What is the MIND Diet and How Can it Boost Your Brain?

Image: Ho, Lucy. “MIND Diet Featured Image”. PNG. May. 2021

What is the MIND Diet?

June is Alzheimer’s and brain health awareness month, so what better a time to discuss how you can leverage nutrition to protect your brain health with the MIND diet. So, what is the MIND diet? The MIND diet stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It compiles the primary brain-boosting elements of the Mediterranean and DASH diets and is proven to reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease. It consists of ten healthy foods to eat and five unhealthy foods to avoid.

Alzheimer’s disease is a prevalent neurological disorder characterized by neurons’ total death and injury and their connections in the brain. In fact, more than 6 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease. Progression of the disease results in reduced brain mass and its ability to function correctly. Specialists believe Alzheimer’s is caused by age, genetics, poor cardiovascular health, and chronic inflammation, although these aren’t all potential causes of the disease.

the silhouette of a person's head with a head of cauliflower symbolizing the brain.

A Day on the MIND Diet

A day on this diet isn’t as complex as it might seem. Especially if you’re eating a well-balanced diet, you likely won’t have to make any massive changes or compromises. 

Here’s what a typical day might look like on the MIND diet:

Breakfast: On the MIND diet, you might start the day with two slices of toasted whole wheat bread slathered in natural peanut butter. Add a handful of refreshing blueberries, and you have a breakfast packed with brain-boosting healthy fats, carbohydrates, and antioxidants. 

 Lunch: For lunch, a hearty and restorative lentil soup is perfect for this diet. Make sure it includes lots of vegetables like celery, onion, carrots, bell peppers, and kale, along with lean ground turkey and low-sodium chicken broth. 

 Snack: What is the MIND diet without a brain-boosting smoothie? An assortment of frozen berries, leafy greens, plant-based protein powder, and almond milk constitutes a mid-day MIND diet smoothie. 

 Dinner: On the MIND diet, you might bake salmon that rests on a bed of spinach sauteed in garlic with sides of wild rice and asparagus roasted with olive oil. A serving of oily fish, leafy greens, healthy fats, whole wheat, and vegetables makes for a vibrant and impressive dinner that widely promotes brain health. 

 Dessert: Finish the night off with a glass of your favorite wine. 

Image: Ho, Lucy. Day on MIND Diet Infographic. PNG. May. 2021

The MIND Diet Food List

You’re probably still wondering, what is the MIND diet and what does it consist of? The MIND diet provides ten healthy food groups with recommended servings and five unhealthy food groups to avoid. A study by Rush University found evidence that high adherence to this diet decreased the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by a staggering 53%. On top of that, even moderate adherence to the MIND diet reduced the onset by 35%.

Ten Healthy Food Groups

1. Leafy Greens

Aim for at least six servings of leafy green vegetables per week. One serving is ½ cup cooked or 1 cup of raw greens like kale, spinach, arugula, lettuce, microgreens, collard greens, swiss chard, and many more.

Healthy raw kale leaves as part of the MIND diet

2. Other Vegetables

The MIND diet calls for at least one serving of vegetables each day. That’s ½ cooked or 1 cup of raw vegetables like radishes, carrots, peppers, celery, onion, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, or corn.

3. Berries

Aim for two servings of berries each week. That’s ½ cup of strawberries, blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, raspberries, and acai berries, all essential for brain function.

A bowl of vibrant berries like raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries on a wooden cutting board

4. Nuts

You should eat five servings of nuts each week. That’s ⅓ cup of nuts like peanuts, cashews, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and macadamia nuts.

a variety nuts with healthy fats to protect the brain

5. Beans and Lentils

Eat more than three servings of beans and lentils on the MIND diet. That’s one cup of any kind of lentils or variety of beans at least three times a week.

6. Whole Grains

The MIND diet calls for at least three servings of whole grains each week, a slice of 100% whole wheat bread, or ½ cup of brown rice, bulgur buckwheat, millet, barley, and even popcorn.

fresh baked brain healthy whole grain bread loaf

7. Fish

Be sure to implement fish into your diet at least once a week. You can eat any kind of fish so long as it isn’t fried in saturated fats like butter or margarine. Consider fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, cod, and halibut.

a fresh cut of raw salmon with healthy omega-3 fats for brain health

8. Poultry

On the MIND diet, you should be eating three or four ounces of chicken, turkey, or another poultry. Just make sure it isn’t prepared with cooking oils high in saturated fats.

a grilled chicken breast is a lean protein

9. Olive Oil

On the MIND diet, make sure you use olive oil as your primary source of cooking oil.

