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What is the MIND Diet?

healthy foods being served to elderly person in healthcare facility

There is no cure for most dementias, but evidence indicates that the MIND Diet may be able to influence cognitive functioning. This year during National Nutrition Month, we take a look at diet and brain health. Specific foods are thought to “improve brain health” and help mitigate the risks of cognitive decline, explains U.S. News & World Report, which rated the MIND Diet #4 in “Best Diets Overall” this year.

The concept of the MIND Diet came from Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, in 2015. Morris worked with the Memory and Aging Project there, analyzing the impact of specific dietary components on cognition among study participants. Her team’s conclusion was that the MIND diet “substantially slows cognitive decline with age.” Today, nearly another decade of research confirms it can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slow the rate of cognitive decline, according to NIH.

MIND: an acronym

MIND is an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. The eating plan adopts components of the two evidence-based models:

  • Mediterranean Diet, which reflects traditional eating styles from the Mediterranean region
  • Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan developed by The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute

Both plant-forward plans have been associated with wide-ranging health benefits. The MIND Diet builds on those plans and specifies foods whose nutrients and bioactive components may help protect the brain, such as berries and leafy greens.

MIND diet basics

The MIND Diet centers around 10 food groups:

  • Leafy greens (at least 6 servings/week)
  • Other vegetables (at least 1 serving/day)
  • Berries (at least 2 servings/week)
  • Whole grains (at least 3 servings/day)
  • Fish (at least 1 serving/week)
  • Poultry (2 servings/week)
  • Beans (3 servings/week)
  • Nuts (5 servings/week)
  • Extra virgin olive oil in place of butter or other fats
  • Optional wine (up to 1 glass/day)

The plain limits red meat, full-fat dairy products, and sweets.

MIND Diet research

“The MIND diet contains foods rich in certain vitamins, carotenoids, and flavonoids that are believed to  protect the brain by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation,” says Harvard Nutrition Source.

“A higher MIND diet score as shown by higher intake of foods on the MIND diet was associated with better cognitive functioning and slower cognitive decline in a cohort of adults 65 and older, even when accounting for those with Alzheimer’s disease and other brain diseases,” they note. Dhana et al. found improved cognitive functioning whether or not brain pathology was present.

The eating plan also supports cardiovascular health, which plays a role in cognitive well-being.

NIH suggests that the plant-forward eating plan may impact the gut microbiome as well, with possible benefits for brain functioning. Unfavorable changes in the gut microbiome have been linked to a variety of inflammatory and chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s, they point out. Understanding what those correlations mean is a new avenue of research.

Yet another angle on the diet is the inclusion of fish. Fatty fish are a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids. Some investigations have associated intake of omega-3s with “a reduced risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia,” says NIH. This may be because one of the omega-3s, DHA, is used in forming cellular membranes in the brain. “Omega-3s might protect cognitive function by helping to maintain neuronal function and cell membrane integrity,” they explain.

Based on current scientific understanding, there is no single nutrient or diet plan that will definitively prevent or delay various forms of dementia. At the same time, experts believe that the MIND diet and related models, like Mediterranean and DASH, likely offer benefits in optimizing cognitive health. “Keeping people with dementia physically healthy is important for their cognition,” advise Livingston et al.  Dietary choices can support overall health, and the MIND diet may contribute to what Dhana et al. call “cognitive resilience in the elderly.”