What is the MIND diet? A meal plan to keep your brain and body healthy

To keep your brain sharp, load up on these foods.
On the MIND diet, you'll eat leafy greens every day.
On the MIND diet, you'll eat leafy greens every day.

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By Kristin Kirkpatrick

It's estimated that 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease — that's one out of 10 Americans over the age of 65. Five years ago, researchers from Rush University in Chicago developed a diet plan to try to beat this somber statistic.

The eating plan was created by combining the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, a meal plan used to help reduce blood pressure. The goal was to provide clear guidance on what to eat — and what to skip — to slow age-related brain dysfunction. Researchers coined it the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet, aka the MIND diet.

The science behind the MIND diet

Previous research showed that both rigorous — and even moderate — adherence to the MIND diet may help reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 50%.

Two new major trials have begun to assess the effectiveness of diet and other factors on heart and vascular disease. The first trial will assess cognitive function (through test scores) during a three-year time frame in individuals that follow the MIND approach compared to those on a “standard” diet. Both diets will be structured to encourage weight loss. The second trial will involve specific lifestyle interventions in an older population at risk for cognitive decline. In addition to diet, exercise habits, cognitive stimulation and self-monitoring of heart health risk factors will be tracked over a two-year period.

The trials will also look at other brain protective features such as exercise and weight management.

What do you eat on the MIND diet?

The MIND diet is based on 15 foods — 10 that benefit the brain and five that may hurt it.

10 foods to enjoy

  1. Leafy green vegetables

  2. Vegetables

  3. Nuts

  4. Berries

  5. Olive oil

  6. Whole grains

  7. Beans

  8. Fish

  9. Poultry

  10. Wine

According to the researchers, dieters should eat least three servings of whole grains, a salad made with leafy greens and one other vegetable every day. Nuts and beans are eaten every other day, poultry and berries at least twice a week and fish at least once a week. One glass of wine each day is also on the menu.

5 foods to limit or avoid

  1. Sugary foods (sweets and pastries)

  2. Saturated and trans fats (like butter and margarine)

  3. Red meat

  4. Fried food

  5. Cheese

For better brain health, MIND dieters should limit these unhealthy foods, particularly butter (less than 1 tablespoon a day), cheese and fried or fast food (less than a serving a week).

Should you try the MIND diet?

With its focus on eating a variety of plant-based foods like leafy greens, vegetables and fruit, along with limiting sugar and saturated fat, many experts agree that the MIND diet is a healthy eating plan with a number of benefits.

Michele Rudolphi, a registered dietitian in Fort Wayne, Ind., recommends the diet to her clients. “Not only is this diet whole-foods based, it is high in plant foods (specifically vegetables) which are typically lacking in the typical American diet With my clients, I also find that not only does it help to stabilize their blood sugar throughout the day, preventing cravings, it also helps them enjoy the flavors found in whole foods again,” Rudolphi explained.

Dr. Susan Fox, a vascular surgeon in Hollywood, Florida, also encourages her patients to adopt the MIND diet. Fox explained that the diet “is high in vitamins and minerals naturally occurring in beans, legumes and vegetables which promote a brain-healthy diet without the peaks and valleys of insulin and sugar disruption.”

She also pointed to the diet’s benefits to both gut health and mental health. "There is definitely a link between what we eat, [and] how we feel,” Fox said.

Whether you go all in, or take a slow and steady approach, the MIND diet may be a great first step towards adopting healthier eating habits.

Start by adding in more color in your diet, especially green, blue, red and purple fruits and vegetables. Swap refined grain foods with more whole grains like quinoa, brown rice and 100% whole grain bread. Limit your consumption of red and red processed meat to no more than once a week and cut down on sweets by eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages.

If your lifestyle goals include better brain health, along with maintaining healthy blood sugar and blood pressure levels, the MIND diet is a good option to try.