Does the MIND Diet really work?

The MIND diet is a hybrid between two commonly-followed, healthy eating plans – the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. The name is short for the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet, and puts a focus on the top brain-healthy foods emphasized by both the Mediterranean and DASH diets – leafy greens and other vegetables, berries, nuts and beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine.

According to a study from the Rush University Medical Center, the diet has proven to cut an individual’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s by an average of more than 50 per cent. The longer a participant followed the diet, the greater the benefits they experienced. However, even those who weren’t particularly strict about their eating plan still showed 35 per cent reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.

This diet doesn’t have a daily calorie limit or goal to meet, doesn’t require specific timings for each meal, doesn’t have strict rules about snacking, and doesn’t eliminate any food groups – making the MIND diet more of a lifestyle change instead of a temporary diet. The main goal of the MIND diet is simply to increase a follower’s intake of brain-boosting foods while reducing your consumption of foods that can hinder your brain’s performance and health.

Where did it come from?

Developed by nutritional epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris, the MIND diet came out of a study funded by the National Institute on Aging – with the goal of lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease through the promotion of a diet emphasizing brain-healthy foods.

The Mediterranean diet is a healthy eating plan that encourages followers to eat foods that are as natural as possible, limiting their intake of red meat and unhealthy fats. DASH, which focuses on easing the symptoms of hypertension, promotes specific foods that can help lower sodium intake and blood pressure. Both diets have proven to be very effective, providing a host of fantastic health benefits for followers to achieve.

According to Morris, researchers decided to combine the two healthy, well-known diets because they would be easy for Americans to stick to. While studies have shown that followers of the Mediterranean and DASH diets do show a marked reduction to their risk of Alzheimer’s, results indicated that these diets must be followed more strictly to achieve the full benefit.

“One of the more exciting things about this is that people who adhered even moderately to the MIND diet had a reduction in their risk for (Alzheimer’s disease),” said Morris. “I think that will motivate people.”

What foods can I have on this diet?

The MIND diet has been named America’s easiest to follow diet by the U.S. News & World Report – making this a fairly simple change for anyone to make. Because the diet doesn’t necessarily impose any harsh restrictions, it’s easy to accommodate the MIND plan into your lifestyle. And, since you won’t have to count calories, you won’t feel overwhelmed or burnt out trying to stick to it.

To make the most of the MIND diet, aim to increase your consumption of these brain-healthy foods by incorporating them into your meals and snacks as much as possible.

Leafy greens and other vegetables

To start with, aim for at least two servings a week of green leafy vegetables like kale, broccoli, spinach, or collards – but researchers have found that six or more servings will provide the most brain-boosting benefits. These veggies are chock full of vitamins A and C, and studies showed that increasing consumption of leafy greens in particular made a big difference in reducing an individual’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

The MIND diet also encourages eating other vegetables to support a healthy brain – like many other diets with a focus on weight loss or heart health. Try eating a salad and at least one other vegetable each day.

Nuts

With healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants, nuts are a great brain-healthy addition to any diet. The MIND diet encourages eating at least five servings of nuts per week, making this a perfect mid-afternoon snack. Research has shown that in addition to contributing to brain health, nuts can reduce the risk of heart disease and even help lower bad cholesterol.

Berries

As the only fruit specifically encouraged in the MIND diet, berries should be eaten at least twice a week. While blueberries are known as one of the most potent foods when it comes to protecting the brain, other berries like strawberries have demonstrated benefits in studies that examined the impact of food on cognitive function.

Beans

A great source of protein and fiber, beans are included in the MIND diet to be consumed at least three times each week. They’re also low in calories and low in fat, making this heathy choice for any diet. Beans can easily be included in most meals, and all you need to stay on track with the MIND diet is a half-cup serving.

Whole grains

A key element of the MIND diet, whole grains are recommended daily – at least three servings a day, in fact. Processed grains are full of sugar and can contribute to various health issues, but whole grains are a great source of fiber and potassium. They’ll keep you feeling full, too, so you won’t find yourself snacking on unhealthy foods in between meals.

