Shedding pounds is the primary goal of most diet plans, especially when it comes to fad detoxes and cleanses. But not everyone on a diet is looking to lose weight. Different diets can achieve different results. And if you’re hoping to improve your brain health and prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, you may consider trying the MIND diet, which has been linked with slower cognitive decline.
Alzheimer’s disease — a progressive and devastating neurodegenerative disease causing memory loss and confusion — affects 6.5 million Americans and is the most common form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. (1) As of 2021, it’s the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. (It lost its spot as the sixth due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.) (1)
Although there is no research linking the MIND diet with reversing Alzheimer’s, there’s plenty of evidence supporting the connection between this dietary approach and preventing the disease.
What Is the MIND Diet Plan, and How Does It Incorporate the DASH and Mediterranean Diets?
MIND (an acronym that stands for the Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay) is a “hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet, and research suggests it may reduce the risk of developing dementia or slow the decline in brain health,” says Becky Kerkenbush, RD, a clinical dietitian with Watertown Regional Medical Center in Wisconsin.
In a study from 2015, the nutritional epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris, ScD, and her colleagues at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago referenced past studies on the dietary connection between food and cognitive decline, and then borrowed concepts from the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet — two plant-based diets — to develop a meal plan with brain-boosting benefits. (2) Thus the MIND diet was born.
Although there are similarities among all three diets, the MIND diet is the only one that encourages the consumption of foods that have been found to promote cognitive health.
How Does the MIND Diet Work to Boost Brain Health?
The MIND diet focuses on the intake of plant-based foods, and limiting the intake of animal products and foods high in saturated fat. The emphasis is on plants, and what’s noteworthy is that this diet specifically urges a higher consumption of berries and green leafy vegetables.
Fueling up with flavonoid-rich produce may indeed benefit the mind. Blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries appear to prevent cognitive aging in women by up to 2.5 years, according to a 2012 study. (3) A 2022 review of 11 studies also concluded there was a link between berry-based supplements and cognitive function.
Likewise, there seems to be a link between eating leafy green vegetables — such as kale, spinach, and collard greens — and slower cognitive decline associated with aging, according to a 2018 study. This could be due to an association between eating leafy greens and lower inflammation and oxidative stress, two factors that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, per a 2010 study. (4) Both berries and leafy greens are rich in antioxidants and can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress occurs when antioxidant defenses are low and the body can’t fight toxic molecules called free radicals. This stress causes cell damage in the brain and throughout the body, and it has been linked to several diseases, including Alzheimer’s and cancer.
A MIND Diet Food List With the Best and Worst Foods
To help improve your cognition, you’ll need to reach for and avoid the following foods:
Foods to Eat on the MIND Diet
- Green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, collard greens, lettuce): a minimum of 6 servings a week
- Nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios): a minimum of 5 servings a week
- Berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries): a minimum of 2 servings a week
- Beans (black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans): a minimum of 3 servings a week
- Whole grains (quinoa, oatmeal, brown rice, whole-grain pasta and bread): a minimum of 3 servings a day (5)
- Fish (salmon, tuna, trout): at least 1 serving a week
- Poultry (chicken, turkey): at least twice a week
- Olive oil as the primary oil used
- Wine: no more than 1 glass a day
Foods to Limit on the MIND Diet
- Red meat (steak, ground beef, pork, lamb): no more than 4 servings a week
- Butter and margarine: no more than 1 tablespoon daily
- Cheese (brie, mozzarella, or cheddar): no more than 1 serving a week
- Sweets (cakes, brownies, ice cream): no more than 5 servings a week
- Fried or fast food (french fries, chicken nuggets, onion rings, fried chicken, hamburgers): no more than 1 serving a week
A Sample 7-Day Meal Plan for the MIND Diet
Here’s an overview of what one week of eating on the MIND Diet might look like:
- Breakfast Banana-strawberry smoothie
- Lunch Kale Caesar salad
- Dinner Chili made with ground turkey and quinoa
- Breakfast Vegetable breakfast frittata and a slice of toast
- Lunch Tuna salad sandwich on whole-wheat bread
