Here’s What Happens to Your Brain Health When You Start Following the MIND Diet
Every year, U.S. News and World Reports releases their list of the very best eating plans. This list has nothing to do with what’s “trendy” or what celebrities are doing. It’s about what’s actually recommended by nationally recognized nutritionists and doctors, including experts in heart health and human behavior.
You *might* be able to guess what came out on top on their just-released 2022 list. The Mediterranean diet is no stranger to the top ranking and it was deemed number one yet again, followed by the DASH diet and the Flexitarian diet. But there’s another diet in the top five that doesn’t get as much press as the reigning trio. The MIND diet (number four on the list) is an eating pattern developed by researchers based on studies showing the protective effects of certain foods specifically tied to brain health. MIND is actually an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and the eating plan was developed by nutrition researcher Martha Clare Morris, PhD, and her colleagues at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
The eating plan is divided into 15 categories: 10 types of brain-healthy foods and five types of food you should minimize. Foods people are encouraged to eat the most include leafy greens, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, berries, poultry, fish, and olive oil. That way, you’re getting lots of omega-3 fatty acids, protein, fiber, and antioxidants—all of which have been repeatedly scientifically proven to benefit the brain.
If you transition from a standard American diet to the MIND diet for brain health, can you really expect to experience a difference both in the short and long term? Registered dietitians who have studied the diet wholeheartedly say yes. Here, MIND Diet for Beginners ($12) author Kelli McGrane, RD, and The MIND Diet Plan & Cookbook ($13) author Julie Andrews, RD, both detail exactly how following the MIND diet affects brain health, both right after making the switch and if you stick with it for good.
What happens to your brain right after you start following the MIND diet
If you’re used to eating a diet consisting primarily of nutrient-poor foods and then make the switch over to the MIND diet, Andrews says one brain change you can expect right away is better concentration and focus. She explains that this is because the cornerstones of the eating plan have directly been linked to improving brain function in these ways.
McGrane agrees. “From my professional experience when I used to counsel, I regularly heard clients mention that they felt more energized and didn’t experience brain fog as often after cutting back on ultra-processed foods and incorporating more whole foods into their diets,” she says. Just as important as the foods that you are consuming are what’s been minimized, namely sugar, sodium, and simple carbs. These foods are notorious for causing brain fog because they cause stark spikes and drops in blood sugar, which in turn, affects mental clarity.
Besides better mental clarity, Andrews says that another cognitive change you may experience relatively soon after beginning the eating plan is improved mental health. This is because, not so coincidentally, the very same foods that are scientifically linked to reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression are front and center in this eating plan. (For the record, that specifically includes whole grains, legumes, fruits, veggies, olive oil, and nuts.) But McGrane says more studies need to be conducted focusing specifically on the MIND diet to really prove the connection. “There’s currently very little research on the connection between the MIND diet and mental health, specifically depression and anxiety,” she says, adding that what is out there shows mixed results.
While the effects of how you eat can have a powerful effect on your concentration and mood, McGrane does say it’s just one piece of the puzzle. “Other lifestyle factors, like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and staying hydrated are also key,” she says. But chances are, the immediate benefits you’ll experience after starting the MIND diet for brain health will inspire you to stick with it. And that comes with its own unique benefits too.
What happens to your brain when you follow the MIND diet long term:
If you stick with the MIND diet, both experts say that you can expect the initial benefits of improved concentration and, for some, better mental health to continue. You are also, they say, less likely to experience dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other cognitive diseases. “The research on the MIND diet is promising for long-term effects on brain health,” Andrews says. “In fact, the studies done by Rush University, the home of the MIND diet, show that those who follow the MIND diet can reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 53 percent!” What’s more, Andrews says you don’t have to follow it absolutely perfectly to experience the benefits. “Even following the MIND diet ‘partially,’ meaning you follow some of the recommendations, can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It’s pretty powerful,” she says.
McGrane adds that the eating plan is linked to supporting general brain health into old age, not just memory. “It may also help protect against general cognitive decline. In fact, the Memory and Aging Project found that eating one serving of leafy green vegetables per day—which is a key part of the MIND diet—was associated with slower cognitive decline,” she says.
The science-backed connection between the MIND diet and preventing cognitive decline is super exciting, but it is also important to note that there are other factors at play, some of which are completely out of our control. Unfortunately, we just can’t control everything that happens to us as we age.
Since the MIND diet has brain benefits in both the short and long term, both dietitians say the eating plan is literally aimed at everyone, but Andrews says it’s especially beneficial for older adults. “It is specifically designed to help people of all ages reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognitive decline,” she says. “I recommend it for people who have a diagnosis or family history of these conditions, specifically, but the recommendations are good for everyone and it is never too late to start incorporating these recommendations into your lifestyle.”
If getting started with trying it sounds overwhelming, McGrane recommends starting small (a few MIND diet-inspired meals a week) and not getting too hung up on doing it perfectly. Remember, you don’t have to follow it 100 percent to reap the benefits. There are also helpful cookbooks full of meal inspo, like each expert’s own aforementioned books.
What’s great about the MIND diet is that it isn’t super restrictive. (TBH no eating plan meant to be followed long-term should be.) There’s absolutely no shortage of meals you can make when sticking to the meal plan—no matter what your taste preferences are. And you’ll be benefiting your brain in a whole lot of ways in the process. Definitely something to keep in, well, mind.
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