Fish

While the Mediterranean diet recommends fish almost every day, the MIND diet encourages followers to eat fish at least once per week. According to studies, that’s enough to help protect brain function and reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Stick to cold water fish whenever possible – tuna, sardines, salmon, and mackerel – for extra healthy fats and omega-3s.

Poultry

Another great source of lean protein, poultry is recommended by the MIND diet at least twice per week. This brain-healthy food can be consumed more often, as well – but choose leaner cuts, like chicken breasts or turkey cutlets. With plenty of magnesium, iron, zinc, and vitamins, poultry is both delicious and nutritious.

Olive oil

This should be used as your primary cooking oil. According to research, people who primarily use olive oil benefit from increased protection against cognitive decline.

Wine

While one glass of wine each day has proven to offer significant health benefits, it’s important to stop at just one. If you are unable to drink only one glass of wine, skip this element of the MIND diet – you’ll benefit more from drinking no wine at all than from drinking too much.

What foods should I avoid?

The MIND diet isn’t a restrictive plan – no food groups are completely eliminated from the diet. However, these foods should be consumed in very limited quantities, if at all. The more you adhere to the MIND plan, the greater the benefits you will experience, but it’s up to you to decide which foods you’ll try to cut down on.

Red meat

While this isn’t banned, the diet recommends no more than four servings of red meat per week to maintain your brain health. The Mediterranean diet restricts red meat even further, allowing only one serving per week.

If you eat a lot of red meat, it might be a good idea to start decreasing your consumption – but you can still enjoy a good steak or a meatloaf on occasion.

Butter and margarine

Your primary cooking oil should be olive oil, but there is some flexibility allowed by the MIND diet. Limit your intake of butter or margarine sticks to less than a tablespoon per day to achieve the most benefit from the MIND plan.

Cheese

According to the MIND diet study, cheese isn’t a particularly helpful food when it comes to protecting your brain. Aim to limit your consumption to just once per week if you hope to see a reduction in your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Sweets and pastries

Not only are these treats no good for your waistline, they’re also detrimental to your brain health. Followers of the MIND diet are encouraged to limit sweets and pastries to no more than five servings per week.

Fried foods

This category includes fast food, which should be limited to no more than once per week to keep your brain healthy. The nutritional benefit of these foods is slim, and the MIND diet focuses on foods that provide a significantly positive impact on health – which does not include fried or fast food.

What are the health benefits of the MIND diet?

Beyond the brain-boosting benefits that this diet can offer, there are a number of other reasons why people are choosing to follow the MIND diet. You’ll enjoy complete nutrition and a wide range of improvements to your health and well-being – without feeling restricted or overwhelmed by a difficult-to-maintain eating plan.

There are tons of benefits to be gained by making the switch to the MIND diet, even if you’re not at risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

One: The MIND diet shaves years off your brain.

Not only does this diet help prevent cognitive decline and reduces your risk of dementia, studies have shown that it actually improves brain function and performance. One study followed 960 older adults over a nine year period, and found that the brains of MIND dieters seemed an average of 7.5 years younger than those who weren’t following the diet.

Two: The MIND diet enhances cognitive function.

Studies have also proven that followers of the MIND diet score better than their peers on multiple tests of cognition – memory, perceptual speed, and more. Often, these functions tend to decrease with age, even in the absence of a neurodegenerative disease. Luckily, this can be prevented thanks to the simple eating plan recommended with the MIND diet.

The leafy greens encouraged by the diet provide plenty of vitamin E, carotenoids, folate, and flavonoids, which all help support brain function. Berries, which are the only fruit recommended by the MIND diet, have proven to improve memory and learning abilities – likely due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Three: The MIND diet reduces brain shrinkage.

Brain scans from more than 400 individuals in their 70s over the course of a three year period showed significant less brain shrinkage in those who followed more closely to a Mediterranean or MIND diet, according to a study published in the journal Neurology. The authors of the study calculated that the effect is roughly equivalent to about of the impact of the aging process.

