State of the MIND Diet

State of the MIND Diet

The science that links diet and brain health.

Researchers have long been intrigued by possible connections between nutrition and cognitive health. As with other health conditions, from cardiac disease to hypertension to diabetes, the foods we eat seem to invariably have a role in either increasing our risk of illness or providing a beneficial outcome.

One of the most comprehensive studies on the potential role of diet in the risk of dementia was done at the Mayo Clinic and published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. For nearly 4 years, the diets of over 4000 seniors were monitored, noting their levels of protein, fat and carbohydrate consumption. The participants were also evaluated at regular intervals for cognitive impairment issues.

The results were striking. Those who had the highest amounts of sugars and carbohydrates in their diets had a nearly 90% increase in the risk of dementia. However, when their caloric intake came more from fat, the risk of dementia was reduced by approximately 44%. (More protein in the diet was also beneficial, reducing dementia risk by approximately 21%.)

Those results tracked with other studies that concluded:

People with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia had a craving for carbohydrates such as sugar, candy and sweet foods.
A high-fat diet was associated with better brain processing speed, learning and memory, while a high carbohydrate diet resulted in poor processing speed.
An essential polyunsaturated fatty acid known as phosphatidylcholine was shown to improve memory, learning and concentration in elderly subjects with memory decline.

A common denominator for nutrition and health.
The “low-carb, high-fat” paradigm has also found a home in diets focused on improving other conditions, such as heart health and high blood pressure. For example, the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) promoted by the National Institutes of Health to prevent and control hypertension, is loaded with fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains, along with meat, fish, poultry, nuts and beans. A similar popular nutrition plan, the Mediterranean diet, has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease by including recipes containing plenty of olive oil, fruits and vegetables, legumes, unrefined cereals, fish, moderate amounts of dairy such as cheese and yogurt, and very little meat.

The MIND Diet—the best of both worlds.
Perhaps the ideal brain-healthy diet with hard science behind it is a hybrid of the latter two plans. Developed by researchers at Rush University in Chicago, the MIND diet is short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. By combining elements of both diets — such as fish, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and a regular glass of wine — plus the addition of leafy greens, berries, and other ingredients specifically targeted to cognitive health, the MIND diet has been shown to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53%.

“The common denominator in all three diets is a plant-based eating pattern that is low in saturated and trans fats and high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats,” says the MIND diet study’s author, Martha Clare Morris, a professor of nutritional epidemiology.

Since diets are notoriously hard to maintain at a consistent level, the beauty of the MIND diet is that it can be effective even if not followed religiously. In fact, even those who follow it “moderately well” can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by about a third.

Research is continuing on how to best use nutrition and diet to delay or improve cognitive decline. But at present, the MIND diet appears to show the greatest promise for optimal brain health.