For decades, scientists have viewed food as fuel, but research suggests what you eat impacts your brain, too. In fact, study after study suggests adding certain foods to your plate can sharpen your mind, build new brain cells and may even help you remember where you left your keys.
With that in mind, researchers at Rush University in Chicago developed the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, which is basically a combination of the DASH diet and Mediterranean diet. The main difference: MIND stresses the importance of brain-boosting power foods, including nuts, berries and fatty fish. And research shows it’s remarkably effective.
“The reason why diets like MIND work are because healthy food choices can help produce new neurons in the brain,” says Allegra Picano, RDN, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health. “Neuron production helps the brain communicate so you can carry out cognitive thinking and day-to-day functions.”
The research also shows that this diet is remarkably effective. A study from Rush University found that seniors who closely followed the MIND diet slashed their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 53%. Even those who only did a so-so job of following the plan had a 35% lower Alzheimer’s risk.
Picano suggests stocking up on these brain-boosting staples to gain the MIND advantage:
- Fish: This nutrient powerhouse boasts high-quality protein, important minerals, including iron and zinc, and heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show these powerful fats help reduce inflammation, increase blood flow to the brain and build new brain cells.
- Olive oil: Thanks to a healthy dose of monounsaturated fats, olive oil is a simple and tasty way to boost brain cell activity and slow down an aging brain. A bonus: monounsaturated fats also help reduce plaque buildup on the inside of the arteries, ensuring your brain gets the blood it needs to perform at its best.
- Nuts: Like olive oil, nuts are rich in monounsaturated fats, but they also contain vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant linked to improved brainpower.
- Berries: An anti-aging superstar, berries are loaded with disease-fighting compounds that improve brain function. Blueberries in particular seem to slow down the memory loss that goes with aging.
- Leafy green veggies: Research shows people who load up on produce, especially those with deep, rich colors, have better focus and mental sharpness compared to those who skimp on fruits and vegetables.
- Whole grains: Whole grains like whole wheat pastas and bread, oatmeal, quinoa, and brown rice contain B vitamins – which help to reduce inflammation in the brain and improve cognitive function.
- Poultry: Like whole grains, poultry products contain B vitamins. While a great source of protein, just be sure to avoid fried preparations. Instead opt for baked, grilled or other low fat cooking methods.
- Beans: Loaded with fiber and protein, beans provide sustained energy and keep blood-sugar levels on an even keel. That not only keeps hunger pangs at bay, but improves mental focus, too.
On the flip side, foods to limit or avoid due to their potentially harmful effects on your brain function include fatty red meat, butter or stick margarine, cheese, sweets and fried or fast foods.
“While the MIND diet is similar to other successful, healthy eating plans in this important way — eating whole, minimally processed foods, free of added sugar, sodium and harmful fats, is key to both a healthy mind and body,” says Picano.
Reviewed by Allegra Picano, a registered dietitian nutritionist for the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.