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. Read more about the MIND diet.
What is the MIND Diet?
The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH 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 [1, 2].
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 are believed to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease [2, 1].
The MIND diet vs. Similar Diets
To better understand how the MIND diet works, we need to take a closer look at the diets it was derived from. The Mediterranean diet was designed to support heart health but also protects against chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer. The DASH diet was developed to lower high blood pressure. Both diets also improved cognition [3, 4, 5, 6].
The MIND diet emphasizes whole plant-based foods and limits red meat, sugar, and foods high in saturated fats. It differs from the Mediterranean and DASH diets by specifying serving amounts of specific food groups that reduce inflammation and are intended to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. These include green leafy vegetables, nuts, berries, and fish [7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13].
In observational studies ranging from 900 – 16,000 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 [14, 2, 1].
How Does the MIND Diet Work?
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 [15, 16, 17, 18].
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 about 3,000 elderly people) [19, 13, 20].
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 [21, 22, 23, 21, 24].
Whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are high in B vitamins and vitamin E. These vitamins decreased the rate of Alzheimer’s and dementia and improved memory in about 5,000 older people [25, 26].
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 incidence in older people, while omega-3s enhanced cognition in mild Alzheimer’s [27, 28, 29, 30, 31].
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) [32, 33, 34].
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 [35, 32, 36, 37, 38].
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 [37, 39, 40].
Health Benefits of the MIND Diet
Possibly Effective For
1) Brain Health
In numerous human and animal studies, foods highlighted in the MIND diet reduced the incidence 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 incidence of 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, [41, 5, 42, 43, 44, 20, 11, 45].
In observational studies of between 2,000 and 10,000 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 was linked to an increased rate of disease [46, 47, 48, 49].
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) [50, 51, 27, 52].
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 incidence of disease [53, 54, 55].
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 [56, 57, 58].
Eating MIND-diet foods improved cognitive function including memory, attention and visual-spatial skills in observational studies of over 23,000 people (aged 58 years or more). Lower intake of vegetables and legumes, specifically, was linked to cognitive decline [59, 3, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 30, 65, 2, 66, 14].
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 [67, 68, 69].
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 [70, 71, 72, 73, 74].
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 about 2,300 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 24,000 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) [78, 79].
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 about 500 people and observational studies of over 40,000 people) [80, 81, 82, 83, 84].
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) [85, 86].
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) Cardiovascular Disease
The MIND diet recommends eating plant-based foods high in fiber, complex carbs, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and phytochemicals. MIND diet foods reduced the rate of heart disease, deaths from heart disease, total cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol compared to lower-fat diets, according to meta-analyses of observational and clinical trials [88, 89, 90, 91, 43, 92].
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) [93, 38].
Eating high amounts of whole grains, fruits and vegetables improved blood sugar control and reduced overall incidence of Type 2 diabetes by about 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 type 2 diabetes. They found that :
- Decreasing the consumption of “high risk” foods (red and processed meats, sugary drinks) reduced the incidence 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 incidence of type 2 diabetes by 42%
- Eating 50g/day of whole grains alone reduced the incidence of type 2 diabetes by 25%
In another analysis, most MIND-diet foods were linked with a 20% reduced rate of type 2 diabetes (18 observational studies) .
Insufficient Evidence For
The following purported benefits are only supported by limited, low-quality clinical studies. There is insufficient evidence to support the use of the MIND diet for any of the below-listed uses. Remember to speak with a doctor before starting the MIND diet, and never use it in place of something your doctor recommends or prescribes.
5) 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 may promote healthy weight loss. The diet is also rich in fiber and low in high-calorie foods [96, 97, 98, 99].
Plant-based foods (legumes and whole grains) prevented weight gain and obesity better than high-protein, low-fat, and low-glycemic-index diets in observational and clinical studies [100, 101, 102, 103, 104].
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of obesity. Eating olive oil, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts decreased the rate of metabolic syndrome by 35% and reduced the likelihood of weight gain in an observational study of almost 800 young adults [105, 90].
MIND-like diets, high in plant-based foods, reduced the rate 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 [106, 107].
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 reduced symptoms of depression .
In an observational study of almost 16,000 adults, sticking to the Mediterranean diet for 10 years was linked with a decreased incidence of depression. These results were attributed to foods also found in the MIND diet (vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, fish) .
7) Parkinson’s Disease
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 slowed the progression of Parkinson’s disease symptoms such as tremors and poor balance .
In observational studies of over 3,000 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 [111, 112, 113].
