MIND diet describes 10 brain healthy food groups
In the Brain Works Kitchen, we fill our plates with the foods studied to enhance brain health and reduce Alzheimer’s risk. So what are the foods we should reach for and which ones should we avoid? It’s a simple question with a not so simple answer. Learning the 10 Brain Healthy Food Groups, defined by the MIND diet study, is a great place to start.
MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging
The MIND diet study, published in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia, is one of the most compelling studies we have linking food and Alzheimer’s disease. MIND diet researchers, led by Rush University nutritional epidemiologist Dr. Martha Clare Morris, created a small sensation by reporting a 53% reduction in Alzheimer’s risk in those who ate more “brain healthy foods” and less “brain unhealthy” ones.
Reducing Alzheimer’s risk by 53% is equivalent to adding 7.5 years to one’s brainspan.
Getting more brainspan — the number of years your brain is functioning at a high level —is the name of the game when it comes to healthy aging. We want our brainspan to match our lifespan, right?
MIND — Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay — is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, a plan designed to reduce hypertension. Researchers divided foods into 10 brain healthy food groups and 5 brain unhealthy ones. Participants’ diets were assessed weekly with a MIND diet score, a tally of how many servings of these foods — the good and the bad — were consumed. You can dive deeper into the science of the MIND diet study, and other studies linking diet with Alzheimer’s, here: The Science Behind Alzheimer’s Prevention in the Brain Works Kitchen. Or read the MIND diet study in its entirety here.
For now, let’s talk about the 10 Brain Healthy Food Groups: Berries, veggies, leafy greens and beans. Nuts, fish, chicken, and whole grains. Olive oil and red wine. Red wine? That’s a complicated one.
1. Berries: Your secret weapon
What’s your most potent weapon against Alzheimer’s disease? It could be the humble berry. Berries — specifically those that are blue, black, purple and red — have been shown to stop the process of neurodegenerative that leads to dementia. Packed with anthocyanins, part of a family of compounds called polyphenols, berries help clean up inflammation in the brain. This prevents amyloid protein from tangling up and forming the plaques that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have shown that supplementing a diet with blueberries leads to improved memory.
How many berries should you eat? MIND diet guidelines recommend eating two 1/2 cup servings of berries each week. Many researchers advise eating berries every day for optimal brain health.
Brain Works Kitchen favorites: blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and cherries. Wild berries, such as the huckleberries that grow wild in the Tetons where I live, have even more anthocyanins than their cultivated cousins. Yay for huckleberries!
2. Eat your (colorful, cruciferous) veggies
Americans, in general, don’t eat a lot of vegetables. I think we can all agree that veggies are good for the brain. But not all vegetables are created equal. The most popular vegetable in America, the potato, is not exactly a nutritional powerhouse. Especially since we consume most of our potatoes as French fries and potato chips. The next most popular? Tomatoes. Tomatoes can be good for you, but most of our tomato consumption is in the form of sugar-laden ketchup and pizza sauce. We do love our pizza.
The most brain healthy vegetables are most colorful ones — the greenest leafy greens, the reddest cabbage, the purplest cauliflower. That’s why the nutritional value of iceberg lettuce, referred to as “head lettuce” in the graph to the right, pales in comparison to that of kale. Shopping for color in the produce aisle and the farmers market is the easiest way to get more brain healthy foods into your life. And choosing cruciferous vegetables — like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, radishes, and bok choy, to name a few – keep the brain happy with beneficial sulphoramines, folic acid, carotenoids, and vitamins E, C and K.
3. Leafy greens every day
Eating leafy green vegetables every day is a no-brainer for reducing Alzheimer’s risk. Study after study shows that plant-based diets, with lots of leafy greens, are the key to preventing most of the chronic diseases that afflict Americans: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and obesity.
Now we can add Alzheimer’s disease and dementia to that list. The MIND diet recommends one serving of leafy greens every day for optimal risk reduction. The darker the greens, the more packed they are with antioxidants. Brain Works Kitchen favorites include kale, Swiss chard, spinach, arugula, dandelion greens, and all the leafy herbs.
One great way to eat more leafy greens is to add them to your breakfast routine. I love poaching eggs in a pile of greens cooked down with a little olive oil.
4. Beans: The magical fruit
The MIND diet includes four or more servings of beans each week. The Mediterranean diet is also big on beans — they make up the broadest base of the Mediterranean diet pyramid. Diets high in beans have been shown to slow cognitive decline.
Cooking up a pot of beans each week is one of the easiest ways to get on board with brain-healthy eating. But canned beans can be just as good for you. Just be sure to choose low sodium brands and rinse them well before eating.
Brain Works Kitchen favorites include chickpeas, lentils, black beans and cannellini beans. Snacking on Spicy Crisped Chickpeas, made in your oven with canned chickpeas tossed with olive oil and spices, is a great way to eat more beans (and less potato chips.) Recipe coming soon.
5. Nuts about nuts
Why are nuts so brain healthy? Omega-3 fatty acids, for one. Monounsaturated fats, for another. And the fact that they are packed with Vitamin E, a potent antioxidant best ingested in its whole food form. Brain Works cooking classes try to sneak nuts into almost every dish.
The MIND diet recommends eating one-half cup of nuts at least five times each week. Almond milk is an essential staple of the Brain Works Kitchen. We love it as a refreshing drink spiked with honey and turmeric. And we use it as a more brain healthy ingredient than cow’s milk in recipes.
Another great way to eat more nuts? Replace white flour with a nut-based one. Alternative flours, made from ground hazelnuts, almonds and chestnuts, are not only more nutrient dense than their white flour cousins, they add earthy flavor and texture to baked goods. Or make of a weekly batch of granola, and don’t skimp on the nuts. Brain Works Granola is designed to have almond slices in every bite.
