“Americans are living longer, and a long life is made better by a healthy and active mind,” explains Maggie Moon, a registered dietitian and best-selling author of The MIND Diet. “What we eat can hurt or help the brain, and that’s where the MIND diet can help.”
Here are some basics to know about this eating plan:
What is the MIND Diet?
The MIND diet was created by Dr. Martha Clare Morris and a team at Rush Hospital, along with Dr. Frank Sacks from Harvard School of Public Health. They published their findings in 2015 based on dietary assessments from a research project being conducted at Rush called the Memory and Aging Project, which was started in 1997. “At the time, they went through and gave scores to participants’ diets based on how closely they followed the proposed MIND diet foods,” explains Kate Cohen, a registered dietitian at the Ellison Institute. Then, they evaluated the risk of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline after 5 years.
“What they found is that those participants who ate more of the MIND diet foods had a 53% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s compared to those people who ignored the MIND diet,” Cohen explains. They also found that participants who only followed the diet in a moderate way still had a 35% lower risk.
This MIND diet, says Cohen, has been back in the press recently, as the Rush group is completing a 3-year clinical trial and just published results where they continued to follow the group from the 1997 study through their deaths. “They concluded that better adherence to the diet resulted in improved cognitive function, irrespective of whether participants actually had Alzheimer’s disease,” she explains.
What are the health benefits?
In addition to researchers’ initial findings, here are some potential benefits of the MIND diet, according to Moon:
- The MIND diet is designed to help the mind perform better, slowing cognitive decline and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- In their initial research, the MIND diet creators went through nearly 20 cognitive tests. The results indicated that people who had higher MIND diet scores had better cognitive scores, especially for the kind of memory related to remembering experiences and facts, and perceptual speed (e.g. how quickly one could correctly identify something).
- A recent MIND diet study found that following it can help build resilience against cognitive decline as we age, even when the physical signs of Alzheimer’s disease are present in the brain. “That is, the brain was performing better than expected given the pathologies, or signs, of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Moon.
- The MIND diet is simpler than its component diets because it requires less fish than the Mediterranean diet, less dairy than the DASH diet, and less fruit than either one. “Overall, it has fewer required servings of grains, vegetables, fruits, and fish, and no emphasis on dairy or any limits on total fat to worry about,” Moon explains.
How does the MIND diet work?
“The MIND diet is designed to promote brain health and provide a nutritional framework for preventing neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia,” explains Cohen. As it is rooted in the Mediterranean Diet, the MIND diet is loaded with vegetables, lean proteins, nuts, berries, and whole grains. Cohen adds that not all the foods on the diet are suggested to directly improve brain health; some may help to reduce cardiovascular risk, which is considered a risk factor for dementia.
“The brain is especially sensitive to oxidative stress and inflammation, so its need for antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods is high,” says Moon. She explains that the brain matter is 60% fat, so essential fatty acids are also critical to brain health, omega-3 fatty acids in particular. The idea behind the MIND diet is that eating too many brain-harming foods may damage the blood-brain barrier and may promote the formation of beta-amyloid plaques, which have been linked to Alzheimer’s and may result in neuron damage. Antioxidant rich and anti-inflammatory foods, says Moon, help to protect the brain and make it harder for damaging plaques to form.
“The MIND diet provides a variety of these protective compounds including flavonoids, carotenoids, B vitamins, folate, and vitamin E,” Moon explains. “It is the concert of whole foods eaten in balance, with variety, over time, that will do the most good for the brain, rather than any single food alone.”
This eating plan is based on daily intake of a variety of vegetables, at least one serving of leafy greens on top of that, whole grain, olive oil, and if you partake, one glass of wine a day. “You’ll enjoy nuts at least five times a week; beans at least every other day; lean poultry at least twice a week; berries at least twice a week, and fish at least once a week,” says Moon.
