This Diet Can Do Wonders for Your Brain Health as You Age — Here’s What to Know
What you eat can have a major impact on your body — weight, your ability to build muscle, and so on — but did you know that it can affect your mind, too? Research has shown that eating certain foods (and limiting others) can slow down the brain aging process by 7.5 years. The MIND Diet is based on this principle, and studies have shown that it can improve your memory and thinking skills as you age and even ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
Think of the MIND Diet as a fusion between the Mediterranean Diet and DASH Diet, focusing on heart-healthy plant-based foods without restricting animal products entirely. And according to registered dietitians, this diet is a safe and effective approach for just about anyone.
RELATED: Feeling Down? Your Nutrition Could Be to Blame
How does it work, you ask? Below, experts share everything you need to know about the MIND Diet: what perks to expect, what potential pitfalls to be aware of, and tips for getting started.
The MIND Diet, Explained
The MIND Diet is an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. Quite a mouthful, but really all that means is that it leverages key principles of the Mediterranean and DASH diets to reduce your risk of dementia and other symptoms relating to cognitive decline.
The Mediterranean Diet is a well-researched eating approach that’s modeled after the diets of people in Greece and Italy, focusing on whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, and herbs and spices, with healthy fats from fish, olive oil, and nuts and seeds. The DASH Diet, meanwhile, is aimed at lowering blood pressure by focusing on whole grains, fruits, and veggies, while limiting sodium and saturated fat.
According to Brenda Peralta, a registered dietitian, sports nutritionist, and certified diabetes educator for FeastGood.com, the MIND Diet is particularly well-suited to anyone approaching the age or over the age of 50 for this reason: it supports brain health while also reducing your risk of chronic conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease.
Benefits of the MIND Diet
Experts agree that there are lots of valid reasons you might want to try the MIND Diet. Here are just a few of the benefits:
Chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on your vital organs, and is linked to a slew of common diseases like cancer, heart disease, depression, and diabetes. Fortunately, according to Peralta, the MIND Diet may be able to reduce inflammation in the body. This may be because plant-based foods like leafy greens, berries, and nuts and seeds are packed with polyphenols and other compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties.
Improved Brain Health With Age
In one 2016 study of older adults, people who followed the MIND diet the closest had a whopping 53% lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to people who didn’t follow it. Even people who only moderately followed the MIND Diet still seemed to reap some of these brain-protective benefits with a lowered risk of Alzheimer’s by an average of 35%.
Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases
“Because the foods included in this diet are naturally rich in antioxidants, adhering to this diet may help reduce oxidative stress within the diet,” says Kristin Gillespie, MS, a registered dietitian and advisor for Exercise With Style. “Oxidative stress ultimately leads to inflammation and the development of many chronic illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. These antioxidants can help protect the brain, as well as the rest of the body, against these ailments.”
Improved Blood Sugar
The MIND Diet emphasizes complex carbs like whole grains, beans and lentils, fruit, and vegetables, which take longer to digest and therefore don’t spike blood sugar levels. As a result, FWDfuel Sports Nutrition registered dietitian Abby Grimm says it may help with maintaining balanced blood sugar. That’s why she highly recommends it for anyone diagnosed with pre-diabetes or diabetes.
Grimm says the MIND Diet may also prove helpful if you’re seeking to shed some pounds. A 2017 study showed that people who follow plant-based diets tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who don’t. A 2020 study, meanwhile, discovered that plant-based diets can rev up your metabolism, triggering an “after-burn effect” that results in an 18.7% increase in calories burned after a meal.
Potential Drawbacks of the MIND Diet
Since it focuses on whole foods in their natural form without excluding any key food groups, Peralta says you’ll be hard-pressed to find any disadvantages to this diet.
“The MIND diet doesn’t really come with any health risks since it’s pretty balanced,” adds Michelle Hawksworth, a registered dietician for Muscle and Brawn. “It focuses on the consistent intake of a variety of healthy food groups.”
There are just two potential pitfalls to note. For one, Gillespie points out that since the MIND Diet limits animal products, you may be more prone to a vitamin B12, calcium, or iron deficiency. These nutrients are more prominent and easily absorbed through meat, dairy, and other animal-derived foods, so she recommends monitoring your intake to ensure you’re meeting your daily needs. Grimm also says you should be careful if you’re consuming a lot of seafood on the MIND Diet, as some types of fish can contain high levels of harmful heavy metals and other toxins.
The FDA advises avoiding King mackerel, swordfish, tilefish, marlin, and bigeye tuna as much as possible as these varieties are often loaded with mercury.
Foods to Eat and Avoid on the MIND Diet
As a general rule, following the MIND Diet means eating more whole, plant-based foods and less animal products and processed foods. Here’s some expert guidance on which foods to add to your shopping cart, as well as which ones to avoid as much as possible:
Read more 3 Steps To Fix A Damaged Metabolism
What to Eat Daily:
- Vegetables: Aim to “eat the rainbow” to get the greatest variety of vitamins, including cruciferous veggies (Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli), eggplant, zucchini, carrots, peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, etc. Make sure to incorporate at least five servings of leafy greens (spinach, kale, romaine) per week.
- Fruit: Again, diversity is key, so try incorporating a wide range of fruits. Ideally, prioritize berries for a boost of antioxidants.
- Nuts: Almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, etc.
- Seeds: Pumpkin seeds (pepitas), sunflower seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, etc.
- Whole grains: Oatmeal, quinoa, farro, brown rice, 100% whole-wheat bread and wraps, etc.
- Legumes: Black beans, kidney beans, cannellini beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.
- Monounsaturated fats: Avocados, avocado oil, olives, olive oil, etc.
What to Eat Regularly (Two to Three Times a Week):
- Fish: Salmon, trout, tuna and mackerel are excellent picks due to their high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Poultry: Chicken, turkey, etc. Ideally, seek out certified organic poultry.
- Low-fat dairy: Yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, etc.
- Eggs: Opt for organic, pasture-raised whenever possible.
- Red wine: Stick to one glass a day. Research has shown that red wine may be good for your heart due to its antioxidant content, but only in moderation.
What to Rarely Eat, If Ever:
- Processed foods: Potato chips, packaged sweets like cookies and doughnuts, candy, sweetened breakfast cereals, energy bars, frozen dinners
- Refined grains: White bread, pasta, and rice; any baked goods made with white flour
- Trans fats: Margarine, shortening, etc
- Dairy high in saturated fat: Cheese, butter, whole milk
- Red meat: Beef, veal, pork, lamb, etc. especially processed meats, like sausage, bacon, and pepperoni
- Sugary beverages: Soda, sweetened juice, sports and energy drinks, flavored bottled coffee drinks, etc.
You Might Also Dig:
- Can a Plant-Based Diet Benefit Your Athletic Performance?
- Why You Should Use Plant-Based Protein
- Are Vegan Diets Healthy?