You already know eating certain foods can help you lose weight and lower your risk for diabetes and heart disease, but following a healthy diet can also keep your brain sharp. The foods you eat impact neurological health in many ways—including effects on insulin resistance, detoxification, and systemic inflammation—and provide critical vitamins, says Dale E. Bredesen, M.D., a neurologist and author of The End of Alzheimer’s Program, which has a whole section devoted to foods that help prevent cognitive decline. The trick is to find an eating style that optimizes your brainpower and is sustainable.
Scientists are working hard to try to solve this puzzle and discover how we can use nutrition to enhance our cognition. For instance, a 2015 study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that the MIND diet can turn back the time on your cognitive age by 7 ½ years. Short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, the MIND diet combines the best of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, locking in the parts of each associated with dementia protection. “Good fats, such as olive oil, and vegetables (which include high folate and crucifers for detoxification) are brain-healthy components of the Mediterranean diet,” says Dr. Bredesen. “Meanwhile, vegetables and wild-caught fish that are low in mercury are both brain-healthy components of the DASH diet.
The team of researchers behind the 2015 study followed over 900 men and women ages 58 to 98 for an average of 4 ½ years, assessing their diets with detailed food questionnaires and testing their cognitive function annually. They scored participants’ diets by how closely they matched the Mediterranean, DASH, or MIND eating patterns. The DASH diet reduced Alzheimer's disease (AD) risk by 39%, the MIND diet by 53%, and the Mediterranean diet by 54%. But hold on—when participants followed the diets moderately well, rather than to the letter, only the MIND diet returned significant results. It reduced AD risk by 53% in those who followed it very closely, and by 35% in those who followed it reasonably well. What this means is that strict adherence to the DASH and Mediterranean diets may reduce AD risk—but so might moderate adherence to the MIND diet.
It’s worth noting that in the study, those with the highest MIND diet scores ate cheese and fried or fast food less than once a week, red meat less than four times a week, and desserts, pastries, or sweets less than five times a week. They also used less than a tablespoon of butter or margarine per day and made olive oil their main source of fat. Translation: It’s not enough to eat brain-friendly foods; to help lower your AD risk, it’s necessary to limit less-healthy ones as well.
"Several trials are currently ongoing to test the impact of MIND diet on cognitive decline, and other structural changes in the brain after 3 years in 604 adults," says Christy C. Tangney, Ph.D., C.N.S., F.A.C.N., professor in the Department of Clinical Nutrition at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and co-author of the 2015 study. "We will learn much more from this trial about the role this diet plan plays in brain health. The MIND diet is also one of four lifestyle approaches being tested in another ongoing clinical trial known as US Pointer (US Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle intervention to Reduce Risk) that I'm working on."
For people who really want to take things to the next level, Dr. Bredesen recommends following a diet that supports ketosis, which studies show can boost cognition. His very low-carbohydrate KetoFlex 12/3 diet is primarily plant-based and requires you to eat all your food within a 12-hour window every day and stop eating three hours before you go to bed. If that sounds like too much of a stretch for you, do whatever you can to limit your intake of processed foods, red meat, and added sugar while prioritizing brain-healthy foods. Then, take your brainpower to the next level by eating the all-stars below with a veggie serving of your choice every day. “Pairing with vegetables, especially leafy greens will up your nutrient intake since vegetables like kale or broccoli are high in vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene,” says Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Servings to aim for: 6 per week
One serving equals: 1 cup cooked, 2 cups raw
“Foods high in folate (such as leafy greens) reduce homocysteine, thus reducing risk for Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Bredesen. Meanwhile, “cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts support detoxification,” he adds.
Try it: Kale and Mushroom Fried Rice
Servings to aim for: The MIND diet doesn’t set a quota for coffee or tea, but current U.S. Dietary Guidelines state that up to 5 cups per day (about 400 mg of caffeine) is safe.