- Dinner Pecan-crusted chicken with roasted broccoli
- Breakfast Blueberry-walnut pancakes
- Lunch Grilled chicken sandwich on whole-wheat bread with celery and hummus
- Dinner Roasted turkey with a cabbage salad and a whole-wheat dinner roll
- Breakfast Greek yogurt with raspberries and 15 almonds
- Lunch Kale and spinach salad with carrots, bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, chickpeas, olive-oil based salad dressing, and brown rice
- Dinner Whole-wheat pasta with chicken and marinara sauce, roasted broccoli, and side salad
- Breakfast Oatmeal with blueberries and slivered almonds
- Lunch Grilled chicken, ½ pita, kale salad with chickpeas, feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and olive oil
- Dinner Baked salmon with broccoli and Brussels sprouts (roasted in olive oil), quinoa, and a glass of wine
- Breakfast Whole-wheat bagel sandwich with 1 scrambled egg and blueberries on the side
- Lunch Turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread with tomato slice, lettuce, hummus, and baby carrots on the side
- Dinner Quinoa stir fry with sautéed vegetables, beans, and olive oil
- Breakfast Whole-wheat toast with scrambled eggs and slices of avocado
- Lunch Spinach salad with strawberries, chickpeas, slivered almonds, olive oil dressing, and a small whole-grain roll
- Dinner Grilled salmon with sautéed spinach and ⅓ cup brown rice
How Does the MIND Diet Differ From Other Diet Plans?
Although the MIND diet doesn’t specifically involve exercise, regular physical activity may also help prevent cognitive decline because movement increases blood flow to the brain and helps supply brain cells with nutrients. In fact, regular physical activity can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50 percent, according to the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation. (6) Therefore, exercise in conjunction with the MIND diet could provide further protection against memory loss.
The MIND diet is also different from other popular plans because there’s no calorie counting and no food groups are eliminated. The paleo diet and ketogenic (or keto) diet are more restrictive than the MIND diet, says Vanessa Rissetto, RD, a nutritionist based in Hoboken, New Jersey, and cofounder of Culina Health. Both of these popular diets minimize the consumption of whole grains, and paleo omits dairy, too. The MIND diet, on the other hand, isn’t overly restrictive and emphasizes an increased intake of foods with cognitive benefits. As a result, you’re still able to enjoy your favorite meats, sweets, and wines in moderation.
Keep in mind that while this approach is particularly beneficial to those with a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, you don’t have to be older or have a family history of the disease to benefit from this diet. “Anyone can benefit from the MIND diet due to its overall healthy eating pattern, and there are no negative side effects,” explains Kerkenbush.
Because this diet is plant-based and includes many different types of food, it is generally easy to stick with, whether you’re preparing meals at home or dining out. However, following this diet may result in a slightly higher grocery bill because of the emphasis on berries and nuts, which can be pricier than some packaged, less-healthy snacks.
To avoid hurting your budget, Dr. Morris recommended in a blog post that you occasionally eat frozen berries and use canned beans, which can be just as filling and delicious, but cheaper. You can also save money on nuts by searching for bulk deals online.
The Risks and Benefits of the MIND Diet You Should Know
The most obvious and promising benefit of the MIND diet is the possibility of significantly reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
To help establish a relationship between the MIND diet and this lower risk, the 2015 study conducted at Rush University in Chicago — which has been nicknamed “The MIND Diet Study” — evaluated the incidences of Alzheimer’s disease among 923 participants who were already closely following the MIND, DASH, and Mediterranean diets (based on their questionnaire responses) over a five-year period.
The study found that the MIND diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 53 percent.
Another exciting revelation is that it’s possible you don’t have to follow the diet strictly to enjoy its brain-boosting benefits. Even those who moderately follow the diet may have a 35 percent reduced risk for the disease, the authors noted. Still, following it closely has an upside: It’s comparable to being 7.5 years younger cognitively than people who don’t follow the diet diligently, according to a 2015 study. (7)
In addition to reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, the MIND diet may also reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease. A 2018 study found this way of eating cut the risk and delayed the progression of the disease among older people. (8)
A 2022 study looked at diet data of more than 8,000 people covering over 20 years and also found an association between high adherence to the MIND diet and a decreased risk of dementia. However, in some cases, the association weakened in the later years of the study.
