While people will always be in search of specific diets to help them lose weight, in recent years there is an increasing interest in how certain foods affect the human brain. It is estimated that there are currently over 5 million individuals in the United States that have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and dietary intake may be playing a significant role. In other words, the foods that you’re eating on a daily basis may be increasing (or decreasing) your risk of neurodegeneration and age-related cognitive decline.
Many people have dreamt up specific diets that are thought to promote optimal cognitive performance and preserve long-term neurological functioning. Although genetics likely play a role in development of neurodegenerative disorders, assuming that genetic polymorphisms are the sole cause of dementia is shortsighted (and highly unlikely). There is a chance that by eating the right foods, you could protect your brain from neurodegeneration and slow age-related cognitive decline by up to 8 years.
According to research, a newly devised dietary protocol called the “MIND diet” is capable of preventing neurodegeneration. This diet was devised by researchers at the Rush University Medical Center (in Chicago). It was tested in multiple studies with over 900 participants over a period of nearly 5 years and the results are quite impressive.
What is the MIND diet?
The “MIND” diet is a protocol engineered by Martha Clare Morris (PhD), a nutritional epidemiologist. MIND is an acronym for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.” The diet was engineered based on the finding that those eating Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets minimize risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure, and strokes.
More recently, researchers discovered that elements of these diets may offer neuroprotection against neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. Morris and researchers from Rush University Medical Center (in Chicago) took this information and devised the MIND diet – a diet that combines elements of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, yet is easier to follow. According to new research, adhering to the MIND diet may prevent cognitive decline by nearly 8 years, while simultaneously cutting your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The MIND diet consists of mostly plant-based foods and minimal consumption of animal products and saturated fats. Perhaps there is something to the correlation between increased IQ scores, a vegetarian diet, and cognitive preservation with old age. The difference between the MIND diet and others is that it specifically promotes consumption of green leafy veggies as well as berries, but not high fruits or any other fruits. It also does not include dairy, potatoes, or more than one meal of seafood per week.
The MIND diet is comprised of 15 dietary groups: 10 that support neurocognitive performance and health, and 5 that should be avoided. The healthy foods include: vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, seafood, poultry, olive oil, and wine. The unhealthy groups include: fast food, cheeses, sweets, red meat, and butter. This is relatively similar to the diet for depression that I have recommended consisting of: veggies, fruits, whole grains, seafood, and select meats.
10 MIND Diet Foods
Most items on the MIND diet fit well within a vegetarian protocol as they incorporate berries, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, some healthy fats, beans, wine, fish, and poultry. Perhaps this is why many people adhering to vegan and vegetarian diets have been reported to experience less cognitive decline.
- Green leafy veggies (6+ servings per week):A key component to the MIND diet is green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, collard greens, and cabbage.
- Other veggies (1+ servings per day): In addition to the green veggies, include a variety of other vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, peppers, squash, etc.
- Nuts (5+ servings per week): Consistent intake of nuts is associated with brain health. Consider buying nuts that have been minimally processed and are in season (to avoid mycotoxins).
- Berries (2+ servings per week): Aim for a variety of berries including blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries. While other fruits may provide cognitive benefits, the MIND diet focuses specifically on berries. Perhaps due to the fact that eating blueberries is linked to growth of new brain cells.
- Beans (3+ servings per week): Beans included in the diet consist of mostly lentils and soybeans.
- Whole grains (3+ servings per day): Despite backlash against whole grains from the Paleo and low carb community, the diet involves consumption of several servings of whole grains on a daily basis.
- Seafood (1+ servings per week): It is known that consuming seafood, particularly fatty fish is a great way to attain omega-3 fatty acids. There are numerous benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) which serve to preserve cognitive function and reduce inflammation. Unlike the Mediterranean diet, the MIND diet only recommends eating fish once per week.
- Poultry (2+ servings per week): Incorporating some poultry in the form of turkey, chicken, or eggs is thought to be beneficial. Perhaps eating eggs may ward off neurodegeneration as a result of the choline that is derived from the yolks. Aim to consume poultry that is raised humanely from an ethical local farmer rather than industrial poultry.
