Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. It is estimated that more than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease, almost two-thirds of which are women. Several diets and specific foods have been found to be protective against cognitive decline and even Alzheimer’s. Recently, new research has emerged on a diet that has been coined the MIND diet. This stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. Essentially it is a combination of the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). While both of these diets have been shown to be beneficial alone, together they show promising results for brain health.
Researchers found that with strict adherence to the three diets, all showed benefits for reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s:
- 54% lower risk with the Mediterranean diet
- 53% lower risk with the MIND diet
- 39% lower risk with the DASH diet
However, with just moderate adherence to the three diets, the reduction in risk changed dramatically. The researchers no longer found a reduced risk for the Mediterranean and DASH diets when only followed moderately. But the MIND diet still gave a 35 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s, even when not following the diet 100 percent of the time. It goes without saying that to reach your optimal brain health, the more closely you follow a healthy diet, the better your overall health will be.
It is also important to keep in mind that the earlier you start following this way of eating, the better results you will have for cognitive function and reduced disease risk. Yet, the MIND diet gives new meaning to the phrase “everything in moderation.” It is a way of eating that is simple and realistic, while still providing protective health benefits.
So what exactly does the MIND diet include? It breaks foods and food groups into one of two categories: ten foods/groups to emphasize and five foods/groups to limit or avoid. Here are the 10 foods to make a regular part of your diet:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Other vegetables
- Whole Grains
- Olive Oil
And here are the five foods to only have on occasion, if at all:
- Red meat
- Butter and Stick Margarine
- Pastries and Sweets
- Fried or Fast Food
The MIND diet is heavily plant-based. In fact, it singles out dark leafy greens and berries as two items to prioritize for brain health. And for good reason too! Many times we focus on our physical age, but our cognitive or mental age is just as important. Researchers have found that people who eat up to two servings of dark leafy green vegetables every day have the mental ability of someone who is 11 years younger. Berries always top the charts for some of the highest antioxidant levels of any fruit. That combined with the fact that they have a low glycemic index makes them a great choice for overall health. Blueberries in particular have been shown to increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the health of neurons in the brain and encourages growth of new neurons.
The MIND diet also distinguishes between the types of fats that should be included for brain health. It includes liberal amounts of healthy fats from Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (a Mediterranean diet staple) and nuts, particularly walnuts. However it eliminates unhealthy fats, especially trans-fat. This is the worst type of fat you can consume as it is highly inflammatory and negatively affects cholesterol levels. Specifically for brain health, trans-fat intake can affect memory.
A recent study in young adults found that as trans-fat intake increased, ability to recall words decreased. Major sources of this fat include certain baked goods, fried food, fast food, and anything with hydrogenated oils (check those ingredient lists!). Unfortunately the average American diet still contains an estimated five to six grams of trans fat per day – but no amount is safe for your health!
If you take away just one thing from the MIND diet, let it be this: Incorporating liberal amounts of healthy unsaturated fats and following a mostly plant-based diet are the keys to a healthy mind and body.
Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet. National Institute on Aging. Web. 28 November 2015.
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Eating green leafy vegetables keeps mental abilities sharp. (2015). Science Daily. Web. 29 November 2015.
Golomb, Beatrice A., & Bui, Alexis K. (2015). A Fat to Forget: Trans Fat Consumption and Memory. PLoS One, 10(6).
Morris, Martha C., Tangney, Christy C., Wang, Yamin, Sacks, Frank M., Barnes, Lisa L., Bennett, David A., Aggarwal, Neelum T. (2015). MIND diet slows cognitive aging with aging. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. Web. 29 November 2015.
New ‘MIND’ diet linked to reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. (2015). Medical News Today. Web. 29 November 2015.
Rendeiro, C., Vauzour, D., Kean, R.J., Butler, L.T., Rattray, M., Spencer, J.P., Williams, C.M. (2012). Blueberry supplementation induces spatial memory improvements and region-specific regulation of hippocampal BDNF mRNA expression in young rats. Psychpharmocology. 223(3): 319-330.
About the author
Julie Smith is part also part of Baylor Scott & White Health’s integrative medicine program as a nutrition counselor. She is a registered and licensed dietitian who takes a functional and holistic approach to nutrition. Julie has been part of Baylor Scott & White since her undergraduate days at Baylor University where she received a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition Science in May 2011, followed by her dietetic internship at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, which lead into her current full-time position.