The Mediterranean diet has been lauded for supporting longevity, while DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet) reigns supreme for helping lower sodium intake and improve heart health. Given the popularity of these diets, it’s not surprising they’ve been combined into the MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.
Here’s how the diet can support brain health and what registered dietitians think you should know about the plan before deciding if it’s right for you.
IT’S A FLEXIBLE WAY OF EATING
The MIND diet is more flexible than most diets. Rather than having phases, counting calories or eliminating entire food groups, the guidelines suggest eating more of certain beneficial foods and less of certain foods that may impair brain health. The specifics include:
WHAT TO HAVE
- Leafy greens, at least 6 servings per week
- Veggies, at least 1 serving per day
- Berries, at least 2 servings per week
- Nuts, at least 5 servings per week
- Whole grains, at least 3 servings per day
- Fish, at least 1 serving per week
- Beans, at least 4 servings per week
- Poultry (not fried), at least 2 servings per week
- Olive oil, use as your main cooking oil
- Wine up to 1 glass (5 ounces) per day
WHAT TO LIMIT
- Butter and margarine, no more than 1 tablespoon per day
- Cheese, no more than 1 serving per week
- Red meat, no more than 3 servings per week
- Fried foods, no more than 1 serving per week
- Pastries, no more than 4 per week
Having flexible guidelines like this, rather than strict rules, can help you avoid yo-yo dieting. “Attitude is such an important component of overall health. If you are miserable on a diet — even if the diet is ‘healthy’ — it’s not a healthy diet,” says Robin Foroutan, RDN. On the other hand, a plan [such as the MIND diet] that doesn’t feel like all or nothing, and includes foods you like, supports a positive relationship with food and overall health, she adds.
YOU CAN ENJOY FOODS YOU LOVE
Although the MIND diet has guidelines, you can still include desserts or cocktails, says Keri Gans, RDN. The only caveat: You need to keep your focus on the foods to emphasize and be mindful of the portion sizes of “limit” foods. A slice of cheese may be fine, but a quarter-pound, not so much.
YOU CAN START SMALL
“If the idea of a diet seems overwhelming, a good place to start is by emphasizing foods important to the plan,” says Foroutan. Maybe start by adding a dark leafy green daily and berries at least twice a week. Once that becomes routine, “then identify and move away from foods we know are less healthy, such as refined carbs, trans fats and high-sugar foods and start replacing those with better options,” Foroutan suggests. “You don’t have to do everything perfectly 100% of the time. If you consistently move toward a healthier diet in small increments, you’re moving in the direction of better health.”
YOU MAY LOSE WEIGHT
Depending on your health goals, you may lose a few pounds on the MIND diet, as long as you keep portion sizes in check and are in a calorie deficit. “If you move from a highly processed, low-fiber diet toward something more minimally processed that includes more plants, high-quality protein and healthy fats, you end up feeling more satisfied and full,” explains Foroutan, “so weight loss may happen as a result.”
SCIENCE SHOWS IT SUPPORTS BRAIN HEALTH
In one 2015 study, researchers scored how closely older adults followed the MIND diet and assessed their cognitive decline. Those who adhered to the diet most strictly showed cognitive functioning equivalent to being 7.5 years younger.
Another study found closely following the MIND diet reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults. Recent research found it could decrease the risk of developing Parkinson’s and was linked to slower progression of the disease.
Finally, in a study published in the journal Stroke, researchers followed 106 octogenarians (ages 80–89) who’d had a stroke. After about five years, those who adhered closest to the MIND diet had better brain health (a 20-year difference in cognitive functioning) compared to those who were least adherent.
IT COVERS ALL NUTRITIONAL BASES
In some diets, cutting out certain foods or food groups can put you at risk of being deficient in important nutrients. However, that’s not the case with the MIND diet, which covers all three macros. “By moving away from highly processed foods, which are low in nutrients, and eating a wider variety of whole foods, you’ll naturally get a wider spectrum of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients,” says Foroutan.
IT MIGHT NOT BE FOR YOU IF YOU’RE A PICKY EATER
Some people thrive on less restriction; others do better when they have defined menus and plans. “For some people, moving away from an all-or-nothing mindset can be really helpful,” Foroutan says. “But for others, it may be harder to adhere to this diet.” Be honest with yourself: If you are a picky eater and you’re eliminating half of the recommended foods, “don’t kid yourself that you’re getting the full benefits of the diet,” says Gans.
YOU CAN EAT OUT
Knowing how to cook — even the basics — makes any style of eating easier. But luckily you can order in or eat out on the MIND diet. For example, you could order simply prepared chicken or fish with sauteed vegetables and some whole grains. Consider looking at menus ahead of time to determine if you need to ask for any modifications.
IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE EXPENSIVE
Sure, items like seafood and berries can be pricey. But if you’re worried about the expense, consider canned tuna and salmon, frozen berries and non-organic greens. Buying in-season produce can also help bring down costs, Foroutan adds.
YOU MIGHT HAVE TO MAKE SOME TWEAKS
If you have celiac disease or are sensitive to gluten, make sure to look for whole grains such as brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat or millet, which don’t contain gluten. And if you have a nut allergy, you can try seeds instead. Moreover, because this diet is higher in fiber, “if you have a history of any irritable bowel disease, discuss it first with your physician or dietitian,” Gans recommends.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As a dietitian, “this is an easy plan to get behind,” Foroutan says. Gans agrees, noting “the recommended foods are part of an overall healthy eating plan.” You may need to make some small adjustments, such as opting for seeds or omitting certain nuts if you’re allergic and, as always, it’s a good idea to speak to a doctor or registered dietitian before trying a new eating plan. However, “healthy eating has to be part of a lifestyle,” says Gans. If you want to try the MIND diet, go for it, just don’t forget about regular exercise and getting adequate sleep, too.
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