10. Wine

On the MIND diet, a five-ounce glass of wine each day is beneficial for brain function. Don’t start drinking the whole bottle, though– avoid more than five ounces each day.

Five Foods to Avoid

Studies have shown that diets high in saturated fats and sugar can be detrimental to cognitive function over time. Here are five food groups you should avoid and consume in moderation. Want to learn more about processed foods? Here’s our take on them.

1. Butter and Margarine

Avoid cooking and baking with butter and margarine, limiting your intake to less than one tablespoon a day. A rule of thumb is to avoid cooking oils that are solid at room temperature.

2. Fast Food or Fried Food

For the same reason you should avoid butter, you should avoid fast food and fried food. Often, these foods contain trans and saturated fats that are unhealthy when consumed regularly.

3. Red Meat

Studies have shown that red meat can be detrimental to overall health when consumed in high amounts. Limit foods like ground beef, steak, lamb chops, pork chops, and any other meat from those animals.

4. Cheese

Try to limit your intake of cheese on the MIND diet to one serving each week.

5. Pastries and Sweets

Treats like doughnuts, cookies, cake, croissants, pie, and other sweets tend to have lots of saturated fat and sugar. You don’t have to cut these out entirely, but it’s good to be mindful of how often you’re consuming them and limit it to three times a week.

Recipes For the MIND Diet

Healthy grains and legumes like red beans, lentils, wild rice, oats, and split peas

Here are some recipe ideas that incorporate the 10 healthy foods in the MIND diet:

Breakfast:

1. Oatmeal

You can have plain oats for breakfast on the MIND or add your favorite berries, nut butter, spices, and almond milk for a brain-boosting breakfast. You can find our recipe for strawberry overnight oats here.

2. Breakfast Bowls

A bowl consisting of whole grains, leafy greens, vegetables, and an egg is a simple morning meal for your mind. Check out this recipe from, As Easy As Pie for inspiration.

3. Fancy Toast

What is the MIND diet without a slice of whole wheat bread covered in avocado, drizzled with olive oil, and topped with cherry tomatoes? Here’s our take on fancy toast for the mind.

Lunch:

1. Kale and Lentil Salad

Get in a serving of leafy greens and lentils, along with berries, nuts, olive oil dressing, or another favorite salad topping. Here’s a tasty kale and lentil salad recipe, but be sure to omit the feta cheese, as it isn’t part of the MIND diet.

2. Chickpea and Vegetable Fritters

Blend chickpeas with carrots, zucchini, oat flour, and tasty spices to create head-healthy vegetable fritters. Here are some other ways to cook chickpeas.

3. Tuna Salad Sandwich

A brain-healthy version of this classic sandwich consists of tuna mixed with spices and an olive oil-based mayo sandwiched between two slices of whole-wheat bread. Consider adding vegetables like leafy greens or cucumbers and carrots.

Dinner:

1. Mediterranean Salmon

Salmon with a side of vegetables and whole grains is a great recipe idea for the MIND diet. Here’s a creative recipe for implementing salmon into your diet.

2. Vegetable Soup

Incorporate various vegetables into soup with low sodium chicken broth and your favorite beans or lean protein. Here’s a recipe to get you started.

3. Whole Grain Pasta with Broccoli and Chicken

Yes, you can still eat pasta on the MIND diet. Just be sure it doesn’t include any cheese or other foods high in saturated fat and uses whole grain pasta.

Quick Tip:

If you ever find recipes that include one of the five foods to avoid on the MIND diet, here are some food swaps you can make.

Image: Gray, Amelia. MIND Diet Infographic. PNG. May. 2021

Health Benefits of the MIND Diet

So, what is the MIND diet’s deal with brain health, and what about these foods that make them so healthy? Or, maybe you’re wondering what is the MIND diet’s impact on overall health. 

I talked to Samantha Heller, a registered dietician and exercise physiologist with a dual master of science. When asked about the health benefits of food, she said,

“Our bodies are made up of a delicate balance of nutrients that work to help maintain homeostasis (balance) and we can help our bodies do that job by regularly consuming foods that provide the body with these nutrients. The brain is no exception, the foods we eat not only fuel our brains, but provide them with the chemicals they needs to function which include vitamins, minerals, and yes, carbohydrates, fats, and protein.” 

Here are five common characteristics and components of the MIND diet and how they boost your brain and overall health.

1. B-Vitamins

B vitamins are an abundant and essential component of the MIND diet. Studies indicate B vitamins are beneficial for brain development, function, and support muscle and brain health.

