Can the MIND Diet Keep Your Brain Young?
Researchers are still working to figure out exactly why Alzheimer’s disease occurs—and how this leading cause of dementia might be cured. But even among those major unknowns, growing evidence points to an everyday strategy that may lower the risk of cognitive decline and slow its progression: a healthy-eating plan known as the MIND diet.
In a nutshell, the MIND diet emphasizes nine nutritious food groups believed to support various aspects of brain health, while scaling back on less beneficial fare. “What we eat has a profound impact on how the brain functions,” says Maggie Moon, RD, author of The MIND Diet: A Scientific Approach to Enhancing Brain Function and Helping Prevent Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
Affecting an estimated 5.8 million people in the United States, Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition that can impair memory, language ability, problem-solving skills, and—eventually—a person’s ability to perform daily activities. While the MIND diet isn’t a silver-bullet solution by any means, it’s useful to know that something as simple as meal and snack choices could help preserve mental sharpness.
Read on to learn what the MIND diet entails, what the potential benefits are, and how to start following this eating plan if you decide it’s right for you.
What is the MIND diet?
OK, let’s get wordy for a sec: MIND is short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. And yes, that’s an acronym within an acronym. Still, the concept is pretty simple: The MIND diet takes elements of the Mediterranean diet and combines them with aspects of the DASH diet, an eating plan widely recommended for people living with high blood pressure. (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.) The MIND diet steers you toward brain-nourishing foods like whole grains, berries, fish, and green vegetables, while cutting back on foods that may not be so great for your gray matter, like sugary desserts and deep-fried snacks. The MIND diet is specifically geared for countering Alzheimer’s and dementia, but it may support other aspects of health, as well.
Research on the MIND diet and brain health
To reiterate: There’s no single strategy proven to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease in everyone. But long-term research on the MIND diet suggests this eating approach might be worth a try.
Among people ages 58 to 98, those who followed the plan for four-and-a-half years were significantly less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who didn’t stick closely to the plan, according to a study of 923 adults published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia. Volunteers who followed the MIND diet to the letter had a 53% lower incidence than people whose diets sharply differed. But that’s not to say “perfect eating” is required, the researchers note: Even subjects who adhered to just half the MIND diet’s food recommendations had a 35% lower likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s.
In another multiyear investigation, this one involving 960 older adults (mostly women), those who stuck closely to the MIND diet emerged from the study with far “younger” cognitive functioning—7.5 years younger on average—than volunteers with the lowest adherence. On tests of mental skills, MIND-style eaters performed particularly well on tasks related to the recall of experiences and facts.
Further research will probe beyond these correlations to determine whether and how the MIND diet actually reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognitive decline. One theory is that consistently following the MIND diet may reduce the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain, hard deposits of protein that can accumulate between neurons and are known to play a role in Alzheimer’s pathology.
The MIND diet limits foods like French fries and doughnuts, which can stoke inflammation and oxidative stress, two factors that lead to cell damage and may create an environment that’s conducive to amyloid plaques. In their place, the diet dials up foods that may reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, theoretically making it harder for damaging plaques to form. “Increasing your intake of anti-inflammatory nutrients and antioxidants naturally brings less stress and age-related damage to neurons,” says Kelly Jones, RD, a registered dietitian in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
In other words, bring on the berries, veggies, and whole grains.
9 foods to eat on the MIND diet
The MIND approach is meant to be adopted long-term, so you won’t find crash-diet-style restrictions or promises of quick results. “The MIND diet doesn’t eliminate any foods altogether,” Moon says. “What it does is recommend rebalancing the overall diet to favour the foods that support optimal brain health.” Here’s a closer look at the nine food groups the MIND diet emphasizes, along with ballpark serving recommendations drawn from the research.
1. Leafy green vegetables
6+ servings per week
Spinach, kale, collards, and other leafy greens are packed with nutrients that have been linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline. These nutrients include folate, vitamin E, carotenoids, and flavonoids.
2. Other vegetables
1+ servings a day
Brightly coloured picks like bell peppers and carrots are high in the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. “Higher levels of these compounds in the brain are associated with less cognitive decline in aging,” says Jill Weisenberger, RD, author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide and Diabetes Weight Loss—Week by Week.
2+ servings per week
Antioxidant-packed fruits such as strawberries and blueberries may help slow the rate of cognitive decline in older adults, according to a study published in the Annals of Neurology. This may be because antioxidants reduce oxidative stress.
1 serving per week
Fatty fish—such as salmon, rainbow trout, herring, tuna, and Atlantic mackerel—are especially beneficial to the brain. “These fish contain the omega-3 fatty acid DHA,” Weisenberger says. “Studies show that high blood levels of DHA are linked to a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”
5 servings per week
These crunchy wonders boast stores of brain-supporting omega-3 fatty acids and carotenoids. Walnuts, in particular, are high in an omega-3 called ALA that may help improve age-related memory loss, according to a 2017 research review.
3 servings per week
Legumes—such as black beans, kidney beans, lentils, and soybeans—aren’t just about protein and fibre; they also contain brain-nourishing B vitamins. (Red kidney beans contain antioxidants, as well, research shows.) Canned beans are convenient and nutritious; if you’re watching your salt intake, just be sure to choose low- or no-sodium varieties.
7. Whole grains
3 servings per day
Foods like oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and 100% whole-wheat bread contain brain-protecting vitamin E. Try for three servings of whole grain foods per day.
2 servings per week
Chicken and turkey contain choline, a nutrient that’s essential for keeping brain cells healthy. Steer clear of deep-frying and opt for cooking methods such as baking, sautéing, grilling, roasting, and stir-frying.