Four: The MIND diet supports healthy weight loss and management.

While the diet is designed with brain health in mind, followers are encouraged to eat more whole, fresh, unprocessed foods. Lean meats, nuts, whole grains, beans, fish, greens, and olive oil all contribute to healthy weight loss – and with a restriction on sweets and pastries, followers of this diet wind up consuming far fewer empty calories.

The diet also encourages fat burning and helps increase metabolism, making it easier to lose weight or maintain your current weight. And by eating plenty of lean protein, you’ll be able to support your muscle mass even as you age.

Five: The MIND diet provides plenty of antioxidants.

These valuable substances help protect the cells of your body from free radicals – the harmful molecules that are produced when your body processes food or exposure to tobacco smoke and radiation. Antioxidants can even help prevent the development of diseases and other health conditions by decreasing oxidative stress, which can accumulate in the body from things like alcohol intake, high blood sugar, air pollution, and antioxidant deficiency.

Six: The MIND diet encourages complete nutrition.

Thanks to the well-balanced diet recommended by the MIND eating plan, you’ll be getting all of the nutrients you need to support your body’s functioning. Eating the proper foods helps your body develop, repair, and replace cells, encourages muscle growth, and provides the essential fats, vitamins, and minerals you need.

Related: is cumin safe

Seven: The MIND diet balances cholesterol levels.

Unhealthy cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) can build up in your body and cause damage to your arteries if you eat too many saturated or trans fats. The MIND diet works to prevent this by limiting your intake of these dangerous fats, and encouraging followers to enjoy healthier options – like olive oil instead of butter or margarine.

This helps to keep your cholesterol levels under control, which contributes not just to your brain health, but to your overall well-being.

Eight: The MIND diet helps fight certain types of cancer.

The diet recommended by oncologists for people fighting cancer is very similar to the MIND diet – plenty of vegetables and legumes, berries, unsaturated fats like olive oil, fatty fish, and limited amounts of meat. For additional cancer-fighting compounds, supplement the MIND diet with drinks like green tea or pomegranate juice. You can also add in small amounts of citrus fruits and even antioxidant-rich dark chocolate.

Nine: The MIND diet protects against diabetes.

The DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet are the top ranked diets for fighting against diabetes – and since the MIND diet is an amalgamation of the two, it only makes sense that this eating plan would also help prevent high blood sugar or insulin resistance. While most studies related to the MIND diet have been primarily focused on brain health, there is evidence that eating the foods recommended by this plan will help lower an individual’s risk of developing diabetes.

Ten: The MIND diet improves mental health.

Many studies have indicated a link between diet and mental health. Nutrition plays an important role in the development, management, and prevention of a variety of mental health problems, including depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety – as well as Alzheimer’s disease.

Maintaining a balanced mood and ensuring a lasting feeling of wellness can be achieved through diet. It’s important to include adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and water – all of which can be done by adhering to the MIND diet plan.

Eleven: The MIND diet reduces your risk of heart disease.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle goes a long way toward reducing your risk of developing heart disease, or even managing a previously diagnosed condition. Even those with additional risk factors like age, gender, or family history can benefit from adjusting their diet to include more heart-healthy foods.

Fortunately, this is easy to do by simply following the MIND diet – and since this diet is so easy, individuals are more likely to stick with it. Without the added pressure of counting calories or reading confusing packaging labels, you also won’t have the stress that comes with trying to follow a lot of more complicated eating plans – reducing your risk of heart disease even more.

Twelve: The MIND diet helps control inflammation.

Not only does reducing inflammation help keep your brain strong, excessive or prolonged inflammation can actually contribute to a number of other conditions. The MIND diet is full of fantastic superfoods that work to destroy inflammation in the brain, as well as throughout the rest of your body.

Medications, environmental toxins, stress, poor gut function, and eating too much processed food can all contribute to a build-up of inflammation in your body, but the MIND diet is all you need to fight back.

Thirteen: The MIND diet encourages healthy pain management.

