish Your Brain
Foods that Promote Brain Health
What is the MIND Diet?
There’s a new diet in town, and this one is good for your body and your mind! The MIND Diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) is an eating pattern developed to support brain function and slow the decline in brain health that occurs with age. Rather than aiming to restrict foods, the MIND Diet instead encourages eating more of certain foods that benefit brain health and less of those that don’t. Let’s explore the two diets that combined to make the MIND Diet and learn how you can incorporate the MIND Diet into your lifestyle.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet is based on traditional Mediterranean dietary patterns, but anyone can replicate it using the same principles with foods from their culture. In general, this diet encourages the use of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and olive oil daily and servings of fish and seafood at least two times a week. Poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt should be limited to less than once per day, and meats and sweets are reserved for special occasions.
Why is this diet structured the way that it is? From a health perspective, the point of the Mediterranean Diet is to maximize heart-healthy, beneficial foods while minimizing more detrimental ones. Fruits and vegetables are high in anti-inflammatory antioxidants, full of various vitamins and minerals, and lower in calories and harmful fats. Whole grains provide complex carbohydrates and additional fiber, which plays a role in lowering cholesterol. The beneficial fats found in nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fish can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation. The omega-3 fatty acids found in these foods are also highly beneficial to the brain.
The DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) aims to reduce high blood pressure and is similar to the Mediterranean Diet in many ways. Like the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH diet emphasizes fruits and vegetables and whole grains. But the DASH Diet is more lenient about incorporating low-fat dairy and lean meats and doesn’t emphasize fats, oils, nuts, seeds, and legumes like the Mediterranean Diet. This eating pattern is high in beneficial nutrients calcium, magnesium, fiber, and potassium and low in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
Researchers created the MIND Diet in 2015 by combining aspects of both the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet. While Mediterranean and DASH diets include many foods that help slow cognitive decline, neither diet is designed to prevent brain health or dementia. Thus, researchers created the MIND Diet.
Researchers created the MIND Diet in 2015 by combining aspects of both the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet. While both the Mediterranean and DASH diets include many foods that help slow cognitive decline, neither diet is designed specifically to prevent brain health or dementia. Thus, researchers created the MIND Diet.
The MIND Diet groups food into ten categories that make up the “brain-healthy” food groups:
- Green leafy vegetables (examples: kale, spinach, Swiss chard)
- Other vegetables (examples: peppers, tomatoes)
- Nuts (examples: almonds, pecans)
- Berries (examples: blackberries)
- Beans (examples: chickpeas, black beans)
- Whole grains (examples: barley, brown rice, 100% whole wheat bread)
- Seafood (examples: salmon, shrimp)
- Poultry (example: chicken)
- Olive oil (example: extra virgin olive oil
- Wine (example: red wine)
Conversely, the five “brain unhealthy” food groups:
- Red meats (examples: beef, lamb)
- Butter (example: salted butter)
- Stick margarine (examples: Country Crock, Earth Balance)
- Cheese (examples: Mozzarella, Asiago)
- Pastries (examples: scones, tarts)
- Sweets (examples: candies, sugary snacks)
- Fried/fast food (examples: country-fried foods, donuts)
In the original study, people who ate more foods from the brain-healthy group and less from the unhealthy had a slower decline in cognitive abilities.1
How is the MIND Diet different from the Mediterranean and the DASH diet?
What separates the MIND Diet from the Mediterranean and DASH Diets? First, the MIND Diet explicitly emphasizes the consumption of berries and green, leafy vegetables rather than just overall fruit and vegetable intake. Berries and green leafy vegetables contain vitamin E, carotenoids, and flavonoids, which hold protective anti-inflammatory properties by reducing free radicals, contributing to inflammation and cell injury and discouraging inflammatory hormones.2 Likewise, studies have found that just one serving of fish a week can slow cognitive decline by ten percent.3 Olive oil also is associated with slower cognitive decline.4
The foods that the MIND Diet recommends consuming less of all have a higher unhealthy fat content. Unhealthy fats—specifically saturated and trans fat—can influence heart health by contributing to higher cholesterol.5, 6 Consuming less unhealthy foods has a beneficial effect on the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The BBB protects the brain by strictly controlling the movement of ions, molecules, and cells between the blood and the brain.7 In other words, the BBB protects your brain and keeps it healthy, and consuming fewer unhealthy fats will help the BBB do its job!
What to Eat
How can you incorporate principles from the MIND Diet into your lifestyle? Here are a few options:
- Consume more green, leafy vegetables and berries
- Look for places in your meals where you can replace pasta, bread, and grain products with the whole wheat version
- Try nuts and berries as a snack
- Reduce the amount of red meat in your meals and add beans or lentils to add beneficial protein and fiber
- Try chicken, turkey, or fish as your main at least once or twice a week.
The MIND Diet shares many principles with the Mediterranean and DASH Diets. Still, instead of focusing on heart health, the MIND Diet focuses on important foods to incorporate for brain health and the prevention of dementia. The MIND Diet might seem complicated, but it can be so simple to incorporate these recommendations into your life as habits. And if you remember that, in the long run, your brain will thank you for it!
Thank you to Emmalee Calvert, a dietetic intern, who wrote a majority of this article for mental health month.
1Morris, M. C., Tangney, C. C., Wang, Y., Sacks, F. M., Barnes, L. L., Bennett, D. A., & Aggarwal, N. T. (2015). MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, 11(9), 1015–1022. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2015.04.011
2Panche, A. N., Diwan, A. D., & Chandra, S. R. (2016). Flavonoids: an overview. Journal of Nutritional Science, 5, e47. https://doi.org/10.1017/jns.2016.41
3 Morris, M. C., Evans, D. A., Tangney, C. C., Bienias, J. L., & Wilson, R. S. (2005). Fish consumption and cognitive decline with age in a large community study. Archives of Neurology, 62. 1849–1853.
4 Klimova, B., Novotný, M., Kuca, K., & Valis, M. (2019). Effect of an extra-virgin olive oil intake on the delay of cognitive decline: Role of secoiridoid oleuropein? Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 15. 3033–3040. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S218238
5 Pipoyan, D., Stepanyan, S., Beglaryan, M., Costantini, L., Molinari, R., & Merendino, N. (2021). The effect of trans fatty acids on human health: Regulation and consumption patterns. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 10(10), 2452. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10102452
6 Chiu, S., Williams, P. T., & Krauss, R. M. (2017). Effects of a very high saturated fat diet on LDL particles in adults with atherogenic dyslipidemia: A randomized controlled trial. PloS one, 12(2), e0170664. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0170664
7Daneman, R., & Prat, A. (2015). The blood-brain barrier. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in biology, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1101/cshperspect.a020412