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Food for Thought: Eat More Nutrients That Protect Your Brain

Dementia is not part of normal aging; it's a disease of the brain that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. While researchers continue investigative studies and clinical trials to uncover information about this complex disease, there is not yet a cure.

Recent studies that have linked heart health with brain health, suggest preventive lifestyle changes may protect your brain. In addition to physical and intellectual activity, and avoiding head trauma, following a heart-healthy diet shows promise in protecting the brain from cognitive decline.

One heart-healthy diet in particular called MIND was developed in 2015 to promote brain health by eating specific foods and avoiding others. MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension (DASH) diet. 

Mediterranean and DASH are well known to be two of the healthiest diets to follow, and they are very similar—they encourage eating fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry and fish, nuts and non-tropical vegetable oil. The diets limit sodium, red meat, sweets, saturated and trans fats.

Where MIND diverges is in the emphasis of eating berries more often than other fruits due to their high antioxidant content, eating fish at least once a week because of the omega 3s, and prioritizing eating nutrient-dense green leafy vegetables.

A joint research study between Rush University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is observing people following the MIND diet over a three-year period. So far, results have been encouraging. Those strictly following the diet are showing a 53% lower risk for Alzheimer's disease, and those moderately following the diet, a 35% lower risk. The complete results are expected in 2021.

Eat More of These Foods  

  • Berries (particularly blueberries and strawberries) – 2 half cup servings or more per week.
  • Green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach) – 6 or more servings per week.
  • Additional vegetables – at least one more vegetable in addition to the above per day.
  • Nuts – 5 half cup servings per week.
  • Olive oil – use as your main cooking oil.
  • Whole grains – 3 servings per day (half cup cooked grain like oatmeal or quinoa or 1 slice of whole grain bread).
  • Beans – include a serving in at least 3 meals per week.
  • Fish – at least once per week.
  • Chicken or turkey – at least twice per week.
  • Red wine or red grape juice – no more than 5 ounces per day.

Avoid/Eat Less of These Foods

  • Red meat – 3 or fewer servings per week.
  • Processed meats.
  • Fried foods – especially from fast-food restaurants.
  • Sweets and pastries – 4 or fewer servings per week.
  • Butter, stick margarine – 1 tablespoon per day or less.
  • Whole fat cheese – limit to one serving a week.

Always discuss any changes to your diet with your healthcare provider.