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Eat Your Greens and Berries for a Healthier Brain

Friday, March 15th, 2019

A study published last week by researchers from UNSW and ANU, found that eating a MIND diet, a Mediterranean- based diet with a few purposeful brain health tweaks backed by science, reduced the risk of dementia.

What did the study do?

The investigation followed 1220 people living in Canberra aged 60-64 years old, for a period of 12 years.  They asked participants the number of times they ate 183 food items per day, or week or month, over the previous year.  Their diets were scored to see whether their dietary patterns followed the MIND diet or a pure Mediterranean diet. At the study commencement, and three more times over the 12 years, they also assessed participants’ cognitive functioning; excluding any participants with cognitive impairment at the start, in case it compromised their memory of what they had eaten. 


What did the study find?

The study found that participants who ate a MIND diet reduced their risk of developing cognitive impairment 12 years on, so that by age 72-76 years old they were 19% less likely to develop dementia.  In contrast, no benefit was found for adhering to a Mediterranean diet. This is the first time that the MIND diet has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia outside of the United States.  This is significant because dietary studies are intrinsically confounded by the behaviours and lifestyle factors specific to a particular country.


So what sets the MIND diet apart from the Mediterranean diet?

MIND stands for the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.  It shares many food groups with the Mediterranean diet but differs by encouraging eating specific foods at specific frequencies.  For example, fish is not prescribed daily because evidence suggests 2-3 times a week is sufficient for protective brain effects.  The MIND diet also allocates separate categories for green leafy vegetables versus all other vegetables; and recommends berries explicitly, rather than fruit more broadly.  The diet also details how often to eat less-healthy Westernised foods such as cakes and pastries.

Ten Foods to eat on the MIND diet

  • Green leafy vegetables – at least six times a week
  • Other vegetables – at least once per day
  • Berries – at least twice a week
  • Nuts – at least five times a week
  • Olive oil as the primary cooking oil
  • Whole grains – at least three times a day
  • Beans – at least every other day
  • Fish – at least once a week
  • Chicken or turkey – at least twice a week
  • Red Wine or purple grape juice – No more than one glass per day

Five Foods to Avoid on the MIND diet

  • Butter and Margarine – less than 1 tablespoon a day
  • Cheese – less than once a week
  • Red Meat – no more than three times a week
  • Fried Food – less than once a week
  • Pastries and Sweets – no more than four times a week


What’s next?

The stability of the MIND diet over the 12 years follow-up is unknown; participants might have changed their eating habits after the initial assessment.  An important next step is to investigate the effect of a MIND diet in a structured trial, whereby one group of people are prescribed to eat a non-MIND diet and one group of similar individuals are prescribed to eat a MIND diet, and the cognitive ability of the two groups tracked and compared over time.   It is also important that future research look to see exactly how the MIND diet works its protective effect.

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