- Olive oil (Use “as needed” to cook food): There are many low quality olive oil’s on the market, so strive to get higher quality stuff. If you’re following the MIND diet, you can use olive oil to cook your food. As of now, it is unknown as to whether any other healthy fats (e.g. virgin coconut oil) may preserve cognition.
- Wine (1 glass per day). I’m not sure if researchers are recommending that everyone drink one glass of wine per day or if 1 glass is just a guideline for the drinkers. Wine may help reduce stress, but it is unknown as to why wine is recommended as part of the diet.
5 Non-MIND Diet Foods
With significant increases in access to sugary foods, industrial beef, and fast-food – it is no wonder that dementia rates are skyrocketing. If diet has anything to do with dementia, it would seem as though a majority of the population is eating mostly non-MIND foods. It would be interesting to pinpoint the specific foods that are most likely to cause neurodegeneration, but these 5 seem to be a good start.
- Red meat (5 or fewer servings per week): It appears as though intake of red meat may promote neurodegeneration. Perhaps the hormones, antibiotics, “round up”-infused land, and grains that are being consumed by cows in the industrial beef industry contribute to Alzheimer’s. It would be interesting to know whether grass-fed, humanely raised beef makes a difference.
- Butter and margarine (1 tablespoon or less daily): Most butters and margarines are low quality and engineered with all sorts of chemicals. It would be interesting to study whether the specific type of margarine and/or butter makes a difference. For example, grass-fed butter likely contains significantly more nutrients (and less chemicals) than low quality margarine.
- Cheese (1 or fewer servings per week): It is well-documented that cheeses have psychoactive properties, often due to the mold that they are laced with. In addition, cheeses promote weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes. Keeping cheese to an absolute minimum makes a lot of sense.
- Pastries and sweets (5 or less servings per week): Most people overdo the “sweets” without even knowing it. People that drink sodas, candies, eat snack bars, and doughnuts aren’t doing their bodies nor brains any favors. Sweets also contain many artificial sweeteners (like aspartame) that may affect neurochemistry in detrimental ways.
- Fried or fast-food (1 or fewer servings per week): Fast food serves you the lowest quality foods that they can get away with. Their goal is to make the food taste good and be as filling as possible. They use all sorts of chemical additives to hijack your tastebuds and make you addicted to whatever is served. Fast foods are loaded with refined carbs, additives, refined carbs, hormones, and generally the lowest quality fats (e.g. vegetable oils).
MIND Diet To Prevent Cognitive Decline & Alzheimer’s Disease (Research)
While there are only a couple of studies analyzing the effects of the MIND diet, both studies are relatively long-term and incorporate large sample sizes. These studies spanned over the course of over 4.5 years and each collected data from over 900 participants. Many studies assessing effects on cognitive function and brain health are not very long-term and often have smaller samples.
2015: Researchers noted that Mediterranean and dash diets have demonstrated efficacy in mitigating cognitive decline. However, dietary interventions have not been formally studied for therapeutic benefit to prevent cognitive decline associated with aging. As people age, it is often accepted that cognitive decline is more a byproduct of genetics rather than dietary choices.
To understand whether the Mediterranean and dash diets could ward off cognitive decline, researchers recruited 960 participants for a study. These participants were assigned Mediterranean-Dietary Approach to Systolic Hypertension (DASH) diets over the course of 4 to 5 years. All participants in this study were a part of the “Memory and Aging Project.”
After adjusting for various confounding factors, those with greater MIND scores (based on dietary intake) had slowed cognitive decline and scored better on 5 distinct cognitive assessments. Those who adhered to mostly a MIND diet were noted as being nearly cognitively younger by over 7 years compared to those who ate less foods on the MIND diet. Authors of the study concluded that the MIND diet can slow cognitive decline by over 7 years and supports brain health with age.
2015: Since researchers had discovered that the MIND diet may prevent cognitive decline by over 7 years, they decided to conduct a follow-up study. This follow-up study involved determining whether three different types of dietary habits could ward off Alzheimer’s disease or postpone onset of neurodegeneration. A total of 923 participants were recruited for the study, all of which were between 58 and 98 years of age.
The participants were followed for a period of 4.5 years, and dietary intake was assessed with a questionnaire that documented the frequency by which certain foods were consumed. After adjusting for confounds, results indicated that greater MIND diet scores had lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease. That said, DASH diets and Mediterranean diets were also each associated with decreased likelihood of Alzheimer’s.