People who suffer from chronic pain caused by arthritis, fibromyalgia, or other conditions may find that they can reduce their dependence on pharmaceuticals just by making the switch to a MIND diet. The diet first works by reducing inflammation, which will help decrease your pain at the cause, but many of the foods included in this eating plan will increase your body’s production of serotonin – raising your pain threshold.

The diet also supports a healthy nervous system, which is key in managing pain symptoms.

Fourteen: The MIND diet will make you feel and look younger.

Thanks to the antioxidants you’ll be eating when you follow the MIND diet, you’ll discover that your skin looks clearer, wrinkles and fine lines appear softer, and you even have a healthier mindset. You’ll also be dropping excess weight while maintaining your muscle mass, keeping your body looking strong and healthy. For anyone looking to improve their appearance as well as their health, the MIND diet is the perfect solution.

Fifteen: The MIND diet encourages a healthy lifestyle.

This isn’t just an eating plan – the MIND diet helps promote overall good health. By incorporating other aspects of well-being into your life, including physical activity, social experiences, and spending time outside, you’ll find that your entire outlook is happier and healthier. By feeding your body whole, nutritious foods, you can easily extend your healthy attitude to cover multiple other areas.

What should I keep in mind when starting this diet?

Despite the host of important health benefits that the MIND diet provides, it can be difficult to change your lifestyle to adapt to a new eating plan. However, this diet is one of the easiest healthy eating plans for anyone to follow, thanks to the careful thought that went into establishing MIND.

Still, if you’re debating whether or not the MIND diet is right for you, consider the following points. Making a change like this is a major decision, so it’s important to think about how the MIND diet will impact your life – and the lives of your loved ones, who may or may not be embarking on this new eating plan along with you.

MIND is a lifestyle, not a diet.

Deciding to follow the MIND diet is about more than following rules and watching what you eat – it’s about supplementing your body’s natural functions to provide increased protection to one of your most important organs. While the diet certainly focuses on nutrition as a way to reduce your risk of developing neurodegenerative conditions, it does a lot more than just that.

Since studies have proven that the longer you stick to the diet, the greater the benefits you will see from the MIND plan. With this in mind, it’s best to think of MIND as a lifestyle change instead of a diet – it’s not a temporary fix. Rather, this is an adjustment you’re making to the way you live and eat that will help your body and mind stay strong and healthy.

One nice thing about the MIND diet is that you will still be able to go out to eat at restaurants or bars with your friends and family members – just consider the foods you should be eating and try to incorporate them into the meals that you order. You can also indulge in a glass of wine, or two for men, but try to limit your intake so that you can stay on track with the MIND diet plan.

MIND will require a bit of an investment.

Switching up your diet always involves a little extra work, but since this eating plan primarily focuses on fresh, whole foods, you will be spending a bit more at the grocery store and a little more time in the kitchen. However, you will end up saving money by not eating fast food and cutting down on your consumption of alcohol, sweets, and other expensive indulgences.

The time you spend in the kitchen doesn’t have to be a detriment, though – the Mediterranean diet, in fact, encourages followers to make meal preparations a social event. Get the whole family involved in healthy eating and enjoy spending the extra time with your loved ones. Increasing the time you spend socializing with your friends and family has also proven to have a positive impact on brain health.

Stick with it by making small changes.

Although the MIND diet doesn’t require as much effort as many other healthy eating plan alternatives, you’ll still need to make some adjustments to follow it as closely as possible and achieve the greatest benefit.

Rather than doing a complete overhaul of your diet, which could lead you to feel overwhelmed or restricted, try to incorporate small changes on a daily or weekly basis. Switch out red meat for poultry or fish, replace butter and margarine with olive oil, and reduce your intake of unhealthy snacks by substituting them with nuts, instead. The more small changes you can make a part of your daily life, the easier it will be for you to maintain the MIND diet eating plan.

Try to incorporate physical activity.

