The “MIND” Diet Shows the Power of Food to Protect Against Alzheimer’s

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November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. Chances are you or someone you know has had their lives touched by this devastating disease. With an aging baby boomer population, dementia and Alzheimer’s are becoming more and more prevalent. According to current data shows that an estimated 5.4 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

The good news is that recent research has highlighted the MIND diet and certain foods that have a neuroprotective effect and actually appear to be effective in slowing cognitive decline. MIND stands for the Mediterranean -DASH diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and was developed by Martha Clare Morris, ScD and colleagues at Rush University Medical Center.  It is a combination/ hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, both known powerhouses in their own right when it comes to disease prevention, shown to lower high blood pressure, reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, and help with weight loss.

The MIND diet emphasizes 15 specific foods – 10 brain- healthy foods to include more often and 5 brain-harming foods to try to avoid. Each of the foods were found through years of research to have key nutrients that play roles in the health of our brain.
The 10 brain boosting foods are whole grains, vegetables, leafy greens, wine, nuts, beans, poultry, berries, fish, and olive oil.  The 5 brain harming foods include butter or margarine, fried fast food, red meat, full fat cheese, pastries and sweets.

The MIND diet was put to the test as part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project (MAP).   In the study 923 participants completed dietary questionnaires and food logs and underwent neuropsychological assessments from 2004 to 2013.  The researchers looked for intake of certain specific neuroprotective components and gave participants scores on how well and how often they were able to follow the MIND diet.  Scores were based on a total possible score of 15, 1 point for each of the MIND diet components. The study results showed that those who rigorously included the components of the MIND diet, with an average score of 9.6, lowered their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 53%.  Even those who followed it moderately, with an average score of 7.5, saw positive results with a 35% reduction in risk.  Pretty promising.

In a follow-up study 960 of the MAP subjects were followed for 5 years and those who followed the MIND way of eating were able to slow down the effects of aging on the brain by 7 1/2 years.

With a little pre-planning and awareness the MIND diet can easily fit into anyone’s lifestyle.  Here is your MIND diet checklist.

10 brain-boosting foods.  Include these:   
• Whole grains – at least 3 servings per day (1 serving = 1/2 cup cooked whole grains like oatmeal or brown rice, 1 slice of bread, etc.)
• Vegetables – 1 serving daily (1 serving = 1/2 cup)
• Leafy greens – 6 servings weekly (1 serving = 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked)
• Wine – 1 glass per day (1 glass = 5 ounces)

Most Days: 
• Nuts – 5 servings weekly (1 serving = 1/4 cup)
• Olive oil as the main source of fat

Twice a Week (or More): 
• Beans – 3 servings per week (1 serving = 1/2 cup cooked)
• Poultry, not fried – 2 servings a week (1 serving = 3 ounces cooked or the size of a deck of cards)
• Berries, like blueberries and strawberries – at least 2 servings a week (1 serving = 1/2 cup)

Once a week: 
• Fish, not fried – at least 1 serving a week (1 serving = 3 ounces cooked)

5 brain-harming foods.  Limit these:
• Butter – less than 1 tablespoon per day (1 serving = 1 tablespoon)
• Fried fast food – less than 1 serving per week (1 serving = 1 medium serving of French fries)
• Full-fat cheese – less than 1 serving per week (1 serving = 1 ounce, approximately the size of your thumb or 2 tablespoons shredded)
• Red meat – less than 4 servings per week (1 serving = 3 ounces cooked)
• Pastries and sweets – less than 5 servings per week (1 serving = 1/2 cup ice cream, 1 doughnut, 1/8 slice of pie

So, how are you doing?  Are there specific areas you could work on?  Not including nuts regularly?  How could you do that?  You could throw them in your cereal in the morning possibly or have a handful as an afternoon snack.  Not eating many berries?  I buy a big bag of frozen blueberries from Costco and add about a 1/2 cup to my oatmeal before I pop it in the microwave.  Eating too much red meat?  Could you substitute ground turkey or have a fish meal one night per week instead?

Cognitive decline and dementia are real concerns for many, and rightly so.  The MIND diet and the scientific evidence to back it proves once again that what we eat matters not just for the obvious reasons like weight management or prevention and treatment of heart disease or diabetes, but also slowing age-related decline in our cognitive abilities.  The beauty of it is that it’s not complicated and incorporating it, even moderately, may not only delay dementia but improve overall health no matter what age you are.

Want more information, practical tips, and delicious recipes to help you incorporate the MIND diet?  The book The MIND Diet by Maggie Moon, MS, RDN is a great resource.

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