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Be MINDful: How a Diet Can Help Keep Your Brain Sharp for Life

Nobody likes the word “diet.” But what about an eating plan that encourages you to have more of the good stuff while allowing for things you crave, a diet that knows you’re human and, occasionally, you are going to need a cookie? (We’ll talk later about that cheese.)

The MIND diet, or Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, aims to slow cognitive decline through nutrition. It focuses on nine food groups, many plant-based, and offers gentle advice on limiting a handful of high-sugar and high-fat foods.

The diet was created around 2015, after scientists at Chicago’s Rush University saw a correlation between this approach and a slowed rate of cognitive decline in a five-year study of nearly 1,000 older adults. The diet has many elements in common with the DASH diet — foods rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium and low in sodium, sugar and saturated fat — as well as the similar Mediterranean diet. Researchers could clearly see that whole grains, berries, leafy greens, vegetables, poultry, fish and olive oil seemed to help preserve cognition into old age.

Tip Scales Toward Health

Because our brains do amazing things, they have a naturally high rate of metabolic activity, which by default is oxidative. That creates an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants that can lead to organ and tissue damage and make you vulnerable to disease.

In much of the body, cells can pretty well repair themselves — not so the brain. That makes the brain vulnerable to oxidative stress, which in turn causes DNA stress.

The older you get, the more likely you are to have damage, and that’s where Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS can come in. Consuming antioxidants helps the body fight that stress.

Inflammation occurs when your body reacts against a foreign agent. It’s when inflammation persists — sometimes driven by a highly processed diet — that cancer, diabetes, arthritis, depression and Alzheimer's get a foothold. Limiting high-fat and high-sugar foods can help prevent more damage.

Think of it like going to the gym: Working out has many benefits, but also creates lactic acid, which causes soreness. For every bit of work the brain does, its cells also make undesirable substances. Following the MIND diet can help you tip the scales back the other way.

Keeping Track

The MIND diet suggests healthy foods from nine groups and limits servings of red meat, sweets, cheese, butter or margarine, and fast or fried food. The targets, as described by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging, are:

  • At least six servings a week of leafy green vegetables
  • At least one serving a day of other vegetables
  • At least two servings a week of berries
  • At least three servings a day of whole grains
  • One serving a week of fish
  • Two servings a week of poultry
  • Three servings a week of beans
  • Five servings a week of nuts
  • At least six servings a week of olive oil

Limited foods include:

  • Fewer than five servings a week of pastries and sweets
  • Fewer than four servings a week of red meat (including beef, pork and lamb)
  • Fewer than a serving a week of cheese and fried foods
  • Less than one tablespoon a day of butter or stick margarine

If that seems like a lot to keep track of, you could start by focusing on categories to limit, since there are only four. (Yeah, we know: One serving a week of cheese is tough. But when you consider the salt and saturated fat in cheese, you have your answer.) Notice that these items aren’t prohibited, only limited: Four servings a week of sweets and three a week of red meat is not exactly deprivation.

It's also helpful to think in terms of meal planning — you could easily make full-meal combos of these proteins, grains and vegetables. Another advantage: The MIND diet is not culturally specific. Your Filipino grandmother might not embrace the unfamiliar flavors of the Mediterranean diet — the MIND diet lets her enjoy foods she loves.

Overwhelmed by the very thought? Make a checklist and put it on the fridge. When you make a meal — whether it’s a smoothie with kale and berries, a sandwich on whole grain bread, or fish and vegetables for dinner — check off what you put in. Very few people will check every box from the get-go. If you’re not, make small adjustments until you are in range. (Pro tip: You can find printable MIND diet trackers at Pinterest, Etsy and many other web sites.)

The Bottom Line

If someone already has dementia, following the MIND diet will not stop its progression. On the other hand, we don’t know exactly how cognitive decline begins. Even if you only focus on more whole foods and fewer processed foods, you’re on your way to a lifestyle change that could improve your chances of staying sharp long into old age.

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