We even transform cashews in a blender into a cream one of my Brain Works students described as “far more delicious than whipped cream.”
Favorite Brain Works Kitchen nuts: almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, Brazil nuts, and pecans. Oh, and we are also crazy about seeds: pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and sesame seeds, especially when ground into brain healthy tahini.
6. Eat fish once a week, just not fried
You already knew fish was good for your brain, didn’t you? But did you know that the method of preparation is more important than the type of fish? Fatty fishes (salmon, anchovies, herring, mackerel and sardines) are prized for their high omega-3 fatty acid content. But one compelling study found that eating fish, any fish, at least once a week led to larger brain volumes, as long as that fish was not fried.
MRI scans of 260 cognitively normal participants who ate fish once a week had less atrophy, or shrinkage, of the brain over 3 years. Brain atrophy is associated with cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. This finding held true despite the omega-3 fatty acid content of the fish.
The MIND diet study recommends eating fish one or more times each week as long as you don’t fry it. The Mediterranean diet recommends 2 to 3 servings of fish or seafood each week. How should you prepare your brain health fish? Poach, sauté, roast, grill, or bake it. Just don’t fry it.
If you love salmon, try my new favorite, foolproof method: Oven-Steamed Salmon. A technique perfected by food writer (and Alzheimer’s activist) Paula Wolfert is described in the New York Times here.
7. Chicken and poultry 2 or more times a week
Just like fish, chicken and poultry are good for your brain as long as they’re not fried. The MIND diet recommends eating two or more servings each week. The Mediterranean diet agrees: one to three servings of poultry each week is part of a heart- and brain-healthy diet, preferably baked, sautéed, stir-fried, roasted, or grilled.
Brain Works Kitchen favorites: spatch-cocked chicken oven roasted in olive oil, chicken breasts coated with turmeric and baked, and sesame chicken stir fry with tons of colorful, cruciferous veggies.
8. Whole grain goodness
Are grains good for the brain? That depends on the type of grain. If we are talking about 95% of the grains Americans eat, made from processed white flour, then the answer is no. But there’s lots for a brain to love about “whole grains” that are minimally processed and left in their whole kernel form. Those kernels are brimming with potent antioxidants, like vitamin E. And whole grains are full of fiber, important for keeping blood sugar levels stable and preventing insulin spikes. Fiber is also what feeds the beneficial bacteria in the gut. It’s the “prebiotic” needed to maintain a healthy population of “probiotics.”
The MIND diet study includes three servings of whole grains each day. The Mediterranean diet includes four to six servings each day. That may seem like a lot but serving sizes are small — one half cup whole grain cereal, whole grain pasta, brown rice, barley, or one slice whole grain bread.
Brain Works Kitchen favorites: farro, brown rice, whole grain pasta (especially when made with spelt), oats and forbidden, or black, rice. Forbidden rice, containing the same brain healthy anthocyanin pigment found in blueberries, makes an awesome breakfast pudding, grain salad, or stir fry.
9. Olive Oil, the original superfood
Both the MIND diet and the Mediterranean diet recommend using olive oil as a primary cooking oil. What’s so special about olive oil? First, it’s packed with the right kinds of fats — mostly monounsaturated — that keep blood vessels healthy. Second, olive oil is a complex elixir of at least 230 polyphenols. One in particular, oleocanthal, has been found to be particularly brain healthy due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Third, there seems to be some synergy going on when plant-based, whole foods and olive oil are eaten in the same meal. Olive oil is the perfect conduit to transport the fat soluble vitamins D, E, A and K into the body.
Finally, and most importantly, there are hundreds of studies of the highest caliber in support of olive oil’s health benefits.
Brain Works Kitchen recommends: As an everyday olive oil from the supermarket, California Olive Ranch olive oil has a high standard of purity and a relatively moderate price. To learn more about choosing the best olive oils, check out this Buyer’s Guide to Olive Oil.
10. Red wine: one glass a day, and that means just one
Surprised to see red wine listed as a brain healthy food group? The MIND diet study included one glass of red wine per day, and the Mediterranean diet encourages moderate amounts of red wine taken with meals in the company of family and friends. Red wine contains resveratrol and other polyphenols, potent anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant chemicals. For most people, having a glass of wine at the end of the day helps reduce stress. And we know that stress is bad for the brain.
The MIND diet researchers specifically recommend no more than 5 ounces per day of red wine for Alzheimer’s risk reduction. And in the ongoing phase 3 trial of the MIND diet study, they have dropped red wine as a healthy food group. Why? Because recommending a form of alcohol to reduce Alzheimer’s risk is tricky business. Five ounces is not a very big glass of wine, and those who drink wine tend to drink more than that. Although observational studies suggest moderate alcohol intake reduces Alzheimer’s, a higher intake makes that risk go up.
The bottom line on alcohol: Enjoy one glass of wine, preferably red, in moderation with food. If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start now. Non-alcoholic red wine, or even good quality grape juice, may have the same health benefits.
Brain Works Kitchen tips: If you love red wine, like I do, train yourself to drink less. Buy smaller wine glasses, like the sauvignon blanc glass pictured in front. A smaller glass will give you the illusion of having a more robust portion. Drink wine only with food, not on its own. And sip slowly to savor every drop.
To learn more about getting more foods from the brain healthy food groups into your belly, check out this post: 5 Ways to Eat More Brain Healthy Food Starting Today.
The MIND diet study also defines 5 Brain Unhealthy food groups. Can anyone guess what they are? Next up on the Brain Works Kitchen.