The MIND diet prioritizes foods that protect the brain. Although more studies are lacking, experts agree that certain eating habits in youth benefit cognitive health in old age.

If you’re worried about developing dementia in the future, it’s natural to wonder if you can prevent it.

Experts estimate that 40 percent of dementia cases worldwide could be avoided or delayed by modifying certain factors, such as prioritizing exercise, sleep and addressing health conditions like hearing loss or high blood pressure.

However, growing evidence suggests that diet also has important implications for dementia prevention, according to Puja Agarwal, a nutritional health researcher at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Agarwal’s work has focused on evaluating how the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, or MIND diet, which highlights certain foods believed to protect the brain, might influence dementia risk.

What is the MIND diet?

The MIND diet was first described in 2015 in a study led by Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional health researcher at Rush University who passed away in 2020.

Morris and her colleagues observed that, in research studies, people who followed the DASH and Mediterranean diets (which prioritize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats) tended to have better cognition than those who did not. They also observed that specific foods such as green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts and whole grains were associated with better brain health.

From these findings, Morris and his team designed the MIND diet. Like the DASH and Mediterranean diets, it emphasizes whole grains, vegetables, nuts, legumes, healthy fats and lean protein sources, such as poultry and fish, and suggests limiting red and processed meats, cheese, sweets, fried foods and butter or margarine. However, the MIND diet is unique in that it calls for at least six servings of leafy green vegetables and two servings of berries per week.

Does the MIND diet benefit the brain?

In several studies tracking the dietary patterns of older people over many years, researchers have observed that those who follow the MIND diet more strictly tend to have slower cognitive decline, a lower risk of dementia and fewer signs of Alzheimer’s in the brain after they die than those who do not.

These results are “promising,” said Debora Melo van Lent, assistant professor of Population Health Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, but these studies cannot prove that the MIND diet by itself improves brain health. For that, he said, a clinical trial would be needed.

The first clinical trial of the MIND diet was published in August in The New England Journal of Medicine. In the three-year study, researchers instructed half of the 604 participants (aged 65 and older) to follow the MIND diet and the other half to follow their usual diet. The participants were also advised to reduce their calorie intake to lose weight.

However, the results were disappointing, according to Hussein Yassine, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. The two groups had similar improvements in cognitive tests, and brain scans found no significant differences associated with cognitive impairment.

Agarwal, who was part of the study’s group of authors, said this may have been the result of the study design and factors outside the researchers’ control. For example, the group that followed their usual diet ended up consuming many components of the MIND diet, and both groups lost weight, which may have contributed to similar improvements in cognitive function.

Dietary patterns are complex and difficult to control, Agarwal said, adding, “It’s not as clear-cut as a drug trial.”

Yassine said that, although the trial design had some problems, the MIND diet could be beneficial for brain health, especially if followed for decades, but better-designed trials will be needed to prove it.

So is the MIND diet worth following?

According to Yassine, there is a lot of data to support the idea that a healthy diet (abundant in vegetables and healthy fats and limited in added sugars, processed foods and red meat) protects the brain, although it is not yet known whether the MIND diet can prevent dementia.

For example, a 2013 clinical trial showed that the Mediterranean diet improved cognition, Melo van Lent said. Given that diabetes and cardiovascular disease are major risk factors for dementia, it’s likely that any dietary pattern that reduces those risks will also benefit the brain.

If you want to eat in a way that resembles the MIND diet, consider adding berries to breakfast or leafy green vegetables such as spinach or kale to your lunch a couple of times a week, and prioritize plant-based meals that incorporate beans and nuts, said Kelli McGrane, a licensed dietitian and author of MIND Diet for Beginners, a cookbook and diet guide.

To get the most brain benefits, you have to adopt healthy lifestyle habits early in life, “decades before the neurons in your brain cells start dying,” Yassine explained. Beyond nutrition, this means getting enough sleep and exercise, avoiding smoking, managing stress, prioritizing mental health and getting involved in society.

“Diet plays a key role,” Yassine concluded, “but it is part of a bigger picture.”

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