FOR THOSE WHO have trouble following any one diet to the max, the MIND diet keeps scoring highest for a healthy brain. In the U.S. News &World Report ranking of diets, MIND was also top of the list for “Easiest diet to follow”; it combines two of the top “Best for healthy eating” diets; and it ranks in a No. 2 tie for “Best diets overall.”
In a Rush University study of 923 Chicago-area residents ages 58 to 98, the greatest impact for people who followed different diets most closely over 4½ years came from the Mediterranean diet: a 54% reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease for the top one-third of adherents.
The MIND, though a close second in risk reduction at 53% for the best diet followers, came in at No. 1 for the most effective brain diet, because even the middle third of MIND followers had a 35% reduction of Alzheimer’s risk during the study period. By the end of the study, those who followed the MIND diet most rigorously were cognitively 7½ years younger than those who followed the diet least strictly.
The Rush study’s conclusion: The longer a person follows the MIND diet and the earlier in life they begin, the less risk they have of declining cognitive abilities. The MIND diet comes from combining components of the Mediterranean diet with those of the U.S. News Top Healthiest diet, DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), to get MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). Yes, a mouthful.
MIND “specifically includes foods and nutrients that medical literature and data show to be good for the brain, such as berries,” says Martha Clare Morris, nutritionist at Rush University Medical Center. Except for berries, fruits as a general category, which are stressed in the Mediterranean and DASH diets, have not shown an association with cognitive decline and are not recommended in the MIND diet. The same goes for vegetables: The MIND list includes only the most protective leafy greens such as spinach, collards, romaine lettuce and, of course, kale.
Some may be surprised to see “whole grains” on the MIND list because of claims by some, including David Perlmutter in his book “Grain Brain,” that gluten is bad for the brain. (see the MLB story here.) But research published in both “Clinical Nutrition” and “Alzheimer’s and Dementia” earlier this year comes down on the side of positive effects.
In fact, the first study, of 5,000 British middle-aged adults, found the “grain brain” (of someone consuming whole grains) to be a good defense against inflammatory markers for cognitive decline. In the second, a study of more than 2,000 Swedish adults at least 60 years old, consuming any one healthy diet component—these included whole grains, rice/pasta and legumes—was associated with weakening “the negative cognitive effects associated with the Western diet.”
An analysis in the “British Medical Journal” based on data from 45 studies concluded that 90 grams of whole grains per day reduces the risk of death from all causes. And for general “successful aging” health, an Australian study following 1,600 adults age 49 or older found that the main difference among the healthiest was fiber intake from both fruit and whole grains. (This study found healthy aging was not linked either to consumption of carbohydrates or sugar, or to the glycemic index, which measures blood sugar levels.)
The MIND diet recommends three daily servings of whole grains. In another formulation, daily grain consumption should reach five- to eight-ounce equivalents of grains per day, at least half from whole grains. One ounce is found, for example, in one slice of whole-grain bread, one cup of cereal or one-half cup of cooked pasta or rice.
Watch out for tricky labeling: “Multigrain” or “100% wheat” may not be the real thing if the outer layer of bran has been stripped off the whole wheat kernel. The wording must specify “whole grain” and appear at or near the top of the ingredients list. Good whole-grain sources besides wheat are oatmeal, bulgur (used in tabbouleh salad), barley and rye.
Also on the list is corn, especially yellow corn—and, most surprising, popcorn! Organic kernels popped in the microwave in an ordinary paper bag or on the stovetop the old-fashioned way are definitely great grains. (Unfortunately, the commercial microwaved option is unhealthy because of the bag’s harmful chemicals.) According to one survey, regular popcorn eaters averaged 2½ servings of whole grains per day while non-popcorn eaters got less than one serving.
Experts note that the MIND diet is also good for the heart and general health. But they all point out that, however you improve your diet, exercising regularly and keeping stress levels down are also essential for brain health.
The MIND diet recommends 10 food groups:
- Green leafy vegetables (like spinach and salad greens): at least six servings a week
- Other vegetables: at least one a day
- Nuts: five servings a week
- Berries: two or more servings a week
- Beans: at least three servings a week
- Whole grains: three or more servings a day
- Fish: once a week
- Poultry (like chicken or turkey): two times a week
- Olive oil: as your main cooking oil
- Wine: one glass a day
And advises avoiding five food groups:
- Red meat: fewer than four servings a week
- Butter and margarine: less than a tablespoon daily
- Cheese: less than one serving a week
- Pastries and sweets: fewer than five servings a week
- Fried or fast food: less than one serving a week