9. Olive oil
Moderate intake throughout the week
Make this your primary cooking oil—add it to salads, drizzle it on toast instead of butter, and use it for sautéing. Olive oil is rich in the monounsaturated kind of fat that supports healthy levels of blood cholesterol—a factor that plays into Alzheimer’s risk. Olive oil is also rich in antioxidants like vitamin E.
Up to 1 glass per day
If you happen to enjoy a nice pinot, go ahead and measure out up to one serving of wine (any kind) per day. Wine is rich in the polyphenol resveratrol, which acts as an antioxidant. Just know there’s no pressure to start drinking wine for this purpose—the MIND diet doesn’t depend on it.
Important caveat: Even the most nutritious diet can’t work in isolation. Other beneficial habits—such as getting regular physical activity, avoiding smoking, and maintaining social connections—are critical for brain health, too.
5 foods to limit on the MIND diet
On the MIND diet, you’re encouraged to cut back on foods linked to inflammation, such as those with added sugars and other refined carbohydrates. You’re also advised to avoid foods that are high in saturated and trans fats (and low in healthier fats). Foods to consume less often include:
Cheese: Eat cheese—any variety, from cheddar to ricotta—once a week.
Fried foods: The diet recommends consuming fried foods like French fries and chicken fingers less than once a week.
Red meat: Beef, lamb, and pork aren’t off-limits, but you’re advised to have no more than three servings total per week. Any food made from these meats also counts, so that also means going light on pepperoni pizza, cold cuts, and jerky.
Butter and stick margarine: Because these spreads are high in saturated fat, try to keep them to one tablespoon total per day.
Pastries and sweets: Again, you don’t have to cut cookies from your life entirely if they’re a treat you love. Just know that the MIND diet calls for capping sugary foods at five servings per week.
Other potential benefits of the MIND diet
In addition to bolstering brain health, the MIND diet may help your heart, blood sugar control, and more. Here’s how:
- May lower risk of heart disease and stroke: “The MIND diet is high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which, when paired with high fibre and healthy fats, protects against cardiometabolic issues,” Jones says. Eating more fruits and vegetables is one way to help manage hypertension, and limiting foods that cause inflammation reduces the risk of hypertension and stroke.
- May lower risk of type 2 diabetes: A diet rich in veggies and unsaturated fat, helps improve blood glucose control, and significantly reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, according to a large 2014 review of studies.
- May reduce overall inflammation: Many foods encouraged on the MIND diet, like fruits and vegetables, help reduce chronic inflammation in order to protect the brain. But fighting inflammation is good for a lot of other reasons, including a reduced risk for diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Can the MIND diet help you lose weight?
The MIND diet isn’t intended for weight loss, but some people may find themselves dropping a few pounds while following the plan. That’s because the foods you eat most on MIND tend to be filling and relatively low in calories. If you are hoping to lose weight while on the MIND diet, pay close attention to portion sizes, especially when enjoying the more energy-dense items on the list of recommended foods—like nuts, olive oil, and wine.
Sample MIND diet meal plan
Want to try the MIND diet? Here’s what a week on the plan might look like.
Breakfast: oatmeal with sliced almonds and berries
Lunch: salad with grilled chicken and vegetables; slice of whole-wheat toast
Snack: turkey rolled up around cucumber or bell pepper strips
Dinner: roasted salmon, brown rice, spinach; glass of wine (optional)
Breakfast: avocado on whole-grain toast
Lunch: turkey, lettuce, and tomato sandwich on whole-wheat bread; vegetable soup
Snack: black-bean dip with fresh vegetables
Dinner: chicken, quinoa, and roasted broccoli; glass of wine (optional)
Breakfast: Greek yogurt with blackberries
Lunch: chicken and vegetable wrap; spinach salad
Dinner: grilled fish tacos with brown rice, salsa, and avocado; glass of wine (optional)
Breakfast: overnight oats with sliced almonds and strawberries
Lunch: grilled chicken sandwich on whole-grain bread; carrot sticks and sliced peppers
Snack: roasted chickpeas made with olive oil
Dinner: turkey and white-bean chili; spinach salad; glass of wine (optional)
Breakfast: egg and spinach scramble with whole-wheat toast
Lunch: kale, sliced almond, and quinoa salad
Snack: carrot and celery sticks with hummus
Dinner: whole-wheat penne primavera; glass of wine (optional)
Breakfast: Greek yogurt with blueberries and granola
Lunch: tuna sandwich on whole-wheat bread; spinach salad
Snack: sliced hard-boiled egg on whole-wheat crackers
Dinner: chicken, cashew, and veggie stir-fry with cauliflower rice; glass of wine (optional)
Breakfast: All-bran cereal with oat milk and a banana
Lunch: burrito bowl with grilled chicken and peppers, black beans, brown rice, avocado, and salsa
Dinner: sirloin steak with spinach salad and bulgur pilaf; glass of wine (optional)
MIND diet recipes
The upshot: Food choices may affect your brain health
Early evidence suggests a positive link between following the MIND diet and a reduced likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. With a focus on bringing down inflammation and oxidative stress, this eating approach may curb the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain, which are believed to be an underlying factor in Alzheimer’s. The MIND diet calls for limiting some foods, but the approach is more about dialing up nutritious fare like fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, and poultry. “The rationale behind the MIND diet is to eat more of the foods that help and less of the foods that harm the brain, but it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition,” Moon says. “It’s progress, not perfection, and it can make a difference.”
Maressa Brown is a writer and editor in Los Angeles specializing in health and lifestyle topics. She’s written for Shape, InStyle, Parents, The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Better Homes and Gardens, and Women’s Health, among other outlets.
This article was reviewed for accuracy in November 2021 by WW Nutrition Manager Angela Goscilo, MS, RD, CDN. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.