Evidence exists to support the theory that exercise can help protect the brain – even in individuals who may be at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s. To make the most of the benefits gained by eating the MIND diet, try to increase the amount of physical activity you participate in – at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity activity each week, combined with at least two strength workouts or muscle strengthening activities.

If you can, get outside and spend this time doing something physical in the sun. Not only will the healthy activity improve your well-being, but being in nature is another great way to stay healthy and happy. You can also encourage your friends and loved ones to join you in your workouts – play in the park with your kids, go for a walk with your friends or your spouse, or even hit the gym with a group. It’s a great way to build relationships and enjoy doing something healthy and productive.

How can I get started?

Since the MIND diet doesn’t involve strict rules, like calorie counts or timed meals, there is a lot of flexibility to this eating plan.

Every day, you’ll want to ensure you’re getting at least three servings of whole grains, a leafy salad, at least one other vegetable, and a glass of wine. Most days, turn to nuts as your snack of choice, and every other day, eat about a half-cup of beans. Twice a week, eat poultry and a half-cup of berries, and at least once a week, choose fish as your source of protein.

However, beyond those basic guidelines, there are some great recipes out there that can get you started creating your own meals, MIND-style. Use these suggestions to inspire you to come up with some ideas of your own. You might even discover your new favorite meal as you begin to experiment in the kitchen!

Breakfast

Yogurt Parfait with Maple Brittle (adapted from this recipe)

Ingredients:

1 teaspoon coconut oil

3 tablespoons of sugar-free maple syrup

2 tablespoons of sliced almonds

2 tablespoons of flaked, unsweetened coconut

1/8 teaspoon of ground cardamom

½ teaspoon of cinnamon

2 cups of organic plain Greek yogurt

1 ¼ cups of fresh berries (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, or strawberries)

Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Cover the parchment with a thin, even layer of oil.

2. Using a small bowl, mix together the syrup, almonds, coconut, cardamom, and cinnamon. Pour the mixture onto the oiled paper, tilting the pan to ensure it spreads evenly.

3. Bake for five to seven minutes with the oven light on. Keep a close eye on the brittle. Watch as the syrup starts to bubble, then becomes a deep amber color. The almonds should turn golden brown.

4. Once this happens, remove the pan from the oven and let it cool to room temperature.

5. Put the pan into the freezer for about five minutes, then use a spatula to break the brittle into smaller chunks. These can be stored in an airtight container if you don’t use them all right away.

6. Pour yogurt into a bowl and stir in berries. Top with a piece of brittle and serve chilled.

Mediterranean Muffins (adapted from this recipe)

Ingredients:

2 cups of almond meal

1 tablespoon of flaxseed

½ teaspoon of sea salt

¼ teaspoon of ground black pepper

½ teaspoon of baking soda

3 large eggs

3 ½ tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

½ tablespoon of lemon juice

½ tablespoon of water

1 ½ teaspoon of raw honey

½ cup diced ripe pear

3 tablespoons of chopped walnuts

1 ½ teaspoons of finely chopped fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon of lemon zest

Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and either lightly oil a muffin tin or line it with papers.

2. Use a large bowl to combine almond meal, flaxseed, salt, pepper, and baking soda.

3. In another bowl, mix together eggs, olive oil, lemon juice, water, and honey. Whisk thoroughly.

4. Dig a small well in the bowl with the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Stir well.

5. Mix in pears, walnuts, rosemary, and lemon zest.

6. Pour batter into muffin cups. Be sure to leave space for muffins to rise.

7. Bake 13 to 15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean from the centre of the muffins.

Lunch

Orange Quinoa with Chickpeas (adapted from this recipe)

Ingredients:

½ cup raw chopped pistachios

1 ½ cups of quinoa

2 ½ cups of low-sodium broth or water

1 teaspoon of cumin

½ teaspoon of coriander

½ cup of fresh chopped mint

1/8 cup of fresh squeezed orange juice

zest of one orange

1 ½ tablespoons of olive oil

1 ½ tablespoons of lemon juice

½ cup of dried cranberries

½ cup of chopped cucumber

½ cup of chopped yellow bell pepper

1 cup of cooked chickpeas

+ salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. On a sheet pan, evenly distribute raw pistachios. Bake until slightly browned, about seven to ten minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

2. Rinse quinoa while bringing broth or water to a boil. Add quinoa and simmer, covered, over low heat for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and fluff quinoa with a fork before spreading it onto the sheet pan to cool.

