The MIND diet is designed to support brain health throughout a person’s life and prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but it is also good for the heart and general wellness. In a nutshell, this diet encourages increasing the intake of plant-based foods and decreasing saturated fats, sugar and red meat.
What is the MIND Diet?
The MIND (Mediterranean Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet is based on the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, with modifications based on the scientific evidence about the effects of nutrition on brain function.
This diet was founded on the results of a study funded by the National Institute on Aging. The goal was to uncover and emphasize brain-healthy foods that lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet emphasizes whole plant-based foods and limits red meat, sugar, and foods high in saturated fats. In observational studies ranging from 900-16k people over 58 years of age, eating a MIND diet was linked to improved memory, decreased cognitive decline, and lower rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Mind Diet Foods
The MIND diet focuses on foods rich in antioxidants (lutein, carotenoids, and flavonoids), vitamins (E, folate, and niacin), and omega-3 fatty acids. It limits foods high in saturated and trans fats.
This diet outlines 10 brain-healthy food categories and provides minimum serving suggestions for each to maximize benefits:
Whole grains (e.g., quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal):
3 servings a day
Serving size: ½ cup
Green leafy vegetables (e.g., spinach, kale, swiss chard, collards, arugula):
6 servings a week
Serving size: 1 cup raw, ½ cup cooked
Nuts (e.g., walnuts, macadamia, almonds, pecans):
5 servings a week
Serving size: ⅓ cup
Beans (e.g., lentils, garbanzo, mung bean, pinto bean, black beans etc):
3 servings a week
Serving Size: ½ cup
Berries (e.g., blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries):
2 servings a week
Serving size: ½ cup
Poultry (chicken, turkey):
2 servings a week
Serving size: 3 oz cooked
Other vegetables (e.g., broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, carrots, squash, peppers):
1 serving a day
Serving size: 1 cup raw, ½ cup cooked
Fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel, trout, halibut, sardines, herring):
1 serving a week
Serving size: 3 oz cooked
Wine (red or white; red wine contains resveratrol, which may help protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
No more than one glass a day
Serving size: 5 oz
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The MIND diet encourages limiting the intake of foods that are high in saturated and/or trans fats to the following maximum serving:
Butter and margarine: 1 tbsp/day Pastries and sweets: 5 servings/week Red meat: 4 servings/week Cheese: 1 serving/week Fried or fast food: 1 serving/week
The Mind Diet Plan
The primary focus of the MIND diet is to increase the types of foods that support brain health and to cut down on those that don’t. There are no limits on calories or number of meals per day, and, unlike other diets, it doesn’t require eliminating entire food groups, like fats or carbohydrates.
The MIND diet is not a strict diet. Rather, it provides guidelines to follow on a daily or weekly basis. In an observational study, even mildly following the diet reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in over 900 adults (58-98 years of age).
When selecting MIND-diet foods, it is best to choose fresh or frozen berries and vegetables. Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables are higher in vitamins and minerals that support brain health compared to precooked or canned foods.
To help you stick to the MIND diet, have the following tips in mind:
Aim to eat one green salad every day. Pair with a soup or sandwich at lunch or include one before dinner.
Keep frozen berries on hand. These are cheaper and available throughout the year. Add them to morning smoothies, oatmeal, or as a quick snack.
Choose whole grains over refined. Eat brown rice, quinoa, or ancient grains over white pasta and bread.
Batch-cook meatless meals for easy lunches. Bean chili, lentil dahl, chickpea curries are great reheated for lunch on busy work days.
How Does the Mind Diet Boost Health?
What differentiates the MIND diet from its parent diets is its focus on identifying key foods, serving sizes and frequencies that protect against dementia, Alzheimer’s, and cognitive decline.
All the key foods included in the MIND diet have been researched for their brain-protective effects:
Leafy green vegetables, high in vitamins (C, E, K, and folate) and antioxidants, slowed cognitive decline and protected against the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease (observational studies of 3k elderly people).
Antioxidant-rich berries are the only fruit highlighted in the MIND diet. Eating berries was also linked to decreased neuron loss and improved memory and cognition in studies of up to 16k older people. In one clinical trial, supplementing with a blueberry concentrate improved brain activity and memory in 12 seniors over 65 years old.
Whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are high in B vitamins and vitamin E. These vitamins decreased the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia and improved memory in 5000 older people.
Fish is an excellent source of the brain-protective omega-3 fatty acid DHA. In one trial, 900 mg/day DHA (one serving of sardines or salmon) improved memory and learning in >400 adults. Eating fish once a week was linked to a 60% decrease in Alzheimer’s risk in older people, while omega-3s enhanced cognition in mild Alzheimer’s.
