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mind diet: Happy African American man and his family preparing salad in the kitchen

Does The MIND Diet Actually Keep Your Brain Young?

Mental exercises like crossword puzzles or learning a new language may be trendy ways to keep your mind spry, but there’s another important factor in healthy brain aging that can’t be ignored: your diet.

Believe it or not, the foods you put on your plate could have long-term effects on the health of your gray matter. In fact, food choices are so impactful for brain health that an entire diet plan designed to slow the rate of cognitive decline has arisen.

The MIND diet (which stands for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay”) is an eating pattern crafted specifically to reduce the risk of age-related mental decline. Though it may not be as well known as the Mediterranean or DASH diets, the MIND diet has been celebrated in research and consumer circles alike; it even ranked in the top three on U.S. News and World Report’s 2024 list of the healthiest diets.

So, can you really eat your way to a healthier brain? Here’s a look at what the MIND diet entails, and whether it truly delivers for mental fitness.

What Is The MIND Diet?

The MIND diet was first introduced in 2015, when researchers at Rush University Medical Center published a study testing its effects on Alzheimer’s disease risk. The researchers based this eating plan around the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which have both been shown to reduce inflammation. They theorized that a reduction in inflammation would reduce the risk of cognitive decline, and clearly, they were onto something! The study participants who ate a MIND-like diet benefited from a 53 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Read More: 5 Things You Can Do Every Day to Fight Inflammation 

Not surprisingly, the MIND diet looks a lot like its anti-inflammatory diet counterparts—but it’s not an exact match with either. “Compared to the Mediterranean and DASH diets, the MIND diet is simpler but also more specific,” explains Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D., author of The MIND Diet: A Scientific Approach to Enhancing Brain Function and Helping Prevent Alzheimer’s and Dementia. 

The MIND diet encourages berries, for example, but doesn’t require a high overall fruit intake like the DASH or Mediterranean diet. The reason for recommending berries over general fruit intake: “Berries are rich in antioxidants like anthocyanins, which can pass through the blood-brain barrier to combat free radicals and inflammation in the body and brain,” says registered dietitian Wan Na Chun, M.P. H., R.D., C.P.T., of One Pot Wellness. ”These compounds help protect brain cells from damage and support cognitive function.” 

A MIND diet also recommends eating leafy greens for at least one of your daily vegetables. According to Chun, leafy greens are packed with nutrients beneficial for brain health. “They contain antioxidants like beta carotene, folate, and lutein, which have been associated with better cognitive function,” she notes. “Studies suggest that consuming leafy greens and berries can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and support overall brain function.

Here’s a quick look at what you’ll eat overall on a MIND diet:

  • Three or more servings of whole grains per day
  • One or more servings of non-leafy green vegetables per day
  • Six or more servings of leafy greens per week
  • Five or more servings of nuts per week
  • Four or more servings of beans per week
  • Two or more servings of berries per week
  • Two or more servings of poultry per week
  • One or more servings of fish per week
  • Olive oil as the primary cooking fat

The MIND diet is also defined by what you don’t eat. Pastries, sweets, red meat, fried foods, and butter are all kept to a minimum. You’ll also want to steer clear of highly processed food products like chips, candy bars, and flavored crackers, which are no-no’s due to their links to inflammation.

The Evidence for the MIND Diet’s Anti-Aging Effects

To answer the question on everyone’s, well, mind—can the MIND diet really help keep your brain in tip-top shape? It may not be a perfect fountain of youth, but plenty of evidence suggests that this eating pattern could reduce the risk of dementia. In addition to the original 2015 study that showed a 53 percent decrease in Alzheimer’s risk from following the diet, other research has borne out similar results.

A large population-based study from 2022 associated a MIND diet with a decreased risk of dementia within the first few years of the 15-year study period. Meanwhile, a small 2022 study on women with obesity found that those who followed a MIND diet for three months had better working memory and verbal recognition than those who did not.

Read More: 4 Lifestyle Factors That Increase Your Risk of Dementia

Still, not every study has shown quite so much promise. Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2023, for example, followed over 1,900 people without cognitive impairment but with a family history of it. These folks were divided into two groups: one who followed a MIND diet and one who followed a calorie-restricted control diet. After three years, the researchers found no significant differences in cognitive function between the two groups.

Until more research is conducted, it may be too early to definitively promise that a MIND diet will help you hang onto your memory. That said, with its many nutrients and antioxidants from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, the MIND diet is a surefire way to combat chronic inflammation, a known enemy of brain health. “We think it’s the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of the whole dietary pattern [that cause benefits for cognition],” says Moon.

MIND Diet Do’s and Don’ts

If you decide to give the MIND diet a try, take note of the following tips for the best results. 

1. Make changes gradually 

As with any diet or lifestyle shift, slow and steady is the way to make a more brain-friendly diet stick. “Start with one change at a time,” Moon advises. “I like to start clients on changing up their snacks; it’s less dramatic than changing up mealtime.” For example, if you’re used to noshing on processed cheese crackers, try whole-wheat crackers or raw nuts instead. Or, consider swapping soda for flavored sparkling water.

2. Eat mindfully

Mindful eating and the MIND diet go hand in hand. When you choose occasional treats like sweets or fried foods, savor them with your full attention. “This can prevent overindulging by helping you tune into your body’s signals and eat with intention,” says Chun. By doing so, you’ll get the full enjoyment out of the foods the MIND diet recommends minimizing and be better able to stick to the guidelines with satisfaction. In the end, your brain will thank you!

3. Choose the right foods in the right form

Sometimes the right foods in the wrong package can do more harm than good, Moon notes. “For example, fish is a great choice, but breaded and fried frozen fish, not so much,” she says. Stick to minimally processed foods as much as possible, as many of the ingredients and additives used in processing can harm long-term brain health.

4. take a multi

In addition to stacking your plate with nutrients by following the MIND diet, consider a nutrition boost from a high-quality multivitamin. One 2024 study revealed that people who took multivitamin-mineral supplements had better episodic memory (a.k.a. ability to remember specific events from their past), so this simple daily routine can really contribute to your healthy-brain goals.

5. Don’t get bogged down By the numbers

The MIND diet’s suggested servings may be specific, but don’t let them stress you out. Instead, consider them a jumping-off point; you can always have more of the healthy foods it prescribes. “It’s important to remember that most of the recommendations are minimums,” says Moon. “Just because it advises to eat one vegetable a day doesn’t mean you can’t have five.” And don’t sweat it if you miss a day of leafy greens! The bigger picture is more important than the daily details.

6. Remember, it’s never too late

Some research has shown that the right nutrition intervention could slow the progression of Alzheimer’s in people who already have the condition. So if you’re worried that you’re past the age at which your diet can move the needle for your future cognition, rest assured that you’re not!

7. Fill in gaps with targeted supplements

We all have our dietary preferencesso if a specific food group on the MIND diet isn’t your favorite, consider reaping similar benefits from a targeted supplement. If you’re not a big fan of fatty fish, for example, Chun recommends adding an omega-3 supplement to your routine. 

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