As we get older, it seems as though everything starts to slow down a bit. Our metabolism slows, our ability to build muscle slows, and our joints often force us to slow our movements. Perhaps the most daunting slow-down of them all is the slow-down of the mind. Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was something we could do to stave it off and protect our brain function? It turns out, this just might be possible with the right nutrition. Researchers designed the MIND diet specifically to improve brain function and prevent dementia by combining the best brain-boosting foods from the Mediterranean and DASH diets. MIND stands for Mediterranean Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet has long been touted for its health benefits. It is based on the way people ate in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea in the 1960s (before the availability of many processed imports). Scientists noted the longevity and low incidence of lifestyle disease in the people of these countries. By studying their diets as the probable root of this difference, researchers found it to be rich in whole grains, diverse in vegetables, low in saturated fat, and high in lean protein. The nutrients provided by this diet, and its lack of toxins and artery-clogging fats, make the Mediterranean diet a great guideline for healthy eating. The Mediterranean diet also benefits the brain. One study showed that after 6.5 years on the Mediterranean diet participants scored higher on mental ability tests than those on a Western, low-fat control diet .
The DASH Diet
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (high blood pressure). Initially designed separately from the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet is also widely popular to support an aging body. Because high blood pressure affects more than a billion people worldwide, researchers and nutritionists set out to develop dietary recommendations to reduce the number of people affected by this disease. Much like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. It restricts red meat, salt, added sugars, and saturated fat. The DASH diet has also been associated with brain health, showing improved psychomotor speeds in study participants compared to a control diet .
The MIND Diet
The MIND diet is relatively new. The first studies were published in 2015, but so far results have been very promising. While the DASH diet is geared specifically to protecting the health of your heart and circulatory system, and the Mediterranean diet supports general health and longevity, the MIND diet has taken the most neuro-supportive elements from these two diets to promote healthy brain function. For example, both Mediterranean and DASH diets recommend eating fruit, but not all fruit support brain health. Berries, however, have been shown to be particularly supportive of the brain . So, berries, specifically, are listed as a food to eat on the MIND diet.
The MIND diet is more specific than the two diets upon which it is based. There are 10 foods (or food types) that you should base your meals around and 5 specific foods to avoid. You may incorporate some foods that are not on either list but keep it minimal. Even moderate adherence to the MIND diet has been shown to decrease one’s chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease .
10 MIND Diet Encouraged Foods 
- Green, leafy vegetables (things like kale, spinach, and salads). The diet goal is six or more servings per week.
- Other vegetables: Aim for at least one vegetable (in addition to the green and leafies) every day.
- Berries: Although the published science has only been focused on strawberries, there are antioxidant benefits from all berries. Any kind of berries should be included in the diet two or more times per week.
- Nuts: Five or more servings of nuts each week. Vary the type to get a better diversity of nutrients. Watch your portion size, as nuts are generally very calorie-dense.
- Olive oil: When you cook with oil, use olive oil. There is no specific recommendation for the amount of olive oil to consume each day or week. Use discretion, as again, oil is calorie-dense.
- Whole grains: Each of your meals should contain a whole grain component (or interpret as 3 or more servings per day).
- Fish: Try to eat fish at least once a week. Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, and mackerel are best because of their omega-3 fatty acid content.
- Beans: Beans should be incorporated into your diet at least four times each week.
- Poultry: Poultry is recommended at least twice a week, but should not be fried.
- Wine: One glass of wine daily is recommended, due to the potential anti-Alzheimer’s effect of resveratrol. If you prefer not to drink wine, you can get resveratrol from table grapes or a supplement.
5 Foods to Avoid on the MIND Diet 
- Butter and margarine: Try to trade butter for olive oil whenever possible, but up to one tablespoon per day is admissible.
- Cheese: Try to limit cheese to one serving per week.
- Red meat: Aim for three or fewer servings of red meat or processed meat products each week.
- Fried/fast food: Avoid all fried food and fast food if possible, but absolutely no more than one serving per week is allowed.
- Pastries and sweets: It may be a challenge, but try to limit any desserts, sugar, or food made with refined white flour to five servings per week.
How does the MIND diet work?
Most of the research published on the MIND diet so far has been observational. Thus, causation cannot be determined and the proposed mechanisms of action for the diet are hypothetical at this point. We do know that free radicals from both age and environmental exposure cause damage to cells. Inflammation as a result of infection, injury, or overuse, can also cause cellular damage. Brain cells are particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress and inflammation damage. In fact, much of the recent Alzheimer’s research has highlighted the impact of oxidative stress and inflammation on disease development .
Not coincidentally, the nutrients provided by the MIND diet foods generally target either inflammation or oxidative damage. Anti-inflammatory properties can be found in especially significant levels in olive oil , fatty fish , and some non-leafy veggies like broccoli  and avocado .
The best way to battle oxidative stress is with a variety of antioxidants. Antioxidants defend your cells from the damage caused by free radicals. There are different types of antioxidants that target different types of free radicals, so it is important to get a variety of antioxidant-rich foods in the diet rather than loading up on just one. This is part of the reason the MIND diet prescribes eating leafy vegetables, berries, beans, and nuts. Kale and spinach are particularly high in vitamins A, K, and C, which all act as antioxidants . If you can find red varieties of kale, it may contain twice as many antioxidants as green kale, as the color is associated with anthocyanins and other antioxidant nutrients . Berries, especially strawberries, blueberries, and the more unusual goji berries, are also particularly high in antioxidants . The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities of berries are the properties credited for their neuroprotective effect on the aging brain .
What do I have to lose?
You have nothing to lose (except maybe a little body fat if you’ve got extra)! The MIND diet is not only a healthy diet for those particularly concerned with brain health as they age. This diet is well-rounded, balanced, and nutritious for humans of any age (adjusted for personal food sensitivities and/or allergies, of course). Treat the diet as a guideline and don’t beat yourself up if you veer away slightly every now and then. Even moderate adherence to the diet, loading up on anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods, will benefit your cognition as you age .
- Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimers Dement. 2015;11(9):1007-1014. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009
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