Health Benefits of the MIND Diet
1) The MIND Diet Improves Brain Health
In numerous human and animal studies, foods highlighted in the MIND diet reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, and improved memory. This was particularly so in those with healthy brain function or at the very early stages of cognitive decline.
Alzheimer’s and Dementia
In a clinical trial of 923 people, modest compliance to the MIND diet for 4.5 years decreased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 53% in those over 60 years of age. In comparison, people had to comply very strictly to the Mediterranean or DASH diet to see similar results.
The main foods that protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are precisely those highlighted in MIND diet (extra virgin olive oil, whole grains, nuts and legumes, and reduced dairy), according to comprehensive reviews on nutrition and brain health.
In observational studies of 2-10k people aged 55 years or older, eating MIND diet foods protected against Alzheimer’s and dementia. On the other hand, eating white bread, high-fat dairy products, eggs, meat, fried foods, and sweets increased these risks.
Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D (salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines) should be prioritized. Omega-3s from fish and marine oils were linked to prevention and improvement of Alzheimer’s disease. Greatest benefits were seen in people with healthy brain function, those at the earliest disease stages, and in non-carriers of the ApoE4 allele (reviews of observational and clinical studies).
The MIND diet limits alcohol consumption to 1 drink per day, a quantity that protected against Alzheimer’s and dementia in observational studies. Inversely, both abstinence and heavier consumption (more than 2 drinks per day) were linked with greater risk.
Memory and Cognition In a clinical trial of about 500 older people (>70 years of age), the Mediterranean diet enhanced with olive oil or nuts improved cognition more than a low-fat diet. Specifically, polyphenols in olive oil improve learning and memory, according to reviews of human and animal studies.
Eating MIND-diet foods improved cognitive function including memory, attention and visual-spatial skills in observational studies of over 23k people (aged 58 years or more). Lower intake of vegetables and legumes, specifically, was linked to cognitive decline.
Each of the specific foods highlighted in the MIND diet (extra virgin olive oil, berries, leafy green vegetables) improved cognition, learning, memory and reduced age-related brain dysfunction and oxidative damage in rats and mice.
2) The MIND Diet Reduces Inflammation
Chronic inflammation can trigger or worsen many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, heart and autoimmune diseases. In some cases, eating mostly MIND-diet-friendly nutrient-dense, plant-based foods and eliminating high-fat and sugary foods can reduce inflammation.
Eating MIND diet foods (legumes, whole grains, vegetables, olive oil) for at least 12 weeks lowered markers of inflammation (analysis of 17 clinical trials and 2,3k people).
In a clinical trial with 164 people at high risk for heart disease, a Mediterranean diet that included 1.5 oz of extra virgin olive oil and ¼ cup of nuts per day reduced inflammatory markers by up to 95% compared to low-fat diets in older people (55-80 years of age).
An observational study of over 24k people linked a diet focused on vegetables, olive oil, fruit and fish with lower levels of inflammatory markers (C-reactive protein and white blood cells) in adults.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are well-known anti-inflammatories. They are linked to lower brain inflammation and a slower loss of brain function (reviews of observational, clinical and animal studies).
Olive Oil - Olive oil is the key anti-inflammatory ingredient of the MIND diet. The evidence to back up its benefits is abundant. For example, olive oil reduced inflammation in people over 50 years of age, having a stronger effect in those at higher risk for heart disease (reviews of clinical studies of ~500 people and observational studies of >40k people). Consuming extra virgin olive oil has also been linked to reduced inflammation in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, IBS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and multiple sclerosis (observational and clinical reviews). Polyphenols from olive oil and red wine reduced inflammation in human cells. Antioxidant polyphenols are possibly the main anti-inflammatory substances in these foods.
3) The MIND Diet May Lower Cancer Risk
Heavy consumption of MIND diet foods (especially vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and whole grains) lowered cancer risk. It also reduced the number of deaths from various cancers, including colon, breast, stomach, pancreas, prostate, liver, and head and neck cancers (reviews of clinical and observational studies).
Phytochemicals and antioxidants in berries and olive oil prevented colon cancer or and delayed its spreading in numerous studies (observational, clinical, animal, and cellular).
Consuming nuts more than 8 times/month for over 4 years was linked to a reduced risk of cancer and death in over 19k people. This study suggests that MIND diet recommendations of nut intake on the higher ranger (5 servings per week) may also protect against cancer.
4) The MIND Diet Boosts Weight Loss
The MIND diet is designed for brain health, but the focus on whole, plant-based foods and the reduction of sweets, dairy, fried and fast foods promotes healthy weight loss. The diet is also rich in fibre and low in high-calorie foods.
Plant-based foods (legumes and whole grains) prevent weight gain and obesity better than high-protein, low-fat, and low-glycaemic-index diets (observational and clinical studies).
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of obesity. Eating olive oil, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts decreased the risk of metabolic syndrome by 35% and reduced the likelihood of weight gain in an observational study of almost 800 young adults.
