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Can the MIND diet help keep our brains healthy?

Can the MIND diet help keep our brains healthy?

What you eat can help keep your body and brain healthy. And whilst getting older is the biggest risk factor for dementia, research suggests up to 1 in 3 cases may be preventable with lifestyle changes. The MIND diet is touted for its brain-boosting benefits, but what does it include - and can it really help to protect our brains?

What is the MIND diet?

The MIND diet is a combination of the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet, with a focus on foods that can boost brain health.

US nutritionist Dr Martha Clare Morris developed MIND - Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay - to see how what we eat can lower the risk of dementia and to stop our brain power declining as we get older.

The Mediterranean diet focuses on eating foods that are as natural as possible, while limiting unhealthy fats and red meat. The DASH diet is designed to prevent or lower high blood pressure and encourages people to eat healthy foods that contain less salt.

In 2015, Morris and her team published a study that found that people who followed the Mediterranean and DASH diets had better levels of brain function compared to people who didn’t follow those diets. The study also found that eating whole grains, leafy greens, nuts and berries were also associated with better brain health1.

What can you eat on the MIND diet?

The plan recommends eating plant-based foods and limiting how much meat and high saturated fat foods you eat. There are specific foods to include and limit.

MIND diet foods to eat

Sophie Medlin, director and specialist dietitian at City Dietitians and chair of the British Dietetic Association for London, says the MIND diet encourages you to eat foods that contain nutrients that protect the brain and make it function at its best.

The main foods to eat on MIND include: Whole grains, vegetables - especially green leafy vegetables - nuts, beans, berries, white meat, fish and olive oil.

“Fish oils are particularly important for preserving the structure of the brain and berries are shown to improve brain function, including memory and focus,” adds Medlin.

These foods contain high levels of health-giving antioxidants which protect the cells of the body from DNA damage and reduce inflammation. Oxidative stress can cause damage to organs and contributes to diseases like dementia, cancer and heart disease.

The MIND diet foods contain nutrients like vitamin C, Omega 3, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and iron, which all contribute to overall brain function2.

Recommended servings

3+ servings a day of whole grains.

1+ servings a day of vegetables - other than green leafy ones.

6+ servings a week of green leafy vegetables.

5+ servings a week of nuts.

4+ meals a week of beans.

2+ servings a week of berries.

2+ meals a week of poultry.

1+ meals a week of fish.

Use olive oil if added fat is used.

MIND diet foods to avoid

The MIND diet encourages you to limit your consumption of these foods: Pastries and sweets, red meat, cheese, fried foods, butter and margarine. These foods are processed or contain a lot of sugar, which can be harmful to our brain function3.

Recommended servings

Unhealthy foods are allowed, but should be limited to less than:

1 tablespoon of butter a day.

1 cheese serving a week.

4 portions of red meat a week.

1 serving of fast food or fried food items a week, on average.

5 servings of pastries or sweets a week.

Does the MIND diet work?

“The MIND diet has been well-researched and there is huge credibility behind its potential to reduce brain health decline,” says Medlin. “The 2015 study found that the higher the MIND diet score, the slower the rate of brain health decline in comparison to those with a low MIND diet score.”

In this study, Morris and her team conducted studies of the MIND diet for nearly a decade, working with a group of 923 participants. The results showed that people who stuck rigidly to the diet had a 53% lower risk of Alzheimer's disease - and those who followed the diet moderately well had a 35% lower risk. The longer a person followed the diet, the better protected they were from developing the condition.

Other studies have linked the MIND diet to a slower rate of brain health decline after stroke4, better verbal memory in later life5 and larger total brain volume6. However, more research is needed over a longer period to see how the MIND diet may affect people long-term.

Benefits of the MIND diet

Unlike many other diets, the MIND diet doesn’t include meal plans so you have to make your own recipes based on the foods included. You aren’t restricted to only eating these foods, too. Although this means the plan is more flexible, it may be challenging for people who don’t cook.

MIND diet recipes

Breakfast - porridge with berries and nuts: Make the porridge with semi-skimmed milk and top with berries, nuts and seeds for a healthy breakfast.

Lunch - bean burgers: Swap beef for a burger patty made with beans. Serve in a wholemeal bun with salad and home-made sweet potato fries.

Evening meal - baked salmon with roasted sweet potatoes and broccoli: Roast the potatoes in olive oil and add dried herbs for flavour.

Further reading

  1. Morris et al: MIND diet slows cognitive decline with ageing.
  2. Kennedy: B vitamins and the brain: Mechanisms, dose and efficacy - A review.
  3. Goncalves et al: Association between consumption of ultraprocessed foods and cognitive decline.
  4. Cherian et al: Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) Diet slows cognitive decline after stroke.
  5. Berendsen et al: Association of long-term adherence to the mind diet with cognitive function and cognitive decline in American women.
  6. Melo van Lent et al: Mind diet adherence and cognitive performance in the Framingham heart study.
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