Many of us probably think that forgetfulness is a natural part of aging. But there's plenty of research to support that the way we eat may have an affect on how sharp our minds stay as we get older.
Evidence is piling up that the MIND diet — a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets — can help lower your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Here, we'll dig into what the diet is all about and offer tips on how to adopt it.
What Is the MIND Diet?
The MIND diet is an acronym that stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. And as you might have guessed from its full name, the diet blends certain features of the popular Mediterranean and DASH diets, with the goal of keeping your brain in tip-top shape.
The diet was developed in 2015 by researchers at Rush University Medical Center and the Harvard School of Public Health, who examined studies that linked specific foods to cognition and dementia. The result of their research is an eating plan that aims to slow the decline of brain health as we age and reduce the risk of Alzheimer's, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation.
What Makes the MIND Diet Different
"The MIND diet was designed to focus on nutrients that are specifically neuroprotective and emphasizes these nutrients more than the [Mediterranean and DASH] diets," Kaarin Anstey, senior principal research scientist at Neuroscience Research Australia, who studies cognitive aging and dementia, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The Mediterranean diet centers on fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains, while limiting red meat, dairy, sweets and foods high in saturated fat. Followers eat fish two to three times per week and have poultry, nuts, seeds and wine in moderation. Olive oil, central to the Mediterranean diet, is particularly rich in the monounsaturated fat that provides many of the heart-healthy benefits for which the diet is praised.
The MIND diet also encourages followers to eat fish, since long-term studies have linked this to a lower risk of dementia and cognitive decline, Anstey says, but consuming just one fish dish per week would be in keeping with its guidelines. And instead of stressing all fruits and vegetables, the MIND diet hones in on berries and leafy greens specifically, because these foods have proven brain-boosting benefits.
The DASH diet — which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension — was originally developed to help people lower their blood pressure. It takes a plant-focused approach similar to the Mediterranean diet and also discourages saturated fat, sugar and sodium while encouraging foods rich in protein, fiber and unsaturated fats.
The MIND diet discourages dairy products like cheese and butter because of their saturated fat content. But in contrast to the DASH diet, foods containing dairy are not encouraged, even in their low- or no-fat versions, because there isn't enough known about their effects on brain health to either recommend or discourage them.
What Can You Eat on the MIND Diet?
MIND dieters are encouraged to stick to 10 types of food that research has found to protect our brains from decline, while limiting five other types of food that might be detrimental to brain health.
10 "Brain-Healthy" Foods to Eat
- Green leafy vegetables: Six or more servings per week
- Other vegetables: One or more servings per day
- Nuts: Five or more servings per week
- Berries: Two or more servings per week
- Beans: Three or more servings per week
- Whole grains: Three or more servings per day
- Fish: One or more servings per week
- Poultry: Two or more servings per week
- Olive oil: To be used as your primary oil
- Wine: No more than one glass per day
5 Foods to Avoid or Limit
- Red meat: No more than three servings per week
- Butter and margarine: Less than one tablespoon per day
- Cheese: Less than one serving per week
- Pastries and sweets: Less than five servings per week
- Fried or fast food: Less than one serving per week
The MIND Diet Lives Up to Its Name
Long-term studies appear to back up the claim that the MIND diet protects cognitive function. The first study that suggested its effectiveness was published in June 2015 in Alzheimer's and Dementia. Researchers followed 960 older adults for nine years and found a striking effect: Those that followed the MIND diet appeared 7.5 years younger cognitively than those people who didn't follow the diet. The findings held up even when researchers took into account how often participants worked out and their level of education (both of which are linked to cognitive decline).
In September 2015, another study from the same research group, also published in Alzheimer's and Dementia, showed that MIND diet followers had half the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease as their non-MIND-following counterparts. Even those who only partially followed the diet had a 35 percent lower chance of getting the disease. So in other words, even a little bit seems to do the brain good.
And in June 2019, a review in Advances in Nutrition showed that while the DASH, Mediterranean and MIND diets all reduced the risk of cognitive decline, the MIND diet was most strongly linked to lowering that risk.
How to Get Started on the MIND Diet
Gabrielle Vetere, RDN, a certified obesity and weight management specialist in the Silicon Valley area, recommends getting used to the diet in a few steps.
1. Make healthy swaps. Vetere suggests taking stock of what you're eating, and replace things like fast food with homemade meals.
2. Up your produce intake. Focus on vegetables, especially leafy greens like kale and spinach, as well as antioxidant-rich berries like strawberries and blueberries.
3. Tackle your proteins. "Aim to pick ones that are low in saturated fat, and add in some plant-based proteins," Vetere says. Good examples include chicken, fish, beans and tofu. If you don't like fish or are allergic, try chia seeds, walnuts or even seaweed to get beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
4. Replace your refined carbohydrates with whole grains. Trade rice for quinoa, sugary cereals for oatmeal or millet and white bread for whole-grain bread, Vetere says.
5. Don't stress over "right" and "wrong" foods. "Guilt around eating can increase the risk of deprivation and restriction," Vetere says. Instead of worrying about following the rules perfectly, just stick to the diet as best you can.