The MIND Diet: Can It Improve Brain Health?

The MIND Diet: Can It Improve Brain Health?

Can the foods on the MIND diet help preserve your brain health and mental edge?

Although researchers say cognitive decline isn’t an inevitable part of aging, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the US.[*]

Worse? There’s no known treatment plan or cure for the cognitive impairment and memory loss that comes with cognitive decline.

However, scientists agree that up to 40% of dementia cases may be prevented or delayed.[*] The researchers behind the MIND diet for dementia prevention believe they’re on the right track.

So let’s unravel the science, potential benefits, and drawbacks of this eating plan to learn whether the MIND diet is the true hero our noggins need.

What is the MIND Diet?

The MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH diets (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). It includes heart-healthy foods that may reduce the risks of cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

Dr. Martha Clare Morris and researchers from the Rush University Medical Center and Harvard Chan School of Public Health introduced the MIND diet in 2015. 

Their logic?

Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease increase the risk of cognitive decline.[*] But preventing those may preserve cognitive function.

DASH and Mediterranean diets slash the risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and inflammation.[*][*][*][*] They also positively impact brain function.[*][*]

So Dr. Morris and her team followed a group of nearly 1,000 retired adults in Chicago without dementia for 10 years. They asked participants to fill out dietary questionnaires and undergo cognitive assessments. Then they identified which foods the most brain-healthy participants ate and avoided.

Those foods became guidelines for the new MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. 

What Can You Eat On a MIND Diet?

The MIND diet menu includes:

  • Berries (2 servings/week): Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and acai berries.
  • Green leafy vegetables (6 servings/week): Kale, spinach, collard greens, lettuce, arugula, Swiss chard, turnip greens, etc.
  • Low-starch vegetables (1 serving/day): Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, asparagus, bell peppers, cabbage, eggplant, tomato, squash, etc.
  • Nuts (5 servings/week): Walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, etc.
  • Fatty fish (1 meal/week): Salmon, tuna, sardines, trout, mackerel, herring, etc.
  • Poultry (2 meals/week): Chicken and turkey.
  • Plant-based protein (4 meals/week). Black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, white beans, soybeans, and lentils.
  • Whole grains (3 servings/day): Oats, quinoa, whole-grain pasta and bread, brown rice, bulgur, farro, rye, etc.
  • Olive oil whenever fat is needed.

The researchers initially included a glass of wine in moderation due to its antioxidants and polyphenols. Since alcohol’s effects vary by individual, however, they removed this general recommendation for safety reasons after later MIND trials.

What Are the 5 Foods To Avoid On a MIND Diet?

MIND dieters must limit:

  1. Red meat. Less than four servings/week of beef, pork, lamb, and products made from these meats.
  2. Butter and margarine. Consume less than one tablespoon/day.
  3. Cheese. Nosh less than one serving/week.
  4. Refined carbs. Limit white bread, pasta, sweets, and other highly-processed carbs to less than five servings/week.
  5. Fried foods and fast food. Indulge in no more than one serving/week. 

Now that we know the recommended and restricted foods, let’s see what the science says.

What are the Benefits of Eating a MIND Diet?

The MIND diet is high in antioxidants, healthy fats, and essential nutrients that protect the brain and combat the oxidative stress and inflammation responsible for cognitive decline. People strictly following MIND reduced their AD risk by 53%. Those who moderately stuck to MIND still cut their AD risk by 35%.[*]  

Studies reveal that the MIND diet is associated with:

  • Better cognitive functioning.[*][*]
  • Higher cognitive resilience in older adults.[*]
  • Improved working memory, verbal recognition memory, and attention.[*]
  • Faster information processing speed in middle-aged adults.[*]
  • A slower rate of cognitive decline after stroke.[*]
  • 53% lower odds of cognitive impairment.[*]
  • Higher verbal memory scores in later life.[*]
  • A decreased risk of dementia.[*]
  • A 37% lower risk of death from all causes.[*]

Scientists aren’t totally sure what’s responsible for these MIND diet results. Several multi-year randomized controlled multicenter trials funded by the National Institute on Aging are underway to learn more.

The Pros and Cons of the MIND Diet

Before you jump aboard the MIND diet plan, let’s highlight some potential upsides and downsides.