3. In a large bowl, combine cumin, coriander, mint, salt and pepper, orange juice, orange zest, olive oil, lemon juice, cranberries, cucumber, and bell pepper. Mix well, and add chickpeas and cooled quinoa and pistachios.

4. Serve immediately, and store leftovers in an airtight container for up to four days.

Crunchy Walnut Salmon (adapted from this recipe)

Ingredients:

Salmon fillets, skin on

1 ½ cups of coarsely chopped walnuts

3 tablespoons of dried bread crumbs

3 tablespoons of lemon zest

1 ½ tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons of chopped fresh dill

½ cup of plain Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

+ salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions:

1. Mix together walnuts, breadcrumbs, lemon zest, olive oil, and dill, either in a small bowl or by pulsing them in a food processor. When mixture sticks together, add salt and pepper.

2. In another bowl, combine yogurt, mustard, and lemon juice.

3. Arrange fillets skin down on a baking sheet lined with parchment and spoon on a thin layer of yogurt mixture.

4. Add about 1/3 cup of the walnut crumb onto each fillet, gently pressing them into the fish.

5. Cover and refrigerate for up to two hours.

6. Bake fillets at 350 degrees F for 15 to 20 minutes, until salmon flakes easily with a fork. Before serving, squeeze on a bit of lemon juice.

7. Serve with a side of vegetables and rice or quinoa.

Dinner

Mediterranean Chicken Thighs (adapted from this recipe)

Ingredients:

8 bone-in, skins-on chicken thighs

2 ½ tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

3 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 can of artichoke hearts, drained

4 ounces of pitted Greek olives

1 ½ cups low-sodium broth

2 tablespoons of fresh chopped oregano

1 large lemon, sliced

½ cup of plain Greek yogurt

¼ cup of feta cheese, crumbled

+ salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions:

1. Heat 1 ½ tablespoons of oil in a sauté pan, using medium heat. Once oil is warmed, place chicken thighs in the pan with the skins down. Let skin cook until crisp, about seven to nine minutes. Remove chicken from the pan and set aside on a plate or baking sheet.

2. Add garlic, artichoke hearts, olives, broth, remaining olive oil, and oregano, cooking until soft. Put the chicken thighs back in the pan and top with slices of lemon.

3. Bring the mixture to a simmer before covering and reducing heat to medium-low. Simmer for another 12 to 13 minutes.

4. Mix in yogurt and feta once chicken is cooked, warming just enough to create a creamy sauce.

5. Serve chicken with roasted vegetables, like Brussels sprouts or asparagus, with rice or quinoa.

Hearty Chili with Wheat Berries and Black Beans (adapted from this recipe)

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

1 large purple onion, chopped

1 large red bell pepper, chopped

1 jalapeno pepper, chopped

5 cloves of garlic, chopped

2 teaspoons of chili powder

1 ½ teaspoons of ground cumin

1 teaspoon of smoked paprika

2 cans of black beans, rinsed

2 cans diced tomatoes

2 cups low-sodium broth

2 teaspoons of light brown sugar

2 cups of cooked wheat berries

1 lime, freshly juiced

1 avocado, diced

+ salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions:

1. Warm oil over medium heat, then add onion, bell pepper, jalapeno pepper, garlic, chili powder, cumin, paprika, and salt and pepper. Cook about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add beans, tomatoes, broth, and brown sugar.

2. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 25 minutes.

3. Add cooked wheat berries and simmer for another five minutes, until wheat berries are heated through. Squeeze in lime juice.

4. Serve warm, topped with diced avocado. Store leftovers in an airtight container for two weeks in the fridge or up to six months in the freezer.