Foods to focus on:
- Leafy Green Vegetables: 6 or more servings per week (1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked)
- Other Vegetables: 1 or more servings per day (1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked)
- Whole Grains and Starchy Vegetables: 3 servings or more per day (1 slice whole-grain bread, ½ cup cooked brown rice, quinoa or other grain, ½ cup cooked squash or corn, ½ cup cooked whole grain pasta, 1 cup whole grain cereal, 1 medium-size potato or sweet potato, 8-inch whole grain tortilla, 3 cups cooked popcorn)
- Berries: 2 or more servings per week (½ cup raw or frozen)
- Nuts and Seeds: 5 or more servings per week (1-ounce)
- Seafood (with a focus on fatty versions that contain omega-3 fatty acids): 1 or more servings per week (3-4 ounces)
- Poultry: 2 or more servings per week (3-4 ounces lean poultry)
- Beans and Legumes: 3 or more servings per week (½ cup cooked)
- Vegetable Oils (for example, extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil): Use as your main cooking oil
Foods to avoid:
- Red Meat: 3 or less servings per week of beef, pork or lamb (3 ounces for women, 5 ounces for men)
- Whole Fat Dairy Products: 1 serving of butter per day, 1 serving of cheese per week (1 tablespoon butter; 1-ounce cheese)
- Fried Food: 1 serving or less per week (1 donut; 1 small order of French fries)
- Sweets and Pastries: Less than 5 servings per week (1 cookie; 1 piece of cake or pie; 1 cupcake)
“There is room for true moderation here, and most of these foods can be enjoyed sparingly a few times a week, except fried fast food and cheese, which should be limited to just once or twice a month,” says Moon. “No foods are eliminated, it’s about balance.”
MIND Diet meals
Here are some of Moon’s favorite ways to incorporate MIND diet healthy foods into her meals:
- Leafy green vegetables: Try spinach in scrambled eggs, a kale salad, or sautéed baby bok choy.
- All other vegetables: Explore the vegetable world, especially richly colored options like sweet potatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, or carrots.
- Nuts: Store snack packs of nuts in your desk drawer, and enjoy them at the same time as a mid-morning or late-afternoon snack. Almonds, pistachios, and peanuts are all available in snack packs, or make your own mix at home with your favorites.
- Beans: Make a big batch of chili or bean stew on Sunday night, store enough for a couple days in the refrigerator and freeze the rest to reheat later in the week.
- Berries: Keep a basket of strawberries or blueberries for snacking over a couple days. Frozen berries make great smoothie add-ins anytime. If whole fruit isn’t convenient, try 100-percent pomegranate or blueberry juice.
- Poultry: Roast chicken one night, and use the leftovers in a chicken soup the next.
- Fish: Salmon with the skin on is one of the most forgiving fish to cook; because of all of its healthy fats, it’s hard to overcook.
- Whole grains: Some of the easiest fiber-full whole grains around are oatmeal and whole wheat couscous, which are both quick-cooking.
- Olive oil: Drizzle over avocado toast or warmed tomatoes, olive oil works great in salad dressings, too.
- Wine: In keeping with its Mediterranean influence, the MIND diet includes moderate alcohol, and keeps it to one glass a day. The wine could be optional if all other guidelines are followed. A glass of red wine with dinner is a simple way to enjoy a moderate amount of wine a day. Another idea is to reduce red wine, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and herbs into a sauce you can pour over fish or tofu, which are both brain-healthy proteins.
And Julie Andrews, a registered dietitian and founder of The Healthy Epicurean, recommends following MIND diet staple meals:
- If you’re in the mood for a salad, load it up with spinach, berries, walnuts, grilled chicken and an olive oil dressing and sprinkle it with just a little bit of feta cheese for flavor.
- If you love yogurt, enjoy it with fresh berries and homemade oat and nut granola on top.
Who should do the MIND diet?
“The MIND diet has been established as a well-balanced healthy diet for just about all ages,” says Moon, who stresses that the brain needs nourishment to thrive in all life stages. Thus, she says the MIND diet provides a solid foundation for a healthy way to eat for just about anyone.
“The wear and tear on the brain starts and builds up decades before symptoms show up, starting in our 20s and 30s, so the earlier we eat to support brain health the better,” adds Moon. She emphasizes that though the MIND diet research was conducted in adults in their 50s to 90s, it’s never too late to start eating right.
Are there people who should avoid it?
“If you have been diagnosed with or at high risk of cardiovascular disease or stroke, diabetes, obesity or some other health condition, there might be other diets that are better suited for you,” explains Cohen. Consult with your doctor or a dietitian about what’s most appropriate for your needs.
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