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Can We Eat Our Way to a Healthier Brain?

Here's what the experts have to say.

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Fresh fruit and healthy food cocktail
Sam Kaplan/Trunk Archive
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Could we eat our way to a healthier brain? Or, to put it another way, could eating fish once a week and leafy greens once a day help protect us against mental decline or even dementia?

So far, there’s no breakthrough brain pill we can take to ensure we stay mentally sharp as we age, so researchers have been looking for answers in food, particularly foods rich in nutrients that may help reduce inflammation and may protect against cell damage in the brain.

This growing field of research has focused on the Mediterranean diet and the low-salt DASH diet, both of which have been linked in studies to improved thinking in older adults.

But a newer diet, a hybrid of the two and designed to be easier to follow, may be even more effective at reducing the risks of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive decline.

Called the MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, it was developed by a team of researchers at Chicago’s Rush University, led by the late Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist and director of the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging.

Morris and her team spent more than 20 years studying the relationship between nutrition and dementia, analyzing which foods seemed to have the most impact on brain health among older adults in several Chicago communities, said Jennifer Ventrelle, an assistant professor of preventive medicine and clinical nutrition who was involved in the research.

The diet Morris developed focuses on nine supposedly good foods and five foods you may want to limit or avoid. It differs from the Mediterranean and DASH diets in three important ways:

  • Green leafy vegetables are most important. The MIND diet focuses on green leafy veggies like romaine lettuce, spinach, chard or kale because of their higher concentrations of carotenoids, folate, vitamin E and flavonoids, nutrients that have been associated by some studies to lower risk of dementia and mental decline. In studies by Morris and her colleagues, those who ate one serving of leafy greens a day, such as a salad, were the cognitive equivalent of 11 years younger than those who rarely or never ate them.
  • Berries are best. While the other diets recommend eating fruits in general, the MIND  diet focuses only on berries, which research has found may slow cognitive decline. Morris called blueberries “one of the more potent foods in terms of protecting the brain,” along with strawberries. Two or more servings of berries a week is the MIND goal.
  • Fish once a week is fine. Studies of fish consumption found a lower risk of dementia with just one fish meal a week. One weekly serving could be achieved with something as simple as a tuna sandwich.

In 2015, Morris and her colleagues published a study in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia that found that sticking closely to the MIND diet was linked to substantially slower mental decline with age. Mental test scores indicated that those who adhered most closely to the diet were 7.5 years younger cognitively compared to those who followed it the least.

A follow-up study by the researchers, published three years later in the journal Neurology, found those who ate one serving daily of leafy greens were cognitively 11 years younger than those who rarely or never ate them.

In addition, a second 2015 study that looked at the link between the MIND diet and Alzheimer’s risk found that those closely following the diet had a 53 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s. Even those who followed the diet only moderately well had a 35 percent lower risk, researchers reported.

Ventrelle points out that these studies don’t prove that the MIND diet, or even a daily serving of greens, slows brain aging, but it does show a promising association between two.

The first clinical trial to test this relationship of the MIND diet on thinking and memory is underway and expected to wrap up at the end of 2021, said Ventrelle, who is the lead dietitian on the trial.

A second clinical trial testing the MIND diet combined with exercise, social and intellectual activities and health monitoring will be completed in 2023. If you want to try following the MIND Diet guidelines, Ventrelle said participants in their studies have reported that it’s easy and flexible — more like an eating plan than a traditional diet.

Please do check with your doctor before considering change in your diet.

Here’s the MIND Diet list of nine foods to eat for brain health:

Green leafy vegetables (salad, spinach, kale, chard): At least one serving a day

Other vegetables: At least one serving a day

Nuts: At least five servings a week (one ounce is a serving)

Berries: At least two servings a week

Beans/legumes: At least three servings a week

Poultry (not fried): At least two servings a week

Fish (not fried): At least one serving a week

Whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice, whole-grain bread): At least three servings a day

Olive oil: Used as primary oil

Five foods to limit or avoid on the MIND Diet:

Red meat and processed meat (beef, deli meats, lamb, pork): No more than three servings a week.

Fried and fast food: No more than one serving a week

Pastries and sweets: No more than four treats a week

Butter and stick margarine: No more than one tablespoon a day

Cheese: No more than two ounces a week

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