AUTHORITY NUTRITION

The MIND Diet: A Detailed Guide for Beginners

Written by Keith Pearson, PhD, RD on July 30, 2017

The MIND diet is designed to prevent dementia and loss of brain function as you age.

It combines the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet to create a dietary pattern that focuses specifically on brain health.

This article is a detailed guide for beginners, with everything you need to know about the MIND diet and how to follow it.

MIND stands for the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.

The MIND diet aims to reduce dementia and the decline in brain health that often occurs as people get older. It combines aspects of two very popular diets, the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.

Many experts regard the Mediterranean and DASH diets as some of the healthiest. Research has shown they can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and several other diseases (1, 2, 3, 4).

But researchers wanted to create a diet specifically to help improve brain function and prevent dementia.

To do this, they combined foods from the Mediterranean and DASH diets that had been shown to benefit brain health.

For example, both the Mediterranean and DASH diets recommend eating a lot of fruit. Fruit intake has not been correlated with improved brain function, but eating berries has been (5, 6).

Thus, the MIND diet encourages its followers to eat berries, but does not emphasize consuming fruit in general.

Currently, there are no set guidelines for how to follow the MIND diet. Simply eat more of the 10 foods the diet encourages you to eat, and eat less of the five foods the diet recommends you limit.

The next two sections discuss which foods to eat and which to avoid on the diet.

Summary: The MIND diet combines the DASH and Mediterranean diets to create a diet aimed at reducing the risk of dementia and the decline in brain health that people often experience as they age.

Here are the 10 foods the MIND diet encourages:

  • Green, leafy vegetables: Aim for six or more servings per week. This includes kale, spinach, cooked greens and salads.
  • All other vegetables: Try to eat another vegetable in addition to the green leafy vegetables at least once a day. It is best to choose non-starchy vegetables because they have a lot of nutrients with a low number of calories.
  • Berries: Eat berries at least twice a week. Although the published research only includes strawberries, you should also consume other berries like blueberries, raspberries and blackberries for their antioxidant benefits (5, 6).
  • Nuts: Try to get five servings of nuts or more each week. The creators of the MIND diet don’t specify what kind of nuts to consume, but it is probably best to vary the type of nuts you eat to obtain a variety of nutrients.
  • Olive oil: Use olive oil as your main cooking oil. Check out this article for information about the safety of cooking with olive oil.
  • Whole grains: Aim for at least three servings daily. Choose whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and 100% whole-wheat bread.
  • Fish: Eat fish at least once a week. It is best to choose fatty fish like salmon, sardines, trout, tuna and mackerel for their high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Beans: Include beans in at least four meals every week. This includes all beans, lentils and soybeans.
  • Poultry: Try to eat chicken or turkey at least twice a week. Note that fried chicken is not encouraged on the MIND diet.
  • Wine: Aim for no more than one glass daily. Both red and white wine may benefit the brain. However, much research has focused on the red wine compound resveratrol, which may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease (7, 8).

If you are unable to consume the targeted amount of servings, don’t quit the MIND diet altogether. Research has shown that following the MIND diet even a moderate amount is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease (9).

When you’re following the diet, you can eat more than just these 10 foods. However, the more you stick to the diet, the better your results may be.

According to research, eating more of the 10 recommended foods and less of the foods to avoid has been associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and better brain function over time (9, 10).

Summary: The MIND diet encourages the consumption of all kinds of vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, fish, beans, poultry and a moderate amount of wine.

The MIND diet recommends limiting the following five foods:

  • Butter and margarine: Try to eat less than 1 tablespoon (about 14 grams) daily. Instead, try using olive oil as your primary cooking fat, and dipping your bread in olive oil with herbs.
  • Cheese: The MIND diet recommends limiting your cheese consumption to less than once per week.
  • Red meat: Aim for no more than three servings each week. This includes all beef, pork, lamb and products made from these meats.
  • Fried food: The MIND diet highly discourages fried food, especially the kind from fast-food restaurants. Limit your consumption to less than once per week.
  • Pastries and sweets: This includes most of the processed junk food and desserts you can think of. Ice cream, cookies, brownies, snack cakes, donuts, candy and more. Try to limit these to no more than four times a week.

Researchers encourage limiting your consumption of these foods because they contain saturated fats and trans fats.

Studies have found that trans fats are clearly associated with all sorts of diseases, including heart disease and even Alzheimer’s disease. However, the health effects of saturated fat are widely debated in the nutrition world (11, 12).

Although the research on saturated fats and heart disease may be inconclusive and highly contested, animal research and observational studies in humans do suggest that consuming saturated fats in excess is associated with poor brain health (13).

Summary: The MIND diet encourages limiting your consumption of butter and margarine, cheese, red meat, fried food, pastries and sweets because they contain large amounts of saturated fat and trans fat.

The current research on the MIND diet has not been able to show exactly how it works. However, the scientists who created the diet think it may work by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.

Oxidative stress occurs when unstable molecules called free radicals accumulate in the body in large quantities. This often causes damage to cells. The brain is especially vulnerable to this type of damage.

Inflammation is your body’s natural response to injury and infection. But if it’s not properly regulated, inflammation can also be harmful and contribute to many chronic diseases (14).

Together, oxidative stress and inflammation can be quite detrimental to the brain. In recent years, they’ve been the focus of some interventions to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease (15).

Following the Mediterranean and DASH diets has been associated with lower levels of oxidative stress and inflammation (16, 17, 18, 19).

Because the MIND diet is a hybrid of these two diets, the foods that make up the MIND diet probably also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

The antioxidants in berries and the vitamin E in olive oil, green leafy vegetables and nuts are thought to benefit brain function by protecting the brain from oxidative stress (20).

