Keeping Brain Health in ‘MIND’: Neuroprotection Through Diet

(an 8 min read)

There are now hundreds of diets available for special purposes, such as losing weight or improving gut health, but one diet in particular is emerging as a powerful new way to provide lifelong protection for the brain. The MIND diet combines groundbreaking research findings and respected culinary traditions to offer a response to some of the most difficult medical problems of our time: neurodegenerative diseases, e.g. Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.1 Cases of age-related brain decline are increasing rapidly with our aging population, with at least 5.8 million Americans, and over 50 million people globally now living with some form of diagnosed brain degeneration. Unfortunately, the trend is set to continue, with 14 million cases expected in the US alone by 2050, at an annual cost to the economy of over a trillion dollars.2,3

A New Direction in Brain Research

While the lion’s share of research has been invested into potential treatments for neurodegenerative diseases after a person is diagnosed, researchers including a team at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center decided to set off in a new direction: preventative strategies using diet. With funding from the National Institute for Aging, Dr. Martha Clare Morris and her team embarked on a five-year study of nearly a thousand participants, with the aim of identifying foods and dietary patterns which could lower the risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.4 Since the initial results were published in 2015, scientists can now make a strong argument that specialized brain healthy diets can offer a major boost to lifelong brain health.

A Tale of Two Diets Married into One

Their starting point was to study two existing dietary regimes which showed neuroprotective characteristics: the traditional Mediterranean diet,5,6 and the more recently developed Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.7 When combined, they formed the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet, a set of uncomplicated guidelines that emphasize minimally-processed foods packed with micronutrients which benefit lifelong brain health.

The MIND diet uniquely targets specific food types, such as berries and leafy green vegetables.  It also focuses on vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts, grains and fish, with more modest amounts of meat, eggs, dairy and alcohol. All three of the diets, Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND discourage red meat, salt, added sugar and sweetened drinks, and were chosen in part because they’re already familiar to Americans – and therefore relatively easy to follow.

The structure of the MIND diet also meshed well with correlations seen in research from various parts of the world linking Alzheimer’s with genetic factors, but also with obesity, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. In 2011, researchers found that people living with diabetes were over twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s, leading to Brown University scientists labeling the disease ‘Type 3 Diabetes’.8

Alzheimer's disease associated with other diseases and conditions

The Findings: Startling Results for Brain Health

The results of Dr. Morris’ study were extraordinary: a 53% reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s among those who rigorously adhered to the diet, while even a partial observation of the MIND protocols resulted in a 35% improvement.9,10 The diet also seems to offer protection against Parkinson’s Disease,7  and actually goes beyond neuroprotection; with its emphasis on heart-healthy grains, antioxidant-rich berries, and fish with high levels of omega-3 oils, it is an excellent diet for overall health 12 and has been found to help stroke survivors during their recovery.11 With no cure or meaningful treatment for neurodegeneration yet available, the dietary approach seems to offer a simple, effective way to combat these diseases, and resources have been devoted to a three-year, in-depth study of the MIND diet, with results due some time in 2021-22.4,12

Reduction in risk of Alzheimer's with the MIND diet

MIND: An Easy Choice

Beginning and maintaining the diet is a refreshingly simple process. MIND sets specific intake amounts for particular foods, but the rules are straightforward. Ten food groups are encouraged for their brain-healthy micronutrients:

 

Green leafy vegetables MIND

Green leafy vegetables (1+ serving / day)

These provide lutein, an important carotenoid with antioxidant properties, as well as magnesium and vitamin K.13 Collard greens, kale and spinach are excellent sources as part of a healthy brain diet.14

Other vegetables MIND

Other vegetables (1+ serving / day)

It’s healthy to include a broad variety of vegetables. Non-starchy options have higher levels of nutrients and fewer calories, so this means smaller amounts of potatoes, corn, peas and squash, and more , cucumbers, asparagus, tomatoes, mushrooms and peppers.15

Nuts and seeds MIND

Nuts (5+ servings / week)

Nuts provide healthy oils and vitamin E, especially almonds, pistachios, cashews and walnuts. They can be high in calories, but small daily amounts can make an impact.16

Berries MIND

Berries (2+ servings / week)

Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are the most popular, but most all berries contain beneficial anthocyanins, which impart not only the dark pigmentation of these fruits but also their beneficial properties. Blueberries also contain the powerful antioxidant pterostilbene.17 It is also found in grapes, though not in wine, and is a powerful brain food.

Beans legumes MIND

Beans (4+ servings / week)

All beans, lentils and soybeans are valid elements of the MIND diet. They provide plentiful fiber and minerals.

Whole grains MIND

Whole grains (3+ servings / day)

Oatmeal, quinoa and brown rice are excellent sources of protein, fiber and minerals.