Heavy consumption of MIND diet foods (especially vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and whole grains) was associated with reduced rates of cancer. 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) [114, 115, 116, 117, 118, 119, 43, 120].
Phytochemicals and antioxidants in berries and olive oil prevented colon cancer or and delayed its spreading in numerous studies (observational, clinical, animal, and cellular) [121, 122, 123, 123].
Consuming nuts more than 8 times/month for over 4 years was linked to a reduced rate of cancer and death in over 19,000 people. This study suggests that MIND diet recommendations of nut intake on the higher ranger (5 servings per week) may also protect against cancer .
Mercury in Fish
The MIND diet highlights the need to consume 1 serving of fish weekly, primarily for its omega-3 content. But some fish species can be high in contaminants such as mercury that can affect the nervous system and cognition .
In one analysis, mercury had subtle effects on the developing nervous systems of newborns. Pregnant or breastfeeding women, as well as those planning to become pregnant, and very young children should avoid fish high in mercury (such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tuna, and golden bass) [126, 127].
The MIND diet highlights foods like wheat, legumes, and vegetables, including nightshades. All these foods may be problematic for some people.
People with food allergies, chronic food sensitivities, lectin sensitivity, or autoimmune disorders may need to modify this diet to align with their specific needs and health status. Work with your doctor to develop the ideal diet for your health needs.
Read more about the lectin avoidance diet and why lectins may be harmful in this SelfDecode post.
Limitations and Caveats
The MIND diet benefits have mostly only been shown in observational studies, so it’s not possible to tease apart whether there is cause and effect. Replication of the findings in clinical studies is needed to confirm the association between this diet and improvements in cognition and Alzheimer’s and dementia prevention .
The current studies included dietary questionnaires with a few questions for some dietary component. The information on how frequently specific foods are consumed is limited, which could over- or underestimate the effects on cognitive decline and reduction in Alzheimer risk .
Other lifestyle-related factors strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline (physical activity, sleep quality) should be accounted for in future studies to allow for a more holistic approach to disease prevention [128, 129, 130].
Studies investigating dietary influences on the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia for carriers of the ApoE4 are limited.
Genetic Predispositions (APOE Status)
Carriers of the ApoE4 allele and women may need to modify the MIND diet to further reduce alcohol and/or red and processed meat intake.
The ApoE4 allele is a strong predictor of Alzheimer’s disease primarily because it can disrupt the breakdown and transport of fats that support optimal brain function. Observational studies suggest ApoE4 carriers are more sensitive to the negative effects of alcohol and saturated fats, suggesting a further reduction or complete elimination should be considered [131, 132, 133, 134].
In mice, carriers of the ApoE4 allele were more susceptible to low levels of DHA omega-3 fatty acids suggesting increasing fish may also be beneficial for carriers of this allele. However, human observational studies only show a beneficial link of additional DHA with non-carriers of the ApoE4 allele [135, 136, 137].
Women may also want to consider reducing their alcohol intake as wine only protected men from cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease (observational study of over 2,600 people over the age of 75). In this study, women who drank white wine several times a week had steeper memory decline suggesting a sex-specific harmful effect of alcohol .
Talk to your doctor about whether you have any predispositions to Alzheimer’s disease and whether you may benefit from modifications to the MIND diet.
Several followers of the MIND and/or Mediterranean diets found the guidelines relatively easy to follow given the flexible nature of the diet. The biggest adjustment appeared to be around cost, as fresh and high-quality produce (like olive oil and nuts) is more expensive.
Adjustments that some users found challenging were having to make homemade snacks, instead of buying pre-packaged ones, and not eating out as much.
Some reviewers noticed physical and mental improvements within the first week of following the MIND diet. Improvements included increased energy levels, less brain fog, fewer cravings for sweets, and decreased bloating. Longer-term benefits included weight loss and decreased anxiety and depression.
The MIND diet is recommended for people who are looking to support their brain health and age gracefully. As a child of two well-researched diets (the Mediterranean and DASH diets), the MIND diet also offers benefits for the heart, blood vessels, and weight loss. It encourages the intake of nutrient-rich plant foods and fish while limiting the intake of saturated fats, sugars, dairy, and alcohol.
Unlike most diets, the MIND meal plan is very liberal. It does not eliminate any food group, nor does it limit the number of calories or meals that should be consumed within a day. Doctors may recommend this diet to prevent and manage Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia, especially in older people.
The MIND diet can be adapted to your needs (e.g. if you’re vegetarian or have food allergies), as long as you make sure you are getting enough of the key nutrients. Work with your doctor to develop the ideal diet for you.