You already know what you eat plays an important role in your overall health. Through diet, you can lower your risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity and some cancers.
But did you know that eating certain foods—and avoiding others—may reduce your risk of dementia?
If you have concerns about your cognitive health, UNC Health dietitian Shelly Wegman recommends the MIND diet to protect your brain as you age.
“Everybody has a risk for dementia,” she says. “The causes aren’t totally understood. Some are genetic. Some are environmental. But studies have also shown that what we eat can prevent dementia or slow its onset.”
What Is the MIND Diet?
MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and is a modified combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. It’s largely plant-based, limits saturated fats and sugar, and emphasizes anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, leafy green vegetables and olive oil. (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension; the Mediterranean diet is inspired by the eating habits in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.)
The Mediterranean and DASH diets were already known to improve heart health and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. But it turns out these approaches also help your brain.
An observational study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, where the diet was developed, found that older adults who adhered strictly to the MIND diet had a 53 percent decrease in their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Those who stuck with the diet moderately well had a 35 percent decreased risk.
There is a physical reason for this, Wegman says. The brain lesions that cause dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, are made up of a substance called beta-amyloid. The lesions interfere with how the brain works.
“There is clear scientific evidence that a diet high in sugar and refined starches increases the amount of beta-amyloid in the spinal fluid and brain,” Wegman says.
Research also has shown that a diet high in saturated fat and sugar decreases levels of apolipoprotein E (ApoE), a natural substance that clears beta-amyloid out of the brain.
The MIND diet was developed to minimize beta-amyloid and maximize ApoE.
What Foods Should You Eat on the MIND Diet?
- Green leafy vegetables: 6 servings or more a week (try a salad daily)
- All other vegetables: At least 1 serving a day
- Berries (especially blueberries and strawberries): 2 or more servings a week
- Nuts: 5 or more servings a week
- Beans and legumes: 3 or more servings a week
- Whole grains: 3 or more servings a day
- Fish: 1 or more servings a week
- Poultry: 2 or more servings a week
- Olive oil: Make it your primary oil for cooking
- Wine: 5 ounces a day (optional)
What Foods Should You Limit or Avoid on the MIND Diet?
- Red meat: Limit to fewer than 4 servings a week
- Fried and fast foods: Limit to less than 1 serving a week
- Butter and stick margarine: Limit to 1 tablespoon of butter a day; avoid margarine completely
- Cheese: Limit to 1 or fewer servings per week
- Sweets and pastries: Limit to fewer than 5 servings a week.
Remember, the research showed that even people who didn’t adhere to the MIND Diet perfectly enjoyed a reduction in Alzheimer’s risk. So if you’re concerned about keeping your mental sharpness as you age, start gradually working in mind-healthy foods and reducing less-nutritious choices.
If you are concerned about your risk for dementia or about your health in general, talk to your doctor, or find one near you.