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 book 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 1⁄2 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 a day, and made olive oil their main source of fat. Translation: It’s not enough to eat the brain-friendly foods; to help lower your AD risk, it’s necessary to limit these less-healthy groups 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. Pair the all-stars below with one veggie serving of your choice every day, and you’re on your way to better brainpower.
Weekly servings to aim for: 2
One serving equals: 1 ⁄2 cup
Research shows that berries help improve signaling in the brain, most likely due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
2) Green leafy vegetables
Weekly servings to aim for: 6
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.
Weekly servings to aim for: at least 3
One serving equals: 1 ⁄2 cup cooked
Beans are packed with fiber, which research has linked to enhanced cognition.
4) Whole grains
Daily servings to aim for: at least 3
One serving equals: 1 ⁄2 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.
Weekly servings to aim for: 2 or more
One serving equals: 3 ounces
If you eat meat, poultry is a much healthier option than red meat. It’s leaner and has less saturated fat.
Weekly servings to aim for: 1
One serving equals: 3 to 4 ounces
Salmon is an especially smart choice as it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which research shows may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Weekly servings to aim for: 5
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.
8) Olive oil
Weekly 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.\
9) Optional: Alcohol/Wine
Daily 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