Everyone knows the foods we eat can affect how our bodies look. But can they really affect how we think, too? Scientists believe so. Diets designed to help people lose weight have been around for hundreds of years. However, research has focused the past few decades on promoting healthy function of the body, instead of just shedding pounds.
Although experts don’t always agree exactly which foods to include in this category, those foods do have several characteristics in common. Brain foods typically are low-calorie but high in nutrients. Many are natural sources of antioxidants, which help to prevent free radical damage within the brain. Many affect the body at the DNA level, meaning they influence how the body expresses certain genes, which leads to more efficient genetic function.
Somewhat by accident, it was discovered that improving the health of the body could lead to improving the health of the brain, too. The belief is that a healthy mind will function better than an unhealthy one. Certain foods, such as blueberries, avocados, and wild fish, have been labeled as “brain foods” that should be included in every brain-healthy diet.
Although typically thought of as a means by which to provide the body with fuel, food is beginning to be recognized for its ability to protect against disease. There are many dietary components that are now known to affect cognitive abilities. Most people are familiar with omega-3 fatty acids, and the benefits they provide. But there are many others, such as vitamins, flavonoids, turmeric, calcium, and iron.
Foods also have caloric content, which is food energy that the body can use to power cellular functions. Fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and even alcohol provide us with energy. The brain, which only represents 2% of the body’s mass, uses 25% of both its oxygen and total nutrient intake and up to 70% of the body’s glucose reserves. Restricting caloric intake is linked to decreases in cognitive function.
Due to its high rate of metabolism, the brain is also more susceptible to oxidative damage than cells in the body. It also has an abundance of materials, like poly-unsaturated fatty acids, that are susceptible to oxidation. Diets that contain antioxidants can help protect the cells of the brain and, therefore, its function. Berries, which most experts include on the list of brain foods, are known to have strong antioxidant capabilities.
The foods you eat can also affect how your DNA functions. They can cause epigenetic changes that influence genetic expression. As a result, foods can influence disease, for the good and for the bad, at the gene level. They can also affect cognitive function and mood. Epigenetic changes have been seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease. With all these factors combined, it’s clear that a healthy diet is essential to cognitive well-being.
The World Health Organization (WHO) noted significant trends among Mediterranean people between 1960 and 1990. Even though many have inferior health care, as compared to those in North America and northern Europe, they experience lower death rates and higher life expectancy. This is also despite an unusually high prevalence of smoking. It is for these reasons that Dieticians copy their food habits.
Hypertension affects millions of people worldwide. The DASH diet improves health in several ways. It involves restriction of both caloric and salt intakes. Although there are several similar structures for this diet, all produce reductions in blood pressure, blood lipids, and risk of cardiovascular disease. The lower-sodium versions of this diet result in both a lowering of the body’s sodium level and a greater reduction in blood pressure than its higher-sodium counterparts.
Alzheimer’s dementia affects 10% of Americans over the age of 65. Cognitive decline is a major symptom of this type of dementia. More people suffer from other forms of dementia or the gradual decrease in cognition that sometimes comes with aging. Reducing the rate of cognitive decline in older adults could have a significant impact on public health. The MIND diet can help prevent dementia and cognitive decline, to some degree, and these results improve the more strictly you adhere to its guidelines.
The Mediterranean Diet
Dietary traditions followed by the people in Mediterranean countries have been historically associated with a healthy lifestyle. The Mediterranean diet was based on food practices of the 1960’s when this region experienced some of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. This was due, in part, to them also having the lowest rates of chronic diseases, heart disease, and certain cancers.
The Mediterranean diet pyramid, which became popular in the 1990’s, is meant to provide a visual ranking of the importance of each element. Items at the bottom are most important and meals should center mostly around these foods. Items at the top are eaten sparingly, if at all. This dietary regimen is a bit of a paradox, in that it contains a fair amount of fat content but people who eat it exhibit decreased rates of cardiovascular disease.
This diet, however, is as much about lifestyle choices as it is about food. The base of the pyramid, which emphasizes the importance of being more active and social, demonstrates this. It takes more than careful food choices to have a healthy life. Meals are not just meant to feed the body. When you surround yourself with family and friends, they become social events that also feed the soul. The USDA has recommended the Mediterranean diet as an approved dietary guideline since 2010.