Pro: It’s High In Omega-3s

Our brains are nearly 60% fat.[*] They require essential fatty acids (EFAs) to maintain optimal health and performance. Our bodies can’t make EFAs, so we must get them from our diet.[*]

The fatty acids in fried foods and processed seed/vegetable oils create inflammation, triggering chronic disease and cognitive decline.[*

But the healthy fats in fish, extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, and seeds are anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective.[*][*] They can help maintain cognitive function, prevent cognitive decline, and lower the risk of dementia.[*][*][*][*].

Plus, they may reduce the formation and accumulation of amyloid plaques, a marker of AD and a cause of brain cell death.[*]

Pro: It’s Chock Full Of Antioxidants

The MIND diet plan is loaded with foods rich in vitamins and potent antioxidants like carotenoids and flavonoids (a special group of polyphenols found in colorful vegetables and fruit). These superfoods protect the brain by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. 

Oxidative stress occurs when free radicals damage our cells, and our brains are highly sensitive to it. Scientists say it’s one of the biggest drivers of neurodegeneration.[*]

Antioxidants fight off free radicals, combat oxidative stress, and curb free-radical production.[*][*] A healthy diet containing these specific fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of stroke, coronary heart disease, and inflammation.[*]

According to studies on the health benefits of antioxidants:

  • Eating berries may delay cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years.[*]
  • One daily serving of green leafy vegetables may slow cognitive decline.[*]
  • Long-term intake of fruits and veggies boosts late-life cognitive function and reduces the risk of cognitive disorders.[*][*]

Nuts are also a powerhouse of vitamin E, an antioxidant that can slow cognitive impairment.[*]

🌟 Psst! One IQBAR delivers 70-90% of your RDA of vitamin E!

Con: The Research Limiting Saturated Fat is Mixed

The MIND meal plan takes a hard stance against saturated fat. It strictly limits red meat, butter, and cheese. But the research on saturated fats regarding heart health and risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia isn’t conclusive (and highly debated).

Though studies show a correlational risk of Alzheimer’s with processed meat eaters, others demonstrate that higher unprocessed red meat intake is associated with better general cognitive functioning, processing speed, and executive functioning.[*]

Since saturated fats mainly come from animal products, you won’t find them in many plant-based foods. On the other hand, coconuts give us MCTs, one of the best saturated fats for sustained mental energy. 

💭 So is plant protein or animal protein best?

Con: MIND Studies are Mostly Correlational

Most research on the MIND dietary pattern requires participants to keep a food journal. Scientists then analyze their eating patterns to determine associations between diet and cognition scores.

Bad news? Most people underestimate what they eat and overestimate their physical activity.[*] But both of those factor into potential incidences of Alzheimer’s.

These dietary observations are just associations until we have results from cause-and-effect clinical trials.

Con: The MIND Diet Is Not a Weight Loss Diet

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions — such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease — that increase one’s risks of dementia and AD.[*] Metabolic syndrome can be reversed entirely via lifestyle changes like weight loss and exercise.[*

But the MIND diet doesn’t address exercises for brain health, encourage calorie counting, or limit net carbs to improve insulin sensitivity and weight loss.

Can You Go Low-Carb On a MIND Diet?

Absolutely! A low-carb diet like keto boosts brain health, supports cognitive performance, and staves off mental decline.[*][*

You can score all the brain benefits of the MIND diet and keto without tucking into the whole grain food group or loading up on lentils and legumes. Berries, green leafy veggies, nuts, fatty fish, poultry, and healthy fats are all A-OK.

🥦 Need those plant-based proteins? Check out this list of vegetarian keto foods or this one on vegan keto to reach your low-carb goals.

Should You Try the MIND Diet?

The cognitive benefits of the MIND diet seem promising, but it’s not a guaranteed prevention or cure for neurodegenerative diseases. Many foods on this healthy eating plan should be staples in your diet, as they offer perks for your whole body and noggin regardless.

What’s a good MIND diet snack? IQBARS! Made with simple, clean ingredients, they check off MIND boxes for plant-based protein, flavonoids, and vitamin E.


Written by Lauren Ciccarelli, a writer and research geek passionate about low-carb nutrition, mental health, and meditation. Her 2,500+ articles empower doers with science-backed tips for leveled-up living.