The researchers concluded that this may be in part due to reverse causality, meaning that the onset of dementia is actually causing poor adherence to the MIND diet rather than close adherence to the diet preventing dementia. Dietary habits can deteriorate as dementia progresses, the researchers said, and they called for more studies to better understand the MIND diet’s effect on dementia risk.
That said, because this diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, there are many health benefits you may experience unrelated to dementia risk.
The DASH diet has been linked to reductions in hypertension, thereby diminishing the risk of stroke and heart attack. (9) The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has also endorsed the plan for heart health, as has U.S. News & World Report, which releases annual rankings on the best popular diets. (10,11)
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean diet is a popular plan touted by dietitians, and for good reason: A study published in 2015 linked the approach to improvements in blood pressure, reduced risk of heart disease, and better insulin sensitivity. (12) That makes it a plus for anyone at risk of heart disease or managing prediabetes or diabetes.
The only known disadvantage of the MIND diet (if you even want to call it a disadvantage) is that it requires patience, effort, and careful meal planning to ensure you’re consuming the right amount of food servings according to the diet’s guidelines.
To stay committed to the goal, come up with an accountability system and plan out all your meals for the week — breakfast, lunch, and dinner. More labor-intensive meals can be partially prepared ahead of time: Precut and store vegetables in plastic bowls, cut up fruit for smoothies and place in individual freezer bags, and precook your rice and beans.
Should You Try the MIND Diet for Weight Loss or Brain Health Benefits?
The MIND diet may differ from other diets in that it’s not for weight loss. But the results of this diet will be positive if you’re looking to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and protect your brain.
Keeping up with this diet does take planning and determination. But don’t get discouraged if you fall slightly off track. You don’t have to stick rigorously to the diet to enjoy the health benefits.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- 2022 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures [PDF]. Alzheimer’s Association. 2022.
- Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, et al. MIND Diet Associated With Reduced Incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s & Dementia. September 2015.
- Devore EE, Kang JH, Breteler MM, et al. Dietary Intake of Berries and Flavonoids in Relation to Cognitive Decline. Annals of Neurology. July 2012.
- Holt EM, Steffen LM, Moran A, et al. Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and its Relation to Markers of Inflammation and Oxidative Stress in Adolescents. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. March 2009.
- How Much Is Enough? Oldways Whole Grains Council.
- Pillar 3: Exercise and Brain Aerobics. Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation.
- Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang, Y, et al. MIND Diet Slows Cognitive Decline With Age. Alzheimer’s & Dementia. September 2015.
- Agarwal P, Wang Y, Buchman AS, et al. MIND Diet Associated With Reduced Incidence and Delayed Progression of Parkinsonism in Old Age. The Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging. December 2018.
- Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Mayo Clinic. June 25, 2021.
- How the Mediterranean Diet Lowers Risk of Cardiovascular Disease. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. December 12, 2018.
- Best Diets Overall 2022. U.S. News & World Report. 2022.
- Martínez-González MA, Salas-Salvadó J, Estruch R, et al. Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: Insights From the PREDIMED Study. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. July–August 2015.
- Bonyadi N, Dolatkhah N, Salekzamani Y, Hashemian M. Effect of Berry-Based Supplements and Foods on Cognitive Function: a Systematic Review. Scientific Reports. February 25, 2022.
- Morris MC, Wang Y, Barnes LL, et al. Nutrients and Bioactives in Green Leafy Vegetables and Cognitive Decline: Prospective Study. Neurology. January 16, 2018.
- 9 Quick Tips for Following the Mind Diet on a Budget. Neurotrack. July 10, 2017.
- de Crom TOE, Mooldijk SS, Ikram MK, et al. Mind Diet and the Risk of Dementia: a Population-Based Study. Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy. January 12, 2022.