In 2015, researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago asked an important question: Which foods are best for preventing dementia? The answer became the foundation of the MIND Diet, which has since been linked to better cognition in older adults.[*]
Many MIND-approved foods—vegetables, berries, nuts, fish, olive oil—may not surprise you, but some recommendations (like drinking wine and avoiding red meat) warrant further inquiry. Is red meat actually bad for your brain? Is wine actually good for it?
Wine and steak lovers anxiously await answers, so we'll explore these topics shortly. First, though, let's talk about the diet.
What Is The MIND Diet?
The "MIND" in MIND diet stands for "Mediterranean-DASH diet intervention for neurodegenerative delay." It's a mouthful, but it tells you that MIND:
- Combines elements of the Mediterranean and DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diets
- Was designed to slow cognitive aging
To create the diet, Rush University researchers used 15 food groups linked to brain health to create a "MIND diet score." Then they tracked 960 older adults for about five years, measuring how their MIND scores correlated with working memory, perceptual speed, and other cognitive measures. As expected, higher scores were linked to slower rates of cognitive decline.
Since then, other researchers have linked higher MIND scores to better cognitive aging, improved working memory and attention, slower rates of decline after stroke, faster information processing in middle-aged folks, and lower risks of all-cause mortality.[*][*][*][*][*] One study found that people following MIND strictly had a 53% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to poor adherents to the diet.[*]
Finally, one randomized controlled trial found that the MIND diet outperformed calorie restriction for psychological and physiological measures of cognition in obese women.[*]
10 Foods Encouraged (and 5 Discouraged) by The MIND Diet
The MIND diet makes nutrition into a game. If you eat recommended foods, you score higher. If you eat discouraged foods, you score lower.
Here's what your eating pattern must look like to score the maximum (1 point) for these recommended food groups:
- Leafy greens (at least six servings per week)
- All other vegetables (at least one serving per day)
- Berries (at least two servings per week)
- Nuts (at least five servings per week)
- Olive oil (as your primary oil)
- Whole grains (at least three servings daily)
- Fish (at least one meal per week of unfried fish)
- Beans (at least four meals per week)
- Poultry (at least twice per week)
- Wine (one glass per day). Note- researchers removed this recommendation in later trials to normalize for the variable effects alcohol can have on the body.
Following these ten rules scores you ten points. To get the other five points, you must limit the following foods:
- Butter or margarine (less than one tablespoon daily)
- Cheese (less than one serving weekly)
- Red meat (less than four meals weekly)
- Fried foods (less than one time weekly)
- Pastries and sweets (less than five servings weekly)
We'll return to these rules later. First, let's discuss how the diet might improve brain health.
How Might the MIND Diet Improve Brain Health?
The MIND diet consists of foods linked (positively or negatively) to brain health.[*] Let's review a few examples:
- Green leafy vegetables are rich in folate, vitamin E, and other antioxidants that slow cognitive decline
- Nuts and whole grains are high in neuroprotective vitamin E
- Berries contain polyphenols like pterostilbene that may reduce the formation of amyloid plaques linked to Alzheimer's disease[*]
- Omega-3 fatty acids (from fish) may also reduce plaque formation in the brain while increasing the number of synapses[*]
- Trans fats from margarine or fried foods can impair brain cell communication[*]
- High-sugar diets are associated with increased Alzheimer’s risk[*], possibly because sugar drives chronic inflammation[*]
These are just potential mechanisms, though. Questions remain.
Questions About the MIND Diet
Before you buy "MIND diet" hats for yourself and several confused family members, consider these inquiries.
What's driving the brain health correlation?
Researchers have linked higher MIND diet scores to better cognition in older adults.[*] But we don't know if this benefit is driven by:
- People eating more recommended foods
- People eating fewer franken-foods
- Some combination
- Something else entirely
The last bullet is crucial. Almost all data behind the MIND diet is observational, meaning we don't know if the recommended foods cause the benefit.
For example, people who eat more berries and veggies also exercise more. (Exercise is the best-documented intervention for slowing brain aging.[*]) Maybe it's not the MIND diet but the "healthy user bias" of healthy veggie eaters influencing the data.[*]
Is wine good for your brain?
Observational research suggests that a daily glass (or two) of red wine slows cognitive decline.[*] You don't see this relationship with other alcoholic beverages, so alcohol probably isn't the magic ingredient.
But are wine-based antioxidants driving the benefit? Or is the data skewed because some non-drinkers (zero glasses per day) are former heavy drinkers with residual health issues? Hard to say.
Is red meat bad for your brain?
The call to avoid red meat stems from the call to avoid saturated fat, but the data on sat fat for cognitive health is mixed. Some research shows cognitive improvements on high-saturated fat Ketogenic diets, but other data suggests unfavorable microbiome modulations.[*]
Also, a recent literature review found zero link between meat intake and cognitive health.[*] If nutrient-dense red meat somehow lowered mental acuity, it would likely appear here.
What about reducing carbs for brain health?
The MIND diet encourages whole grains and legumes. It's not low-carb or Keto.
But perhaps we'd see more benefit if it was. For example, one study found that a Mediterranean Keto diet (similar to MIND but minus the carbs) improved Alzheimer's risk factors in prediabetic adults.[*]
The Keto diet is an established brain health diet, with clinical data stretching back to the 1920s for treating epilepsy.[*] More recent data suggests ketones (produced by burning fat on Keto) can fuel the aging brain and slow cognitive decline.[*]
Should You Try the MIND Diet?
It's hard to argue with certain aspects of the MIND diet. Food intolerances notwithstanding, there's little downside to prioritizing vegetables, nuts, and berries—or avoiding fried foods, pastries, and trans fats. (You can track these foods, of course, in Carb Manager.)
But you might depart from the MIND diet on:
- Legumes and whole grains. Does your mind, gut, and body feel better with or without carbs? A Meditteranean Keto diet is a fine modification for brain health.
- Wine. Just because moderate drinking correlates with brain health doesn't mean it causes it.
- Red meat. There's no solid evidence that meat is bad for your brain.
- Any recommended food that gives you issues. Don't force nuts, beans, etc. if they don't agree.
Use the MIND diet as a starting point for brain health, not a strict set of rules you must follow. Carve out your own path to better cognition.