Most of us are aware of the effect that our diet can have on our bodies. We’ve all tried various diets, often with the aim of reaching an ideal weight, and increasingly we are eating for better overall health.
But the restrictive nature of most diets, the counting of calories, or changing how much protein, carbohydrates and fat we consume can be a truly mind-numbing and exhausting experience for most people.
But what about the effect of what you eat on the brain? Increasingly doctors are recognising the connection between your mood and the food you consume. Now it appears that there is a diet that can also help slow down the ageing effects of the brain – things like memory lapses, brain fog and difficulty in concentrating and staying focussed on a task.
Having ‘senior moments’ may be the butt of many jokes, but the recent rise in dementia and Alzheimer’s is no laughing matter. It is estimated that in the USA alone someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s every 66 seconds and it’s predicted that there could be a tripling to over 15 million sufferers by 2050.
Our brains function best when we choose a nutritious and balanced diet. High-quality foods that contain fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals nourish the brain and protect it from inflammation and oxidative stress – the waste produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage brain cells.
And new research is showing that there are some specific foods that are especially beneficial.
The brain diet that ‘slows mental decline’
A US study of a new ‘brain friendly’ diet called MIND appeared to slow down ageing of the brain in the over 900 people who took part. Research at the Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago has shown that following the diet may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by more than 50 percent. Even those who didn’t stick to the diet perfectly but followed it ‘moderately well’ reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s by about a third.
The MIND diet (shortened from Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) was developed specifically to help improve brain function and reduce dementia, and is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the blood pressure-lowering DASH diet.
The MIND diet encourages high consumption of 10 “brain-healthy” food groups and discourages eating of 5 “unhealthy” food groups.
Unlike the DASH and Mediterranean diets, the MIND diet does not require eating lots of fruit, dairy or potatoes, or eating more than one fish meal a week.
Researchers gave food questionnaires and brain function tests to 960 adults over the space of nine years. The participants had an average age of over 80 and were not suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s at the start of the study.
The study found those who stuck closely to the MIND diet had brains about eight years younger than those in the study who didn’t.
10 Foods to keep your brain young on the MIND Diet
Here are the 10 foods the MIND diet encourages:
- Green, leafy vegetables: includes kale, spinach, cooked greens and salads.
- All other vegetables: such as red peppers, squash, carrots and broccoli. Best are non-starchy vegetables as they have lots of nutrients with fewer calories.
- Berries: consider strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries for their antioxidant benefits (ref. 1 & 2).
- Nuts: Nuts are a good snack for brain health. Nuts contain healthy fats, fibre and antioxidants.
- Olive oil: Olive oil beat out other forms of cooking oil and fats in the MIND diet. Researchers found people who used olive oil as their primary oil saw greater protection against cognitive decline.
- Whole grains: choose whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and 100% whole-wheat bread.
- Fish: best to choose fatty fish like salmon, sardines, trout, tuna and mackerel for their high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Beans: includes all beans, lentils and soybeans. They are high in fibre and protein, and low in calories and fat.
- Poultry: lean chicken or turkey but note that fried chicken is not encouraged.
- Wine: Both red and white wine, in moderation, may benefit the brain. A lot of research has focused on the red wine compound resveratrol, which may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease (ref. 3 & 4).
5 Foods to Avoid or Limit on the MIND Diet
The MIND diet recommends limiting the following five foods:
- Butter and margarine: instead, try using olive oil as your primary cooking fat, and dipping your bread in olive oil with herbs.
- Cheese: Limit your cheese consumption to less than once per week.
- Red meat: includes all beef, pork, lamb and products made from these meats.
- Fried food: Fried food is discouraged, especially the kind from fast-food restaurants.
- Pastries and sweets: includes most of the processed junk food and desserts you can think of, including ice cream, cookies, brownies, snack cakes, donuts and candy.
According to the study, eating more of the ‘10 recommended foods’ and less of the ‘5 foods to avoid’ has been associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and better brain function over time.
The MIND Diet May Decrease Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
The study on the MIND diet has not been able to show exactly how it works, but it is thought that the diet may help by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.
Oxidative stress is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage. This occurs naturally and plays a role in the aging process.
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to injury and infection, but if it’s not properly regulated, inflammation can also be harmful and contribute to many chronic diseases (ref. 5)
Together, oxidative stress and inflammation can be quite detrimental to the brain. But following the Mediterranean and DASH diets has been associated with lower levels of oxidative stress and inflammation (ref. 6 & 7)
Because the MIND diet is a hybrid of these two diets, the foods that make up the MIND diet are also likely to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Stay happy and keep your marbles on the MIND Diet
So eating the foods encouraged in the MIND diet, without any complicated calorie counting, will likely improve your mood and may help lower the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s and slow the loss of brain function that can occur with ageing.
Just a simple switch in your eating habits can lead to benefits that will keep you fit and active in both body and mind as you age. In conjunction with other healthy habits like regular exercise, not smoking and getting adequate sleep, it could be just what your brain is looking for.