Eating for Brain Health: The MIND Diet

The human brain is a powerful, complicated organ and controls everything we do. As we get older, we all want to keep our brain healthy, so we can enjoy life to its fullest. Unfortunately, many Canadians suffer from dementia and rates are rising. According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, 564 000 Canadians are currently living with dementia and that number is expected to rise to 937 000 people in 15 years. Of those over 65 years old being diagnosed, 65% are women. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and symptoms include memory loss, difficulty performing daily activities, and changes in judgement, reasoning, behaviour, and emotions.

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent dementia, having a healthy lifestyle will help keep your brain as healthy as possible, and that includes eating a healthy diet. The food we eat affects the structure and function of the brain and plays an important role in keeping it healthy.

In recent years, a new diet has emerged called the MIND diet with promising research that it can help reduce risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slow the loss of brain function over time. The MIND diet is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. The diet is high in nutrients and antioxidants that can help reduce the plaque formation in the brain that is thought to cause to Alzheimer’s disease.

What foods are a part of the MIND diet?

Whole grains: eat at least three servings per day of whole grains, this includes oatmeal, whole grain breads and pastas and barley. To get more whole grains into your diet, switch your white pasta for a whole grain variety. Oatmeal is a great whole grain choice for breakfast but if you want to try something new, reheat leftover barley with some milk, cinnamon, walnuts and fruit.

Dark leafy green vegetables: eat at least one serving daily of dark leafy green veggies such as spinach, kale, or swiss chard. Use them in a salad or soup or just sauté them in some olive oil and garlic.

Other non-starchy vegetables: eat at least one serving per day. Aim for a variety of colours, such as orange, purple, red and white as they each have different antioxidants which can protect the brain from cell damage.

Nuts: aim for at least 5 servings per week. Snack on almonds or walnuts or add them to oatmeal, salads, and homemade muffins.

Berries: eat at least two servings a week. Berries are the only specific fruit included in the MIND diet. Berries are full of antioxidants which can help reduce inflammation and improve blood flow to the brain. Some studies have shown that blueberries can enhance memory and prevent age related decline in cognition. Add them to oatmeal, yogurt, or homemade muffins.

Fatty fish: fish such as salmon, trout, and sardines are full of brain healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Our brain is made up of about 60% fat and the type of fat we eat affects the structure and function of the brain. Getting enough omega-3 helps ensure smooth communication is possible between brain cells (also called neurons). Aim for two servings of fatty fish a week. 

Olive oil: use olive oil as a main added fat instead of butter or margarine. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats which are good for the brain as well as the heart.

Beans: aim for four servings per week. Beans are full of fibre and protein and low in fat. Use them in salads, chili, or a replacement for meat in a pasta sauce.

Poultry: two servings per week of chicken or turkey.

Red wine: red wine has compounds that can protect the brain but be sure to limit it to no more than one glass a day. People who consume moderate alcohol have a lower risk for developing dementia but excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk.

The MIND diet suggests limiting red meat, fried foods, butter/margarine, cheese, and sweets due to the high amounts of saturated and trans fats. These fats can make the cells of our brain less flexible and cause damage.

One of the great things about the research on the MIND diet is that even people who followed the diet moderately had a reduction in their risk for Alzheimer’s disease, it was not “all or nothing.” The more the diet was followed and the longer the length of time it was followed, resulted in a greater reduction of Alzheimer’s disease risk.

Eating well to keep our brain healthy is important but food is also a highly social experience. Taking the time to enjoy a meal with others provides us with a sense of connection which can also help reduce risk of dementia. Other lifestyle factors that help promote brain health include being physically active, not smoking, reducing stress, and challenging our brain by learning something new.

For more information, visit the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada website at alzheimers.ca

This article originally appeared in the Retired Teachers of Ontario, District 34 Newsletter - Volume 31 - January 2019