Health Benefits of B-Vitamins: 

  • Improved energy levels
  • Proper digestion
  • Support cardiovascular health
  • Balances hormones and cholesterol

Foods with B-Vitamins: 

  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Dark green vegetables
  • Beets 
  • Avocado
  • Whole Grains
  • Beans
  • Nuts 
  • Nutritional yeast

2. Zinc & Iron

Zinc and iron are micronutrients that support proper bodily functions. Additionally, they have been proven essential for brain development and function. Here’s our post on zinc if you want to learn more.

Health Benefits of Zinc: 

  • Proper immune function
  • Vision protection 
  • Swift healing
  • Heart health

Health Benefits of Iron: 

  • Improves motor skills
  • Enhanced ability to perform physical activity

Foods with Zinc & Iron: 

  • Chicken breast
  • Shellfish
  • Chickpeas 
  • Lentils
  • Beans 
  • Pine nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Cashews
  • Spinach
  • Quinoa
  • Turkey

3. Omega-3 and Essential Fatty Acids

It is crucial to include omega-3 in your diet because your body can’t produce it independently. Multiple studies have shown, diets with adequate amounts of omega-3 decrease the incidence of dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease.

Health Benefits of Omega-3 and Essential Fatty Acids: 

  • Reduces chronic inflammation
  • Appropriate amounts of healthy fats help lower cholesterol.
  • Essential fatty acids promote a healthy cardiovascular system and lower your risk for heart disease.

    Foods high in Omega-3: 

    • Oily fish like mackerel, salmon, and herring
    • Flax seeds 
    • Chia seeds
    • Walnuts
    • Soybeans

    4. Antioxidants 

    As cells perform necessary functions, they produce compounds called free radicals. If the free radicals in cells and membranes become too concentrated, they stick to important organisms like DNA, neurons, and other essential players in the brain. 

    Multiple studies have shown that free radical accumulation over time results in oxidative stress that impairs cognitive function. However, dietary antioxidants can help with oxidative stress by neutralizing the accumulation of free radicals. Antioxidants are compounds like vitamin E, vitamin C, and carotenoids, amongst others.

    Foods high in Antioxidants: 

    • Strawberries
    • Blueberries
    • Blackberries
    • Red beans
    • Wine
    • Leafy greens
    • Pinto beans
    • Cranberries

    5. Anti-Inflammatory Properties

    While inflammation is an essential bodily function for healing, chronic inflammation can be damaging to the body. In fact, it’s a key characteristic of Alzheimer’s, along with other serious chronic diseases. Thankfully there are many foods with compounds that work to reduce inflammation in the body. Foods with polyphenols, fiber, and essential fatty acids are primarily known to reduce inflammation.

    Combat Inflammation with These Foods:

    • Oily fish
    • Fruits and berries
    • Beans
    • Nuts
    • Seeds
    • Olive oil
    • Lentils
    • Whole wheat

    What is the MIND Diet Good and Bad For?

    While the MIND diet has substantial evidence backing up its brain-boosting potential, it might not be for everyone. Here’s the good and bad of the MIND diet:

    Pros:

    1. Benefits go beyond the brain

    When you ask, what is the MIND diet, you might not know the ten healthy food groups benefit overall health. Moreover, the MIND diet might influence you to live a healthier lifestyle that improves your physical activity and socialization, supporting brain health.

    2. Moderate adherence could still benefit your brain

    Rush University’s study about the MIND diet found, even with moderate adherence, participants experienced a 35% decrease in the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease.

    3. It’s practical and easy to follow 

    Unlike restrictive diets that completely cut out carbohydrates or other foods, the MIND diet consists of various recognizable food groups. Further, it allows flexibility when it comes to occasionally indulging in the treats you love.

    4. It’s adaptable

    When asked about the pros of the MIND diet, Samantha Heller explained, “it is adaptable to one’s budget, personal preferences, cultural influences, and availability of foods”. Altogether, the MIND diet is one that doesn’t depend on much structure and can fit well with many lifestyles.

    Cons:

    1. It’s difficult to follow if you have dietary restrictions

    Two of MIND diet’s ten healthy foods, fish and poultry, aren’t vegetarian-friendly. Further, this diet might be harder to follow if you have a gluten allergy or other food allergies.

    2. It isn’t a weight loss diet

    If you’re looking for a diet to help you shed a few pounds, the MIND diet might not be the place to start. However, a healthy diet like this could certainly result in weight loss, depending on your current lifestyle.

    3. It might not be the best diet for you

    Like I mentioned before, the MIND diet supports brain health and helps prevent cognitive decline. If you have genetic predispositions towards health conditions like heart disease, arthritis, or other hereditary illnesses, you should explore diets catered towards preventing those diseases instead of the MIND diet. Start exploring other diets like the Blue Zone Diet, a diet focussed on lengthening your life. Or check out our post on the healthiest foods for the heart.

