A physician discusses eating for brain health

Last Modified: 4/16/2021


The brain is a magnificent organ, responsible for our body’s daily functions and unique thoughts. There are so many things we can do to keep our brain happy, including exercise, sleep and puzzles, but we often underestimate the impact of our diet. Diane Conrad, MD, PPG – Family Medicine, shares her nutrition recommendations for patients looking to maintain or improve brain health through the power of the plate.

How do the foods we eat impact our brain health?

There's early but good evidence that what you eat can make a difference in your risk of cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.

Which diets do you typically recommend for maintaining brain health?

I recommend that my patients investigate the MIND food plan as healthy, good for brain and heart health, and delicious!

University researchers developed the MIND diet to emphasize foods that impact brain health. Born as a hybrid of two existing eating styles with decades of research, the DASH diet and Mediterranean diet — and dubbed the "MIND" diet, short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, this eating pattern goes big on natural plant-based foods while limiting red meat, saturated fat and sweets. Observational studies suggest the diet can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease by up to 53% as well as slow cognitive decline, and improve verbal memory.

How does this diet benefit the brain?

These university researchers tracked detailed eating logs in an older adult population for an average of 4.5 years to uncover trends and found that older adults whose diets most closely resembled the pattern laid out in the MIND diet had brains as sharp as people 7.5 years younger. That's a substantial difference!

At what age should someone begin eating this way? Is it ever too late?

These university studies involved people over the age of 50, so it is likely never too late to start this type of food selection – although it’s likely that the earlier you start, the better.

Are there any people in particular you recommend this approach to eating for?

The MIND food plan is palatable for almost all Americans, although some individuals may have to adjust for food allergies and intolerances. Even a modest long-term adaptation of your nutrition to include more of these foods should benefit your brain and heart health. You don't have to have all perfect food selections to benefit. Consider targeting just one or two of the nutritional habits below for your brain health.

MIND food plan recommendations
  • At least three servings of whole grains a day
  • Green leafy vegetables (such as salad) at least six times a week (kale, collards, spinach or lettuce)
  • Other vegetables at least once a day
  • Berries at least twice a week
  • Red meat less than four times a week
  • Fish at least once a week
  • Poultry at least twice a week
  • Beans more than three times a week
  • Nuts at least five times a week (opt for the dry-roasted or raw, unsalted kind without extra sodium, sweeteners or oils. Check your labels: Processed nut butters often have other ingredients added.)
  • Fried or fast food less than once a week
  • Mainly olive oil for cooking
  • Less than a tablespoon of butter or margarine a day
  • Less than a serving of cheese a week
  • Less than five pastries or sweets a week
  • One glass of wine or other alcoholic drink a day (Alcohol seems to help blood flow, making it less sticky and less prone to potentially harmful clotting. Given the risks of alcohol, it's probably not a good idea to start drinking it just for the possible brain benefit. But if you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, you can continue the habit on the MIND diet.)
Are there other general recommendations in addition to nutrition that you recommend for maintaining brain health?

Exercise can also boost memory and thinking indirectly by improving mood and sleep, and by reducing stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer the following recommendations:

For greater health benefits, older adults should work up to

• 5 hours (300 minutes) each week of relatively moderate-intensity aerobic activity
• 2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) a week of relatively vigorous-intensity aerobic activity

• A mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.

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