Additionally, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish are well-known for their ability to lower inflammation in the brain, and have been associated with slower loss of brain function (21, 22).

Summary: Researchers believe that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of foods encouraged in the MIND diet may help lower the risk of dementia and slow the loss of brain function that can occur with aging.

Researchers also believe the MIND diet may benefit the brain by reducing potentially harmful beta-amyloid proteins.

Beta-amyloid proteins are protein fragments found naturally in the body.

However, they can accumulate and form plaques that build up in the brain, disrupting communication between brain cells and eventually leading to brain cell death (23).

In fact, many scientists believe these plaques are one of the primary causes of Alzheimer’s disease (24).

Animal and test-tube studies suggest that the antioxidants and vitamins that many MIND diet foods contain may help prevent the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain (25, 26, 27).

Additionally, the MIND diet limits foods that contain saturated fats and trans fats, which studies have shown can increase beta-amyloid protein levels in mice’s brains (28).

Human observational studies have found that consuming these fats was associated with a doubled risk of Alzheimer’s disease (29).

However, it is important to note that this type of research is not able to determine cause and effect. Higher-quality, controlled studies are needed to discover exactly how the MIND diet may benefit brain health.

Summary: Researchers believe that the foods of the MIND diet contain nutrients that may help prevent beta-amyloid plaque formation, a potential cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

The MIND diet hasn’t been around very long — the first official paper on the diet was published in 2015.

So it’s no surprise there’s not much research investigating its effects.

However, two observational studies on the MIND diet have shown very promising results.

In one study of 923 older adults, people who followed the MIND diet the closest had a 53% lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease than people who followed it the least (9).

Interestingly, people who followed the MIND diet only moderately still seemed to benefit from it, and cut their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 35%, on average (9).

The second study found that people who followed the MIND diet the closest experienced a slower decline in brain function compared to people who followed the diet the least (10).

However, note that both these studies were observational, meaning they can’t prove cause and effect. They can only detect associations.

So while the early research is promising, it can’t say for sure that the MIND diet caused the reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease or the slower brain decline.

However, researchers recently received approval to start a controlled study on the effects of the MIND diet.

While this study won’t be completed for several years, this is a big step toward determining if the MIND diet directly benefits brain function.

Summary: Early research suggests that the MIND diet may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slow the decline in brain function that can happen with age.

Making meals for the MIND diet doesn’t have to be complicated.

Center your meals around the 10 foods and food groups that are encouraged on the diet, and try to stay away from the five foods that need to be limited.

Here’s a seven-day meal plan to get you started:

Monday

  • Breakfast: Greek yogurt with raspberries, topped with sliced almonds.
  • Lunch: Mediterranean salad with olive-oil-based dressing, grilled chicken, whole-wheat pita.
  • Dinner: Burrito bowl with brown rice, black beans, fajita vegetables, grilled chicken, salsa and guacamole.

Tuesday

  • Breakfast: Wheat toast with almond butter, scrambled eggs.
  • Lunch: Grilled chicken sandwich, blackberries, carrots.
  • Dinner: Grilled salmon, side salad with olive-oil-based dressing, brown rice.

Wednesday

  • Breakfast: Steel-cut oatmeal with strawberries, hard-boiled eggs.
  • Lunch: Mexican-style salad with mixed greens, black beans, red onion, corn, grilled chicken and olive-oil-based dressing.
  • Dinner: Chicken and vegetable stir-fry, brown rice.

Thursday

  • Breakfast: Greek yogurt with peanut butter and banana.
  • Lunch: Baked trout, collard greens, black-eyed peas.
  • Dinner: Whole-wheat spaghetti with turkey meatballs and marinara sauce, side salad with olive-oil-based dressing.

Friday

  • Breakfast: Wheat toast with avocado, omelet with peppers and onions.
  • Lunch: Chili made with ground turkey.
  • Dinner: Greek-seasoned baked chicken, oven-roasted potatoes, side salad, wheat dinner roll.

Saturday

  • Breakfast: Overnight oats with strawberries.
  • Lunch: Fish tacos on whole wheat tortillas, brown rice, pinto beans.
  • Dinner: Chicken gyro on whole-wheat pita, cucumber and tomato salad.

Sunday

  • Breakfast: Spinach frittata, sliced apple and peanut butter.
  • Lunch: Tuna salad sandwich on wheat bread, plus carrots and celery with hummus.
  • Dinner: Curry chicken, brown rice, lentils.

You can drink a glass of wine with each dinner to satisfy the MIND diet recommendations. Nuts can also make a great snack.

Most salad dressings you find at the store are not made primarily with olive oil, but you can easily make your own salad dressing at home.

To make a simple balsamic vinaigrette, combine three parts extra virgin olive oil with one part balsamic vinegar. Add a little Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, then mix well.

Summary: Meal planning on the MIND diet is simple and easy. Center your meals around the 10 foods that are encouraged, and try not to use the five foods that need to be limited.

The MIND diet was created to help prevent dementia and slow the loss of brain function that can happen with age.

It encourages its followers to consume vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, fish, beans, poultry and wine.

These foods contain many nutrients that promote good brain health, possibly by reducing oxidative stress, inflammation and the formation of beta-amyloid plaques.

Early research shows that closely following the MIND diet is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slower loss of brain function over time. However, more research is needed to understand the diet’s effects.

Because the MIND diet is a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, it wouldn’t be surprising if future research shows it offers other health benefits associated with these two diets.

But for now, if you are looking for a way of eating that focuses on maintaining brain health as you age, the MIND diet is a great approach that’s simple to follow.

An evidence-based nutrition article from our experts at Authority Nutrition.

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