Researchers concluded that adhering to any one of the three diets: MIND, DASH, or Mediterranean may prevent neurodegeneration. Specifically, they suggest that just moderately adhering to the MIND diet significantly cuts risk of Alzheimer’s, whereas the DASH and Mediterranean diets require a higher adherence to decrease risk.
More specifics of the MIND diet research…
The research was conducted on adults living in the Chicago area spanning from 2004 to 2013. All individuals in the study underwent long-term dietary evaluations and cognitive tests. Over 900 individuals were included in the studies, all of whom were from over 40 retirement communities and senior housing. The average age of participants in was over 80 with approximately 75% females.
None of the participants were diagnosed with dementia when the study began. Cognitive function was tested using 21 unique assessments. A total of 19 of the tests assessed cognitive performance in 5 specific realms:
- Episodic Memory: This is a long-term memory of autobiographical events such as experiences, events, places, and situations.
- Working Memory: This a short-term memory involved in learning, comprehension, IQ, and reasoning.
- Semantic Memory: This is a long-term memory of general facts that we’ve accumulated throughout our lives.
- Visuospatial ability: This is the ability to perceive the spatial relationship between different objects as well as their shapes.
- Perceptual speed: This is the ability of comparing letters, numbers, objects, patterns, and pictures and is tested based on a combination of speed and accuracy.
Those who ate more foods from the MIND diet over a longer term scored better on all measures of cognitive performance. The largest differences between those adhering to a MIND diet and other diets were noted in the episodic memory, perceptual speed, and semantic memory tests.
Researchers took into account other information of the participants when assessing whether the MIND diet preserved cognitive function. Various confounds that were considered included: age, smoking habits, physical activity levels, mood, BMI, blood pressure, and blood sugar (i.e. whether they had diabetes), and past medical experiences. Even after these confounds were considered, the MIND diet appeared to provide significant benefit.
Is the MIND diet perfect or are there some flaws?
It is currently unknown as to whether all elements of the MIND diet are perfect for preservation of cognition and preventing neurodegeneration, but as of now it seems to be an intervention that is supported by science. There aren’t many other diets that have been subject to extensive scientific testing specifically determining whether they offset neurodegeneration. It is known that some studies show that the Mediterranean diet promotes longevity, and the DASH diet also is thought to improve certain physiological biomarkers.
A combination of the two appears to offset age-related cognitive decline and prevents neurodegeneration by nearly 8 years; this is significant. While other dietary combinations may prove effective, or even more effective than the MIND diet in the future – these combinations have not yet been deciphered or subject to rigorous testing over an extended term. As of now, if you’re looking to protect your brain from aging, adapting the MIND diet protocol may prove beneficial.
How the MIND diet could be tweaked in the future…
There are many ways in which the MIND diet could be tweaked and/or adjusted in the future. Researchers could investigate specific quantities of food types and determine the foods that provide the most benefit. In addition, they could make revisions to the guidelines based on newer research. They could also personalize certain aspects of the diet based on genetic biomarkers, future nutrition research, and learn which specific foods (within the generalized groups) provide the most benefit.
- Specific quantities of foods: It is unclear as to whether the recommended quantities of foods on the MIND diet are perfect. Certain foods may be providing more neurocognitive protection than others. Therefore those who eat more of the most neuroprotective foods may suffer less cognitive decline in old age. Moreover, the foods that are most problematic in triggering neurodegeneration may not be fully eradicated from the MIND diet. Future research may attempt to isolate the most problematic foods and eliminate them completely from the diet.
- Individualized recommendations: Why can two people at the same diet, yet respond differently both mentally and physically? While all Homo Sapiens have commonalities, it is important to understand subtle differences in genetics, neurophysiology, gut microbiota, etc. when it comes to dietary intake. Certain people may experience brain fog more often with certain foods than others and/or may have food allergies.
- Specific foods within the groups: In the future, it would be interesting to determine the specific foods that offer the most benefit within each of the groups. For example, one person may eat 2 servings of industrial-raised chicken for their weekly poultry requirements, yet another person may eat organically raised poached eggs. These specific foods are likely to elicit different neurophysiological changes, especially when consistent over a long-term.
