Eating Mindfully for Brain Health
posted by Darlene DeWitt, MS, RD, LD on Monday, July 18, 2022
Our brains serve as the command center for our bodies, controlling our thoughts, speech, emotions, memories, judgment, body movements, digestion, and breathing.
Too often, we take our brains for granted. Yet to keep your brain healthy, it needs exercise, both physical and mental, and your brain also needs rest and a good diet. As a registered dietitian, I’d like to focus on healthy eating for your brain, specifically introducing you to the MIND diet.
First, let’s look at two healthy diets that may already be familiar to you. You likely have heard of the Mediterranean diet, which is based on foods traditionally enjoyed in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including France, Spain, Greece and Italy. These food favorites typically include lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and heart-healthy fats, especially fatty fish. Research shows the Mediterranean diet can lower risk of heart disease and stroke. And, those very same benefits of healthy arteries and reduced inflammation also benefit the brain.
The DASH diet stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension” and is designed to help treat or prevent high blood pressure. The DASH diet limits sodium and saturated fats and encourages foods rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber and protein. Buying and eating fresh foods are recommended as processed foods typically are high in sodium and contain added sugars and fats. Look for low-fat dairy products and extra-lean proteins, such as fish and skinless poultry. Similar to the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet recommends lots of fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.
The MIND diet combines these two diets and fittingly, is an acronym for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.” According to a study published in the March edition of “Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association,” the MIND diet can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease as much as 53 percent by those who closely followed the diet and by 35 percent of those who adhered to it moderately well.
Nutrients good for the brain and their food sources include the following:
- Vitamin E – nuts, oils, seeds, green leafy vegetables and whole grains
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a type of omega 3 fat – Oily fish, such as salmon and anchovies
- B vitamins – Vegetables, whole grains and fortified cereals
- Carotenoids (B-Carotene, lutein, lycopene) – bright colored fruits and veggies, and leafy green vegetables
- Vitamin D – Fish and dairy
- Monounsaturated fat – Olive oil, canola oil, avocados and nuts
- Flavonoids – Berries, tea, and dark chocolate
- Polyphenols – Olive oil, red wine, tea, vegetables, and fruits
The MIND diet recommends 10 “brain-healthy food groups” – green leafy vegetables, other veggies, nuts (particularly walnuts), berries, beans, whole grains, fish, lean poultry, olive oil and red wine – and encourages avoiding or limiting red meats, butter and margarine, cheese, baked goods and fried foods.
For some easy ideas of incorporating these mind-healthy foods in your diet, I recommend using whole grain options, such as brown rice rather than white, and whole grain breads and cereals. Other ideas include:
- Strive to eat leafy greens, such as spinach or kale, each day. Add a variety of greens to your salad, chop up some and add to your soup or scrambled eggs, or blend with your smoothie.
- Berries are also great to toss into a salad or smoothie, and also to add to your whole grain cereal.
- Likewise, a handful of nuts in your morning cereal or on your leafy green salad provides great crunch and taste.
- Beans and legumes are rich in B vitamins, zinc and omega 3 fats and provide soluble fiber, which is beneficial for digestive health too. Add to salads and soups; use hummus as a snack or in place of mayo on a sandwich.
- There are so many options for preparing poultry and for those who are leery of fish, I encourage you to try preparing it in different ways and you may be surprised. Place salmon on a cedar plank on your grill for flavor and juiciness. Use your air fryer when preparing walleye. Try fish tacos for a blend of flavors.
- Finally, the MIND diet also recommends a limited portion of red wine and dark chocolate, which both contain flavonoids, an important antioxidant. Flavonoids are also found in teas, berries and many fruits. Just remember, while the more veggies and fruits you eat the better, this isn’t necessarily the case with wine and chocolates, in which, moderation is important.
In addition to conscientiously adding more of these brain-healthy foods to your diet, you should also strive to limit high-fat cheese, fried foods, sweets, butter and margarine, plus red meat. These foods are higher in saturated fat and can increase not only the risk of dementia, but also heart disease and diabetes.
You need your brain for your good health – and your brain needs you to feed it to remain healthy. Do your part – be mindful of what you eat for your healthy mind.