5) The MIND Diet Is Rich in Antioxidants
The MIND diet is filled with foods high in antioxidants, primarily polyphenols (berries, olive oil, red wine), carotenoids (carrots, broccoli, tomatoes, red peppers), vitamin C (leafy vegetables), and vitamin E (olive oil and nuts)
Eating foods high in antioxidants protects the brain against oxidative stress, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer (observational and clinical studies). Similar results were not observed when people supplement with one or two individual antioxidants/vitamins
In reviews of observational studies, blood and brain levels of vitamins C and E were lower in Alzheimer’s patients compared to healthy adults. Deficiencies in these antioxidants may worsen brain function and can be counteracted by increasing foods like nuts and leafy greens.
6) The MIND Diet Protects the Heart
The MIND diet recommends eating plant-based foods high in fibre, complex carbs, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and phytochemicals. MIND diet foods reduced the risk of heart disease, the deaths from heart disease, total cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol compared to lower-fat diets (reviews of observational and clinical trials).
Extra virgin olive oil, the primary fat in the MIND diet, helped prevent heart failure, plaque build-up in the arteries, irregular heartbeat and heart disease (review of clinical and observational studies).
Flavonoids, abundant in berries, were linked to lower LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, lower blood pressure, as well as improved heart health overall (clinical, observational, and animal studies.
7) The MIND Diet May Improve Diabetes
Eating high amounts of whole grains, fruits and vegetables improved blood sugar control and reduced overall risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by ~20% compared to low-fat diets (review of meta-analyses and 5 clinical trials)].
One analysis of over 400 observational studies explored the relationship between major food groups in the MIND diet (whole grains, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and fish) and the risk of type 2 diabetes. They found that:
Decreasing the consumption of “high risk” foods (red and processed meats, sugary drinks) reduced the risk of Type 2 diabetes threefold;
Eating optimal amounts of whole grains (2 servings/day), fruits (2-3 servings/day), and vegetables (2-3 servings/day) reduced the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 42%
Eating 50g/day of whole grains alone reduced the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 25%
In another analysis, most MIND-diet foods were linked with a 20% reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes (18 observational studies.
8) The MIND Diet May Help Prevent Depression
MIND-like diets, high in plant-based foods, reduced the risk of depression in several studies (clinical and observational). The protective effects are likely from eating a combination of these foods, as opposed to taking isolated nutrients.
In a clinical trial of 95 postmenopausal women, the DASH diet (one of the parent diets of the MIND diet) for 14 weeks, improved mood and lowered the risk of depression.
In an observational study of almost 16k adults, sticking to the Mediterranean diet for 10 years was linked with a decreased risk of depression. These results were attributed to foods also found in the MIND diet (vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts, fish).
9) The MIND Diet May Reduce Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms
In observational studies of over 1.5 million people, diets rich in foods common to the Mediterranean and MIND diets reduced the incidence of Parkinson’s disease by 13%.
In another observational study of over 700 people older people, the MIND diet decreased the risk and slowed Parkinson’s disease symptom worsening, such as tremors and poor balance.
10) The MIND diet May Improve Longevity
In observational studies of over 3k people, a MIND-like diet was linked to a longer lifespan in people over 65 years of age. This effect was associated with a slower rate at which the telomeres get shortened, a key indicator of biological aging.
The Mind Diet as a Vegetarian
As a vegetarian, you will need to modify the MIND diet to ensure adequate intake of brain-protective compounds including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and protein.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fish-based omega-3 fatty acids are made of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), whereas plant sources provide only ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a precursor that is not efficiently converted into DHA and EPA in the body.
The primary drawback of following a vegetarian MIND-like diet would be the lack of DHA omega-3 fatty acids that are responsible for the reduction in Alzheimer’s disease risk.
Two omega-3 alternatives for vegetarians include algae omega-3 oil and perilla oil.
Algae oil supplements are a promising alternative due to their high DHA content, comparable amounts found in fish.
Perilla oil is derived from perilla seeds and has the potential to prevent or help with Alzheimer’s. In rats, mice and nerve cells, ALA from perilla oil had similar effects to DHA on cognition. While chia seeds are also high in ALA, they did not improve cognitive impairment in mice.
Animal proteins are high in B12, an essential vitamin not commonly found in plant-based foods. B12 is necessary for DNA synthesis, nerve and blood health. Low B12 is linked to reduced cognition and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease (clinical and observational studies).
Vegetarians can supplement the MIND-diet with plant-based foods high in B12 such as nori algae and shitake mushrooms or take supplements.
The full spectrum of amino acids derived from protein is essential for proper brain function and cognition. Vegetarians omitting all animal-based proteins in the MIND diet will need to compensate for the loss of about 75 g of protein per week.