- Future nutrition research: Nutritional research seems to be stuck in the Stone Ages and progressing extremely slowly. Scientists still haven’t compared various types of fats to understand whether grass-fed butter is any better for physical and mental health than products like margarine. Similarly, many researchers assume that a fat like coconut oil is the same as canola oil – yet they are radically different fats. Even the specific type of fat such as virgin coconut oil is likely healthier than industrialized coconut oil.
Why should people consider the MIND diet?
There are several reasons why you may wish to follow the MIND diet if you are at risk for a neurodegenerative disease. Perhaps the most significant reason is that this diet is healthy for the body, and a couple large-scale studies document its benefits for the brain. It is easier to follow than many other diets, and may even enhance mental performance among those who transition to it from a suboptimal diet.
- Cognitive preservation: It appears to preserve cognitive function and performance over the long-term. Researchers discovered that the MIND diet preserved 5 different measures of cognitive function including: episodic memory, working memory, semantic memory, visuospatial abilities, and perceptual speed. Assuming you want to maintain these abilities as you age, this diet may be an optimal strategy.
- Easy to follow: According to researchers, adhering to dietary intake of foods within the MIND protocol is easier than the Mediterranean and DASH diets. This diet may be an initial challenge for certain people that are addicted to sugar and fast-food, but should be easy to follow for those who can invoke a bit of self-discipline.
- Prevents neurodegeneration: It appears as though just moderate adherence to the MIND diet could reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by 35%. Those who followed the MIND diet strictly were at a 53% risk of Alzheimer’s. While strict adherence to the Mediterranean diet reduced risk by 54% and strict adherence to the DASH diet reduced risk by 39% – moderate adherence to either did not reduce risk at all.
- Physical biomarkers: The reason that the Mediterranean diet was blended with the DASH diet is due to the fact that both offer protection against cardiovascular problems, including heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure. Generally, whatever is good for your physical body is also good for your brain – they are a complex interconnected system. If you eat foods that are bad for your physical health, your cognitive function will remain suboptimal.
- Supported by science: Researchers collected data based off of over 900 individuals between ages 58 and 98 from the year 2004 to 2013. The data was attained from questionnaires that analyzed the dietary intake of these individuals. The science suggested that the MIND diet dramatically slashed risk of neurodegeneration.
Does the MIND diet really prevent Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline?
It is important to consider the fact that correlation does NOT equal causation. This was an observational study based on what people were eating. Those who ate more foods within the MIND diet based on questionnaires had higher “MIND scores.”
Eating a MIND diet does not necessarily prove that the foods in this category automatically offset dementia. It could be that those who are more diet-conscious and/or health-conscious eat more of the MIND foods, but engage in other confounding activities that minimize dementia risk. Moreover, it could be that individuals experiencing cognitive decline may be more drawn to unhealthy foods.
There are many potential confounds to consider such as: genetic biomarkers, pharmaceutical medications, environmental factors, psychological health, medical conditions, etc. This wasn’t a placebo-controlled, randomized, double-blind study – it was an observational one. The questionnaire also determines dietary intake based on “self-reports” (which are estimated).
It was noted that there is likelihood of reporting and recall bias. Despite the limitations, the results from this study shouldn’t simply get dismissed. The sample size was large, the duration was extended, and the concept of the MIND diet is based off of previous research.
Do you follow a specific diet for optimal mental health and performance?
If you follow a specific diet to optimize your mental health and/or performance, feel free to share it in the comments section below. Is it based off of scientific research of any sort like the MIND diet and/or simply off of anecdotal subjective reports? Have you considered switching to the MIND diet after reading the research?
For those that are skeptical of the MIND diet, mention specific reasons for your skepticism. Do you think certain elements of the MIND diet such as green leafy vegetables and berries are more important than avoiding unhealthy sugars and fast-food? Assuming you believe that the MIND diet is effective for cognitive preservation, feel free to theorize any specific long-term effects of certain foods on the brain.
Researchers noted that individuals who follow the MIND diet for a longer duration experienced the greatest level of protection from dementia. Therefore this may be more of a lifestyle than a temporary 2-week “MIND diet” intervention for staving off neurodegeneration. Adopting this diet may provide many health benefits over the short-term, and prove to be a therapeutic endgame strategy to combat age-related cognitive decline.