One serving equals: 8 ounces of drip coffee
“Coffee and green tea both contain caffeine which has been shown to improve cognitive function by helping to solidify memories,” says Avena. “Tea and coffee can also help with short-term memory boosts.” Just don’t add lots of sugar to your brew.
Try it: Whipped Iced Matcha
Servings to aim for: 2 per week
One serving equals: 3 ounces
If you eat meat, poultry is a much healthier protein source than red meat. It’s leaner and has less saturated fat.
Servings to aim for: The MIND diet doesn’t set a quota for citrus, but some research links 1 daily serving to better brain health.
One serving equals: 1 cup
“Citrus and citrus juice is full of flavanone which research shows can improve blood flow to the brain, which in turn improves cognitive function,” says Avena. In fact, one study found that elderly people who eat citrus almost every day are 23% less likely to develop dementia.
Try it: Red Citrus Salad
Servings to aim for: 1 per week
One serving equals: 3 to 4 ounces
Research shows omega-3 fatty acids may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and fish like salmon are rich in two of the three types of omega-three fatty acids (DHA and EPA). You can get the third type (ALA) from flaxseed and other plant-based foods, says Avena.
Servings to aim for: up to 3 per day
One serving equals: ½ cup cooked whole grain, 100% whole grain pasta, or 100% whole grain hot cereal; 1 slice 100% whole grain bread; 1 cup 100% whole grain ready-to-eat cereal
Dr. Bredesen suggests trying to avoid simple carbohydrates (like white rice or pasta). “They are associated with metabolic syndrome, which in turn increases risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” he says.
Servings to aim for: The MIND diet doesn’t set a quota for eggs, but 1 serving per day is generally considered healthy.
One serving equals: 1 large egg
“Eggs are high in choline which has been shown to reduce inflammation and bolster brain function by enabling optimum communication between brain cells,” says Avena.
Try it: Herb Frittata
Servings to aim for: 5 per week
One serving equals: a small handful (1.5 ounces) of nuts or 2 tablespoons of nut butter
Nuts are high in polyphenols, which have been shown to reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia. Walnuts are a particularly smart pick. “They contain ALA omega-3 fatty acids, which are especially good for brain function,” says Avena.
Servings to aim for: The MIND diet doesn’t set a quota for olive oil; just use it in place of other oils and butter, and splurge on the extra-virgin variety.
Olive oil is rich in healthy monounsaturated fat. “A low-carbohydrate diet that’s high in good fats (such as polyunsaturates and monounsaturates) promotes ketosis, which supports brain function,” says Dr. Bredesen.
Try it: Carrot Top Pesto
Servings to aim for: The MIND diet doesn’t set a quota for curcumin (the main component of turmeric), but some research supports taking 180mg daily in supplement form.
One serving equals: 1 teaspoon of turmeric equals about 200mg of curcumin
Better brainpower is just one of many benefits to adding turmeric to your diet. In fact, one study by researchers at UCLA found that middle-aged people with mild, age-related memory loss who took 90mg of curcumin twice daily experienced improvements in both their memory and their mood.
Servings to aim for: The MIND diet doesn’t set a quota for dark chocolate, but it is considered to be a healthy treat when eaten in moderation.
One serving equals: 1 ounce
“Dark chocolate is full of antioxidants, flavonoids, and has a bit of caffeine as well,” says Avena. “Just like berries, the antioxidants in dark chocolate can fight inflammation and improve cell signaling in the brain.” Aim for chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa.
Try it: 15 Healthy Dark Chocolate Bars
Servings to aim for: The MIND diet doesn’t set a quota for raisins, but they can be enjoyed as a healthy treat.
One serving equals: 1.5 ounces
“Raisins contain boron, which is essential for the proper functioning of the brain,” says Avena. “It helps to improve concentration, enhances hand and eye coordination and sharpens memory.”
Try it: Pumpkin-Raisin Muffins
Servings to aim for (if you already imbibe): up to 1 drink per day for women, 2 for men (no more!)
One serving equals: 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, OR 1.5 ounces (1 shot) of 80-proof spirits