We’re talking about brain health today! — But another diet… are you kidding me? Well I'll just tell you right now, as a dietitian who follows the evidence, I actually support this one. So I'm just going to start off by saying I think diet culture is a problem (a really big one). Christy Harrison, the author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, defines diet culture as “a belief system that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue.” She also goes on to say that “Diet culture is true drama in and of itself. It threatens our most basic need, which is the need to belong. You're bombarded with messages of your ‘body is wrong’, ‘your body doesn't belong’, ‘your body doesn't conform to what we think is worthy or lovable or acceptable.’
How can you not be traumatized by that?” So for these reasons (and honestly countless others), I'm very skeptical and cautious when I hear about a new diet that makes a big claim. However, the MIND Diet really isn't a diet; it's more of food and nutrition guidelines that's rooted in a lot of research.
So what is the MIND Diet?
It was developed by the nutritional epidemiologist Dr. Martha Morris and her colleagues, and it is actually an acronym. It stands for: Mediterranean DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. Okay, I know that is a mouthful… but it's really a combination of two different eating patterns that have been well studied (we're talking decades of research); so let's break it down. You’ve probably heard about the Mediterranean Diet, which is a way of eating that follows the Greeks, Italians, French, Moroccans, Tunisians, and anyone else who is lucky enough to call the Mediterranean region home. It consists of a balanced diet full of healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and even wine!
Now the DASH Diet is another acronym (Yes, an acronym within an acronym), which stands for: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This diet has been thoroughly researched for its ability to help people with high blood pressure, and it largely consists of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat diary, lean meat, and places limitations on sodium and sweets. As you can see, there's a lot of overlap with the two diets, and Dr. Morris’s team of researchers thought there could be a wider application for both of them. They hypothesized that the combination of the two could provide this protective effect on the brain and even lead to improvements long-term cognition. This is where that last part of the acronym comes into play: “Neurodegenerative Delay.” Neurodegeneration is really just a fancy scientific way of saying “loss of brain function”, which is normal as it inevitably happens over time, but as the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases (such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s) continues to rise, the urgency to develop treatments and preventative measures is also on the rise. That is why this MIND Diet is so important! It may actuall slow the progression of these diseases and improve cognition and memory. Who doesn't want a sharper brain?
Guidelines of the MIND Diet (According to Harvard.edu) (1):
3+ servings a day of whole grains
1+ servings a day of vegetables (other than green leafy)
6+ servings a week of green leafy vegetables
5+ servings a week of nuts
4+ meals a week that include beans
2+ servings a week of berries
2+ meals a week that includes poultry
1+ meal a week that includes fish
Mainly olive oil (if added fat is used)
Less than 5 servings a week of pastries and sweets
Less than 4 servings a week of red meat (including beef, pork, lamb, and products made from these meats)
Less than one serving a week of cheese and fried foods
Less than 1 tablespoon a day of butter/margarine
What does the research say?
I'll tell you right now… it's pretty good. Honestly, I'd be surprised if it wasn't because you're really just eating a whole bunch of fresh, minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods.
One long-term study following over 900 subjects for 4.5 years discovered that the MIND Diet was associated with a reduced incidence of Alzheimer's Disease. While there were some confounding variables, the association was certainly positive (2).
A more recent study which controlled for additional variables revealed that individuals aged 65 and older who scored high on the validated MIND Diet questionnaire also had higher levels of cognitive functioning and slower rates of cognitive decline (3).
The Framingham Heart Study followed over 2000 people and also determined that the MIND Diet was again associated with overall better cognition and also memory. This study also found a positive correlation with brain volume (4).
Finally, a large prospective cohort study of more than 16,000 women aged 70 and over from the Nurses Health Study found that long-term adherence to the MIND Diet was moderately associated with higher memory scores later in life (5).
So overall, the research is promising. It's not perfect, and we still need more because I will say there are a few things to consider when looking at the existing studies. First off, most of the data is based on observational studies (not clinical trials), so there will inherently be some recall bias because we are just trusting what subjects are self-reporting on questionnaires. I will mention that there is currently a three-year high-quality clinical trial being done on the MIND Diet, so stay tuned for those results. All in all, the MIND Diet appears to be legit — and it makes sense when you really look at what it consists of.
I also feel the need to mention the potentially much wider application for this diet outside of just brain health. I feel confident that people who score high the MIND Diet questionnaires will also have favorable outcomes when it comes to cardiovascular health, gut health, muscular health, bone health, energy levels, and even longevity. Personally, I love this diet. It follows principles that I preach all the time — eat a variety of minimally-processed, fresh, whole, nutrient-dense foods. It includes whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, vegetables, lean meat, healthy fat… all the good things that our body needs to thrive! So the verdict: yeah it's dietitian approved. Now when it comes to specifically the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases, like dementia, I think it's too early to come to a conclusion; however, for there appears to be enough evidence to recommend this diet for overall health, brain function, and long-term cognition.
Keep in mind that this is not a diet (in the conventional use of the word); it's really just a clean way of eating, and I hate to tell you but there are no quick fixes when it comes to outcomes related to in longevity and long-term health. I hope this inspired you a little bit to add a few more veggies to your plate!
Jack O’Connor, MS, RD
Lead Performance Dietitian, Inc Nutrition
Morris, M. C., Tangney, C. C., Wang, Y., Sacks, F. M., Bennett, D. A., & Aggarwal, N. T. (2015). MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's & Dementia, 11(9), 1007-1014.
Dhana, K., James, B. D., Agarwal, P., Aggarwal, N. T., Cherian, L. J., Leurgans, S. E., ... & Schneider, J. A. (2021). MIND diet, common brain pathologies, and cognition in community-dwelling older adults. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 83(2), 683-692.
Melo van Lent, D., O’Donnell, A., Beiser, A. S., Vasan, R. S., DeCarli, C. S., Scarmeas, N., ... & Pase, M. P. (2021). Mind diet adherence and cognitive performance in the Framingham heart study. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 82(2), 827-839.
Berendsen, A. M., Kang, J. H., Feskens, E. J., de Groot, C. P. G. M., Grodstein, F., & van de Rest, O. (2018). Association of long-term adherence to the mind diet with cognitive function and cognitive decline in American women. The journal of nutrition, health & aging, 22, 222-229.