Caring for the health if your mind and reducing your risk of age related neurodegenerative diseases the scientific consensus is while genetics to play a role, you need a multi-faced approach that includes proper nutrition, sleep, stress management, and exercise. It is hard to say which is the most important but nutrition should definitely be at the top of the list.
One of the reasons that I place nutrition of such high importance, aside from the fact that the study of nutrition is my life's work, is because when you properly fuel your body, you are giving your brain the ability to function at its best.
Proper nutrition helps counteract the metabolic stresses of daily life that, if left unchecked, can lead to decreased cognitive function. What I’m talking about is oxidative stress. Oxidation at the most basic level is a chemical reaction that combines oxygen with another compound or molecule. This process results in the production of free radicals. If these accumulate unchecked, it leads to increased oxidative stress (i.e. stress put on your biology due to excessive oxidation), which can accelerate brain aging and memory impairment.
But since oxygen is the life blood of the human body — we are constantly using oxygen in chemical reactions and producing free radicals — stopping oxidation isn’t an option. This is where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants are compounds that quench, or neutralize, the free radicals produced by oxidative reactions. And we need to eat foods in our diet that are rich with antioxidants to help support this process in our bodies.
Let me share with your one of my favorite analogies to give you another way of looking at it. Imagine your brain is a room. As we live our lives and get older, the room starts to fill with smoke. The more smoke in the room, the harder it is to do things (i.e. think, remember stuff, etc). In order to improve our brain function and memory, we need to clear the smoke. Antioxidants are the things that allow us to clear the smoke from the room (our brains), allowing us to think more clearly.
So what are these foods that contain the antioxidants that our body needs?
I’m not a big believer in memory-boosting foods, as there are no foods that you can eat that will lead to immediate improvements in brain function. (Harvard Health agrees with me.) There is also no magic bullet food that you can eat.
Instead research shows that there are collections or groups of foods (what nutrition researchers call dietary patterns) that, when eaten consistently, can help reduce your risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s. One group of researchers from Columbia University Medical School found the following foods to be key to reducing risk of Alzheimer’s disease: nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, cruciferous vegetables, fruits, and dark and green leafy vegetables.
Another diet that has gotten a lot of attention for its beneficial effects on your brain is the MIND diet. MIND is an acronym (us scientists LOVE acronyms!) for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet. The MIND diet was developed as a collaborative effort between Rush University, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and the National Institute on Aging. It is a modification of the DASH diet (another acronym-based diet – Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which was developed back in 1993 by scientists at Johns Hopkins University.
Here’s the awesome news about the MIND Diet: In 3 years it reduced risk of Alzheimer’s Disease by 53% in people who vigilantly followed the diet. And people who had moderate adherence to the MIND Diet still experienced a 35% reduction in risk of Alzheimer’s disease!!
Pretty impressive isn't it! Let's look at what the MIND diet is and then I'll show you how you can put it into action in your life.
The MIND Diet contains 10 brain-friendly food groups:
- Green leafy vegetables – 1 salad daily
- Other vegetables – 1 serving daily (e.g. 1 cup raw broccoli)
- Nuts – 1 serving daily (e.g. 49 pistachios)
- Berries – 2 or more (1/2 cup) servings per week (blueberries and strawberries are emphasized)
- Whole grains – 3 servings daily (1 serving = 1 slice of bread or 1/2 cup cooked rice)
- Beans – 3-4 servings per week (1 serving = 1/2 cup canned beans)
- Fish – 1 or more servings per week (e.g. 3 oz salmon)
- Poultry – 2 servings or more per week (1 serving = 3 oz cooked)
- Olive oil – Use as the primary oil in your diet (1 serving = 1 Tbsp)
- Wine – 1 glass (5 ounces) per day (yes, you read that correctly!)
The MIND Diet also promotes the avoidance of the following 5 foods and food groups:
- Red meat – Eat rarely (I disagree with this recommendation and believe data shows that lean red meats can be consumed just as you would consume poultry. However, it is prudent to minimize processed meats.)
- Butter – 1 Tbsp or less per day (always butter, never margarine)
- Cheese – 1 serving per week (1 serving = 1.5 oz)
- Pastries and Sweets – Avoid all (buzzkill! 1 per month is fine, in my opinion)
- Fried or fast food – Less than 1 serving per week
One thing that I don't want you to gloss over is the different in effectiveness of the diet based on compliance. 53% vs. 35%! That is huge. I have thought for years that the biggest area of improvement for nutrition professionals is helping their clients with compliance. Your ability to stick to a dietary protocol is king. If you have a great plan, but never follow it then does it really matter is your diet plan is so wonderful?
As we are going to look at the hallmark dos and don'ts of the MIND Diet I encourage you to think about how you can progressively implement these dietary habits/guidelines. Don't think about sticking to the MIND Diet 100% from day one.
Instead do this...
- Assess over the course of the next week what characteristics of the MIND Diet you already implement 100% (e.g. you always have a salad every day).
- Then determine the characteristics of the MIND Diet that you do with some frequency (e.g. you only snack on nuts sometimes).
- Finally determine the aspects of the MIND Diet that you rarely/never do (e.g. you don't eat beans).
- Re-look at the areas that you do with some frequency. Pick one and work on doing that per the MIND Diet prescription.
- Repeat this process with everything on your 'sometimes' list.
- Next move to your 'never do' list. Pick one and work on doing that per the MIND Diet prescription.
- Repeat this process with everything on your 'never' list.
This process might take you a little long than you would initially think or hope but in the end it will help you develop the habits and strategies to maintain this diet over the long haul with the greatest compliance so that you too can reap the incredible benefits as seen in the MIND Diet trial.