What happens when the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet meet? The MIND diet, a combination worth considering to help you stay mentally sharp as you get older.
If the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet had a baby, it would be the MIND diet. If you want to up the odds of staying mentally sharp as you get older, it’s a way to eat that’s worth considering.
The Mediterranean diet has a well-established track record of promoting overall good health while reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is a similarly healthy eating plan that is effective for lowering high blood pressure.
While both of those ways of eating have been shown to have benefits for brain health, reducing the risk of cognitive decline from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet is tailored to fit the current science, taking the best of both diets and going a step further. It was developed by Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center, through a study funded by the National Institute on Aging.
“There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and even the approved treatments are not all that effective, so this really points to the importance of prevention,” said Fran Grodstein, ScD professor of medicine at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School, speaking at the Nutrition & Health Conference in Phoenix in May. “If we can make some changes at the earliest stages [of Alzheimer’s], we don’t need to worry about treatments or cures.”
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The most significant shifts the MIND diet makes are in its recommendations for vegetables, fruit and fish. For the effects of fish on brain health, the biggest difference is between people who eat no fish and those who eat at least one serving per week — especially among those at high risk of Alzheimer’s. Research shows that eating a lot of vegetables — especially green leafy vegetables — is associated with slower cognitive decline, but when it comes to fruit, researchers only saw a difference with a few servings of berries each week.
“Higher intake of fruit wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t providing any substantial benefits in terms of memory,” Grodstein said. Blueberries — and strawberries to a lesser extent — differ because they are rich in anthocyanins, a type of phytonutrient that has positive effects on the areas of the brain that affect learning and memory.
“What I love about the MIND diet is that it’s simple, attainable, and a promising way to keep the brain healthy,” said Maggie Moon, MS, RDN, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of the book “The MIND Diet.” “There are no outlandish foods or overly restrictive rules. It’s actually simpler than either the DASH or Mediterranean diets. And at the end of the day, it’s heart healthy and provides good nutrition for just about anyone.”
Moon said that while the Mediterranean and DASH diets appear to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease only if followed strictly, the MIND diet was effective even when followed less closely. “Following most guidelines cut the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in half and kept the brain 7.5 years younger. Following about half of them still reduced the risk by 35 percent,” she said. A randomized clinical trial is underway that will directly test the effects of the MIND diet compared with a standard “control” diet, based on the following 15 guidelines.
10 food groups to include more of:
• Green leafy vegetables: Six or more servings per week
• Other vegetables: Seven or more servings per week
• Nuts: Five or more servings per week
• Berries: Two or more servings per week
• Beans: Four or more meals per week
• Whole grains: Three or more servings per day
• Fish (fin fish, not fried): One or more meals per week
• Poultry (not fried): Two or more meals per week
• Olive oil: Use as primary oil
• Wine: 1 glass per day
Five food groups to include less of:
• Red meat: Less than four meals per week
• Butter and stick margarine: Less than one serving per week
• Cheese: Less than one serving per week
• Pastries and sweets: Less than five servings per week
• Fast food: Less than once per week
So what can you do today to make your meals more MIND-worthy?
• Double down on dark-green leafy vegetables. Keep greens like kale, arugula, collard greens and spinach washed and ready to go so you can enjoy some daily.
• Keep fresh or frozen blueberries on hand. Toss some fresh blueberries and walnuts on an arugula salad for a brain-boosting trifecta. Add them to oatmeal or smoothies.
• Plan at least one fin fish meal for this week. Fish with fins — especially salmon, sardines and anchovies — are rich sources of brain-healthy (and heart-healthy) omega-3 fatty acids. If you enjoy shellfish, have it in addition to — not instead of — your one fin fish meal.
• Cook a batch of whole grains and a pot of beans (drained, rinsed canned beans are OK, too) and use them in meals throughout the week.
• Have a serving of nuts for a snack or sprinkle them on one of those leafy green salads.
“I love that you can take the concepts of the MIND diet and apply them to any global cuisine,” Moon said. “Korean bibimbap made with fish, Mexican bean salad, Japanese buckwheat soba noodles with poached chicken.” If you want to know more about the science behind the MIND diet, along with practical tools, check out Moon’s book, which includes 75 recipes, along with seasonal food guides, preparation tips, menu planning work sheets, and scoring sheets. Moon also puts her culinary-school training to good use by posting new recipes on MINDdietmeals.com.