The MIND Diet: An Evidence-based Nutritional Approach to Protecting Brain Health as We Age

According to investigators from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, the MIND diet is associated with better cognitive functioning, even in individuals who exhibited pathological signs of Alzheimer’s disease or other age-related brain pathologies associated with cognitive decline. The MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets.

In this study,1 the researchers examined the associations of diet, from the start of the study in 2004 until participant death, with brain pathologies and cognitive functioning of 569 adults aged 65 years or older living in retirement communities. The participants agreed to undergo clinical evaluations and cognitive testing every year while alive and brain autopsy after death. The participants were also administered a food frequency questionnaire each year that assessed how often they consumed 144 specific food items over the previous year. 

Participant responses to the food frequency questionnaire, self-administered annually until death, were used to calculate a MIND diet score for each participant. The MIND diet score had 15 dietary components—10 brain-healthy food groups and five unhealthy food groups. Brain-healthy foods included green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans/legumes, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine, and the unhealthy food groups included red meat, fried and fast foods, pastry and sweets, butter, and cheese. 

The cognitive tests evaluated whether the participants showed signs of any memory or thinking problems. Nineteen neuropsychological tests were used to measured global cognitive function and five specific cognitive domains (episodic memory, semantic memory, working memory, perceptual speed, and visuospatial ability) of each participant annually. 

Upon death, participants underwent brain autopsies, which assessed the presence of certain brain pathologies, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body disease, arteriolosclerosis, and other common age-related neuropathologies that contribute to cognitive impairment. 

Based on their analysis of the collected data, the investigators reported that a higher MIND diet score was associated with better cognitive functioning, even in those participants whose brains, upon autopsy, showed neuropathological signs of disease associated with cognitive impairment. The researchers theorize that the antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective activities of certian food items included in the MIND diet, such as leafy greens and berries, contributed to brain health. The researchers concluded that the MIND diet appears to have a protective effect on the brain and contributes to cognitive resilience in the elderly.1

What is MIND Diet?

The MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, is a hybrid of two well-known evidence-based diets—the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and the Mediterranean diet. The MIND diet was developed by the late Martha Clare Morris, a nutrition epidemiologist from the Rush University Medical Center. After years of research in which she observed a correlation between nutrients and cognitive decline, Dr. Morris and colleagues developed the MIND diet, which focuses on foods that have been associated with improved brain health. The MIND diet, along with the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet, were the basis of a pivotal clinical study evaluating the relationship between diet and Alzheimer’s disease. This study,3 published in 2015 in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, found that participants who followed the MIND diet moderately well had a 35-percent lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and if they followed the diet very well, their risk was decreased by 53-percent. This study also indicated that the MIND diet performed better than the DASH and Mediterranean diets by themselves. Since then, many studies have been published supporting the MIND diet’s brain-health benefits. The US News site ranked the MIND diet #5 in “Best Diets Overall” out of 39 diets, which were evaluated with input from a panel of health experts.2

The MIND diet encourages consuming the following 10 types of food:4 

  • Green, leafy vegetables (e.g. kale, spinach, cooked greens and salads)­—Six or more servings per week. 
  • All other vegetables­— One or more servings a day of one or more other vegetable(s), in addition to the green leafy vegetables (limit starchy vegetables).  
  • Berries (e.g., strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)­—One serving at least twice a week. 
  • Nuts—Five or more servings each week (The diet creators did not specify which nuts. Healthline recommends varying the types of nuts you consume to obtain a variety of nutrients.5)
  • Olive oil—Use as main cooking oil. 
  • Whole grains (e.g., oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, 100% whole-wheat bread)—At least three servings daily.
  • Fish: At least once a week (Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, and mackerel are recommended due to their high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.)
  • Beans (e.g., all types of beans, lentils, soybeans): At least four servings a week 
  • Poultry (chicken or turkey): Two servings a week (Fried chicken is not encouraged on the MIND diet.
  • Wine(red or white): One glass daily

The MIND diet recommends limiting the following five foods types:

  • Butter and margarine—Less than 1 tablespoon daily, if at all (Use olive oil as primary cooking fat.)
  • Cheese: Less than one serving per week, if at all
  • Red meat (e.g., beef, pork, lamb, products made from these meats)t: No more than three servings per week, if at all
  • Fried food:No more than once per week, if at all (The MIND diet recommends avoiding fried foods altogether, especially from fast-food restaurants.) 
  • Pastries and sweets (e.g., any processed junk food, ice cream, brownies, cookies, snack cakes, doughnuts, candy, etc.): No more than four times a week, if at all.

SOURCES

1. Dhana K, James BD, Agarwal P, et al. MIND diet, common brain pathologies, and cognition in community-dwelling older adults. J Alzheimer’s Dis. 2021;83(2):683 DOI: 10.3233/JAD-210107

2. US News: A World Report site. Best diets overall. #5 MIND diet. https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-diets-overall. Accessed 28 Sep 2021.

3. Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, et al. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimers Dement. 2015;11(9):1007–1014.

4. Pearson K. The MIND diet: a detailed guide for beginners. 30 Jul 2017. Healthline site. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/mind-diet. Accessed 28 Sep 2021. 

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