As the baby boomer generation ages there is an increased interest in all strategies to maintain a youthful body and a healthy mind. In particular, studies examining the potential benefits of the MIND diet for brain health and cognitive function have recently attracted a lot of attention. Here are some of their key findings:
- Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s Disease: A 2015 study with 923 participants found that following the MIND diet was associated with a significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
This 4.5-year study from Rush University Medical Center researchers (including the creators of the MIND diet) showed that the MIND diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer disease by as much as “53% in participants who strictly followed the diet, and by approximately 35% in those who followed it moderately well.” Lowered risks between 53 and 35% are impressive numbers. Although multiple subsequent studies conducted all over the world were able to corroborate the beneficial effects of this diet for the brain, no other study was able to observe benefits nearly as close to these findings. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4532650/
- Better cognitive function: Recently, a 2023 UK study with 60,298 participants published in the BMC Medicine found that following the Mediterranean diet was associated with better cognitive function, including memory and executive function, in older adults. Specifically, in this on-going study that started recruiting in 2006, participants with the highest MedDiet adherence had 23% lower risk of developing dementia in comparison with those with the lowest level of adherence. This study created a sort of commotion in the care community not only because of its positive findings regarding the benefits of the Mediterranean diet on the brain, but also because it had a solid number of participants who were observed for a long period of time, which assures more validity to its sound methodology and conclusions. https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-023-02772-3
- Lower levels of Amyloid Plaques: In research conducted post-mortem on 459 participants and published in 2021, it was found that both the MIND and Mediterranean diets were associated with lesser levels of amyloid plaques, which is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Dietary components, including green leafy vegetables, fish, legumes, butter (which came to researchers as a big surprise), and sweets, were also related to AD pathology. These relationships were more significant in those without an APOE-ε4 allele, a gene associated with increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. https://alz-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/alz.055679
Overall, these studies suggest that the MIND diet may be an effective way to improve brain health and reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline and dementia. However, more research is needed to fully understand the long-term benefits of this dietary pattern.
What is the Mind Diet?
The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) is a dietary pattern that has been developed by Dr. Martha Clare Morris and colleagues at Rush University Medical Center, intended to help improve brain health and reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline and dementia. It is a combination of two well-known diets, the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, and focuses on including foods that are high in nutrients important for brain health. The MIND diet emphasizes whole plant-based foods and limits red meat, sugar, and foods high in saturated fats. It differs from the Mediterranean and DASH diets by specifying serving amounts of specific food groups that are associated with reduced inflammation. These include green leafy vegetables, nuts, berries, and fish.
Although the full effects of the diet on the brain is still not entirely understood, these are some of the mechanisms through which the MIND diet may benefit the brain:
Reducing oxidative stress: The MIND diet is rich in antioxidant-rich foods like berries, leafy greens, and nuts, which can help to reduce oxidative stress in the brain. Oxidative stress is a process that can damage cells and contribute to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Reducing inflammation: The MIND diet emphasizes the consumption of anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which can help to reduce inflammation in the body and brain. Chronic inflammation has been linked to a variety of neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Promoting healthy blood vessels: The MIND diet is rich in foods like leafy greens, berries, and nuts, which are known to promote healthy blood vessels. This can help to improve blood flow to the brain, which is important for maintaining brain health and function.
Supporting healthy brain aging: The MIND diet is rich in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and folate, which are important for maintaining healthy brain aging. These nutrients have been linked to improved cognitive function and a lower risk of age-related cognitive decline.
Here are some of the key ingredients in the MIND diet:
- Leafy greens: Kale, spinach, and other leafy greens are high in nutrients like folate and vitamin E that are important for brain health.
- Poultry: The MIND diet recommends poultry like chicken and turkey, but encourages limiting consumption of red meat.
- Fish: Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna are high in omega-3 fatty acids and are recommended at least once per week.
- Whole grains: Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat bread are recommended over refined grains.
- Beans: Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and black beans are high in fiber and nutrients that are important for brain health.
- Nuts: Walnuts are specifically recommended due to their high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain health.
- Berries: Blueberries and strawberries are specifically recommended due to their high levels of flavonoids, which have been shown to improve brain function.
- Other vegetables: The MIND diet recommends including a variety of other vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes.
- Olive oil: The MIND diet recommends using olive oil as the primary source of fat.
- Wine: Moderate consumption of red wine is allowed, but it is not necessary to follow the MIND diet.
Overall, the MIND diet emphasizes nutrient-dense foods that are high in antioxidants, healthy fats, and other nutrients that are important for brain health.
Conversely, the MIND diet recommends avoiding certain foods in order to promote brain health. The following are the foods to be avoided according to the MIND diet:
- Red meat: Limit intake of red meat, including beef, pork, and lamb.
- Butter and margarine: Limit the intake of butter and margarine, and replace them with healthy fats like olive oil.
- Cheese: Limit the intake of cheese, especially high-fat cheeses like cheddar and brie.
- Pastries and sweets: Limit the intake of pastries, cakes, cookies, and other sweets, which are typically high in sugar and unhealthy fats.
- Fried and fast food: Avoid fried and fast food, which are often high in unhealthy fats, salt, and calories.
- Whole milk: Limit the intake of whole milk, and choose low-fat or skim milk instead.
- Alcohol: Although moderate alcohol intake may have some health benefits, the MIND diet recommends limiting alcohol to one serving per day for women and two servings per day for men.
It’s important to note that while these foods may have negative effects on the brain, they should not be completely eliminated from the diet. Rather, they should be consumed in moderation and balanced with plenty of nutrient-dense foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, to support overall brain health.
Benefiting the Brain and Beyond
While the MIND diet is primarily focused on promoting brain health, it is also likely to have some benefits for gut health. The diet emphasizes the consumption of whole, nutrient-dense foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and lean protein sources. These foods are high in fiber, which is important for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. Fiber helps to feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut, which can help to promote the growth of a diverse and healthy microbiome.
In addition, the MIND diet recommends limiting the intake of processed and high-fat foods, which can negatively impact gut health. These types of foods can disrupt the balance of the gut microbiome, leading to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and a decrease in beneficial bacteria.
There is also a growing body of research that suggests that the gut microbiome is closely related to brain health. The gut and brain are connected through the gut-brain axis, which is a bidirectional communication pathway between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system, which controls the function of the gastrointestinal tract. The gut microbiome plays a key role in the gut-brain axis by producing neurotransmitters, hormones, and other molecules that can affect brain function and behavior.
Studies have found that changes in the gut microbiome can affect brain function and behavior in both animal and human studies. For example, research has linked imbalances in the gut microbiome to conditions such as anxiety, depression, autism, and Parkinson’s disease. Some studies have also found that modifying the gut microbiome through probiotics, prebiotics, and other interventions can improve cognitive function, mood, and other aspects of brain health.
Overall, while the MIND diet is primarily focused on promoting brain health, it is likely to have some positive effects on gut health as well. However, it’s important to note that the gut microbiome is a complex and individualized system, and the specific effects of the MIND diet on gut health may vary from person to person.
By Luciana Mitzkun Weston,
Villa Alamar Community Services Director