Fish MIND

Fish (1+ serving / week)

Salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines are great sources for vital omega-3 fatty acids, especially in their phospholipid forms, which are most beneficial to the brain.18

Poultry MIND

Lean poultry (2+ servings / week)

Skinless, trimmed, lean chicken and turkey provide lots of protein. Surprisingly, 80% of the fat in a chicken breast is held in the skin. Poultry also provides plentiful selenium, vitamins B3 and B6, and choline, an essential nutrient for bodily metabolism and synthesis of neurotransmitters.19,20

Olive oil MIND

Olive oil is the main cooking oil for the MIND diet. It contains plentiful polyphenols, plant chemicals which have important neuroprotective properties and a role in preventing cancer and cardiovascular issues.21 In fact, 73% of the monounsaturated fat in olive oil is in the form of oleic acid, which has anti-inflammatory properties.22

Red wine MIND

Red wine might seem a surprising inclusion. Although the pterostilbene (earlier mentioned) found in grapes does not survive the wine-making process, wine does contain the valuable stilbenoid resveratrol.23,24 This broadly powerful polyphenol has been shown to help battle cancers and viruses, to protect the brain, and to reduce inflammation.25 The MIND diet encourages a glass (5oz / 125 ml / one-fifth of a bottle) of red wine per day with a meal, though it should always be remembered that too much alcohol can be detrimental to brain health.26

(Eggs are still permitted, as their yolks contain the valuable carotenoid lutein, as well as vitamin E and choline.27)

Recommendationed food groups of MIND diet (NeuroReserve Whole Minded)

Every diet has prohibitions, and the MIND diet’s five unhealthy food groups are the ones you’d probably expect:

  • Red meat
  • Butter and margarine
  • Cheese (although low-fat dairy is allowed)25
  • Pastries and sweets
  • Fried or ‘fast’ food.

The idea is to reduce consumption of fats and sugars, and replace these choices with plentiful vegetables, berries and grains. Many people find it’s difficult entirely to remove these five groups of foods from their diet, but one of the most powerful elements of the MIND diet is that it provides significant benefits without demanding 100% adherence. This means you can indulge in these foods occasionally and in small amounts. It’s also easier than you might think to find alternatives which help you stick to a good brain diet; instead of French fries, try making homemade roast potatoes or sweet potatoes with olive oil. Low-sugar variants of the tastiest and common snacks are possible, too, and fruit is a great alternative to less healthy dessert options.

Making The Change

A complete dietary overhaul is an intimidating prospect, so begin small by including more and more of the healthy food groups, and by starting to reduce your intake of the five unhealthy types. Add berries to your breakfast cereal, consider making your own healthy granola with minimal sugar, or try overnight oats. Brown rice is a healthy grain option – just allow more cooking time – and consider whole wheat pasta and bread when shopping. Accompany main dishes such as grilled poultry or roasted salmon with healthy salads dressed with olive oil, or with a simple vegetable plate of carrots and celery for dipping into homemade hummus.

For recipe ideas, try one from NeuroReserve’s Brain Table cooking resource, like Pumpkin Blueberry Muffins, Asian Broccoli Slaw, or Crispy Baked Salmon Sticks.  These are developed by our culinary partners with the goal of deliciousness, practicality, and of course, lifelong brain health.

By starting small, and making food choices you’ll enjoy, adopting the MIND diet can be a fun and straightforward way to protect your brain health.

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References

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  2. Alzheimer Association. 2019 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Alzheimer’s and Dementia 1–88 (2019).
  3. Bright Focus Foundation. The Challenges of Alzheimer ’s Disease. Available at: https://www.brightfocus.org/challenges-alzheimers-disease-text-version.
  4. NIH National Institute on Aging. MIND Diet to Prevent Cognitive Decline. National Institutes of Health doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2015.04.011.Morris
  5. Aridi, S. Y., Walker, L. J. & Wright, R. L. O. The Association between the Mediterranean Dietary Pattern and Cognitive Health: A Systematic Review. Nutrients 9, (2017).
  6. Hardman, R. J., Kennedy, G., Macpherson, H., Scholey, A. B. & Pipingas, A. Adherence to a Mediterranean-Style Diet and Effects on Cognition in Adults: A Qualitative Evaluation and Systematic Review of Longitudinal and Prospective Trials. Frontiers in Nutrition 3, 22 (2016).
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  10. Morris, M. C. et al. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimer’s Dement. 11, 1015–1022 (2015).
  11. J, C. L. et al. Dietary Patterns Associated With Slower Cognitive Decline Post Stroke. Stroke 49, A152–A152 (2020).
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  13. O’Brien, S. Lutein and Zeaxanthin: Benefits, Dosage and Food Sources. Healthline (2018). Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/lutein-and-zeaxanthin#dosage.
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  25. Fenn, A. Talking food and brain health with Dr. Martha Clare Morris, lead researcher of the MIND diet study. Brain Health Kitchen (2017). Available at: https://www.brainworkskitchen.com/food-and-brain-health-dr-martha-clare-morris-mind-diet-study/.
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