    4. You might need a more structured approach 

    Samantha Heller said that one of the few cons about the MIND diet is that you might need a more structured approach. The amount of flexibility and choice in the MIND diet might be unhelpful if you need more guidance.

    Support Your Brain Health During Alzheimer’s Awareness Month

    food for the MIND diet and for a healthy brain like vegetables, nuts, and fish

    Regardless of whether you decide to try the MIND diet, your well-being is imperative, and you deserve to invest your time living a healthy lifestyle. According to the expert on brain health, Samantha Heller, “Sleep, exercise, and stress management all significantly impact brain health, and many of us fall short in meeting these needs.“ Your health is essential and dependent on your lifestyle. Here are a few more ways to protect your brain and overall health this month and into the future.

    1. Practice Stress Management 

    Stress is incredibly damaging to the brain and body. However, it is something that is often overlooked and tends to consume people. Give yourself a well-deserved break you need to protect your health and practice managing stress in healthy ways. Try breathing exercises, physical activity, journaling, or simply time spent without purpose that allows you to destress and recharge. Check out our post on the magic of adaptogens and how they can help you manage stress. 

    2. Get Active 

    Many studies link physical activity to good health, including enhanced brain function and development. A longitudinal study suggested that regular physical activity is associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease along with other forms of dementia. 

    3. Get Enough Sleep

    Making sleep a priority is vital for proper brain function. An analysis of many studies suggests that getting enough sleep in early adulthood and middle age could protect against age-related cognitive decline.

    4. Eat a Balanced Diet

    A balanced diet is one where you listen to your body and fuel it properly. Avoid foods high in saturated fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. That doesn’t mean you have to cut them out altogether. Moderation is key. You deserve to indulge and treat yourself to something tasty every once in a while. Samantha Heller sums the importance of diet up, “What we eat becomes a part of the very fabric of our bodies.  A more plant-based approach to eating is high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants, all of which work synergistically to help our bodies fight disease, protect cells and organs, repair damaged or diseased cells, support a robust immune system, and help us live healthier lives.”

    a green apple in one hand and a strawberry donut in the other

    5.  Learn More!

    Another easy way to protect brain health is to get informed. Samantha Heller recommends consulting a registered dietician if you want to start fueling your body right. On top of that, there are a lot of resources out there to learn more about diet and brain health. Be sure the sources you’re getting your information from are credible and come from registered dieticians or experts in the field.

    6. Get Involved in Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month

    Check out this page from the Alzheimer’s Association about getting involved. You can get involved in other ways, like sharing this post to inform others about your diet’s impacts on brain health.

    Help others answer the question, What is the MIND diet?

    Share this post to spread awareness about the connection your diet has to brain health and how the MIND diet can benefit your brain.

    Sources:

    Féart, Catherine et al. “Adherence to a Mediterranean diet, cognitive decline, and risk of dementia.” JAMA. vol. 302,6 (2009). 638-48. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.1146

    Gu, Yian et al. “Assessment of Leisure Time  Physical Activity and Brain Health in a Multiethnic Cohort of Older Adults.” JAMA network open vol. 3,11 e2026506. 2 Nov. 2020, doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.26506

    Heller, Samantha. “Get Smart : Samantha Heller’s Nutrition Prescription for Boosting Brain Power and Optimizing Total Body Health.” Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

    Maclean, C H et al. “Effects of omega-3 fatty acids on cognitive function with aging, dementia, and neurological diseases.” Evidence report/technology assessment (Summary) ,114 (2005): 1-3.

    Martin, Colin. Preedy, Victor. “Diet and Nutrition in Dementia and Cognitive Decline.” ProQuest Ebook Central, Elsevier Science & Technology, 2014. 

    Morris, Martha Clare et al. “MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.” Alzheimer’s & dementia: the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association vol.11,9. (2015). 1007-14. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009

    Noble, Emily E et al. “Gut to Brain Dysbiosis: Mechanisms Linking Western Diet Consumption, the Microbiome, and Cognitive Impairment.” Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience vol. 11 9. 30 Jan. 2017, doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00009

    Paulus, Martin P. “Neural Basis of Mindfulness Interventions that Moderate the Impact of Stress on the Brain.” Neuropsychopharmacology: official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology vol. 41,1. (2016): 373. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.239

    Scullin, Michael K, and Donald L Bliwise. “Sleep, cognition, and normal aging: integrating a half century of multidisciplinary research.” Perspectives on psychological science: a journal of the Association for Psychological Science vol. 10,1. (2015). 97-137. doi:10.1177/1745691614556680

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