At the core of the Mediterranean diet, are the following 8 concepts:
Eat a Lot of Vegetables – It doesn’t matter so much which vegetables you choose. The idea is to fill half your plate with vegetables at two meals every day.
Change Your Meat Habits – Meat should play a very small role in meals. Rather than having a large piece as the main entrée, a small amount of lean meat (no more than 3 ounces) garnishes a vegetable or whole grain main course.
Enjoy Your Dairy – Helpings of cheese and yogurt are allowed, but they are near the top of the Mediterranean diet pyramid, so they should be eaten sparingly.
Eat Seafood – At least twice a week, you should eat fish that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This includes salmon, tuna, herring, and sardines. Certain shellfish, such as clams, oysters, and mussels also benefit heart and brain health.
Enjoy a Vegetarian Meal – You should do this once a week, to start. Once it becomes a comfortable habit, you can add a second meal. They should consist of beans, vegetables, and whole grains as the basis of the meals, adding fragrant herbs and spices to enhance the flavor.
There is Such a Thing as Good Fats – Eat some healthy fats every day. These include extra-virgin olive oil, sunflower seeds, nuts, olives, and avocados.
Whole Grains Only – These contain naturally rich levels of several important nutrients. They’re more filling, better tasting, and the fiber content satisfies the appetite for hours. Traditional Mediterranean grains include barley, farro, bulgur, and dark rice. Baked goods should be made from whole-grain flours.
Fruit as Dessert – Instead of pastries, choose naturally sweet and delicious fresh fruits for dessert. This can include grapes, apples, pomegranates, oranges or figs. They should be fresh, not canned, whenever possible. You should only eat sweet desserts as occasional treats on special occasions.
The DASH Diet
The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, was developed by a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Based on research, its purpose is to control and prevent high blood pressure. The scientists who published it intended for it to be a smart approach for the general public to maintain heart health. The USDA has recommended this diet since 2005.
This diet focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, seafood, poultry, and nuts. It also recommends reductions of red meats, sweets, processed meats, sugary drinks, and salt. Although the diet initially significantly reduced all fats, tiny amounts of unsaturated fats were later reintroduced. Foods rich in nutrients such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium, which can all help lower blood pressure, are also important.
DASH requires the counting of calories as well. Your daily caloric need is determined based on age, gender, and level of activity. You can use this calorie count to establish how many servings of each type of food you should have per day or per week. The NIH website has charts that can be used to calculate these. It also lists serving sizes for each type of food.
This diet is a lifelong change in habit, rather than being a short-term solution to a health concern. Once blood pressure is under control, the diet can help keep it that way. The dietary guidelines for DASH make it suitable for treating other medical conditions as well, such as osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes.
The MIND Diet
The Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet is intended to help prevent decreased cognition and dementia that can come with age. As the name suggests, it combines aspects of both the Mediterranean and DASH diets, focusing particularly on brain foods. Both diets are recognized for enhancing health, fighting disease, and improving cognitive ability. The goal of this diet was to apply those concepts specifically to brain health while also focusing on preventing neurodegeneration.
Following extensive literature research, a Nutritional Epidemiologist from Rush University Medical Center released the guidelines for this diet in 2015. An expert in her field, Dr. Martha Clare Morris used the published results from previous studies to determine which foods included in the other two diets had proven brain health benefits. She also researched foods excluded from those diets to determine which were known to present brain risks.
So far research has shown that, while all three diets can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s but only the MIND diet was beneficial even when only moderately followed. Researchers found that people who follow all the guidelines of this diet experienced a 53% decrease in Alzheimer’s risk. However, those who only followed it the diet moderately well still decreased their risk up to 35%.
In addition to its benefits regarding Alzheimer’s risk, the MIND diet is also associated with slowing general cognitive decline with aging. This results in a cognitive age, based on the rate of decline, that is 7.5 years younger than their actual age. The results of this diet are still relatively new, so more research is needed, but it is showing great promise so far. This research reveals that the foods you eat can make a difference where cognitive health, particularly Alzheimer’s, is concerned.
MIND Diet Food Categories
The MIND diet focuses on two types of food, those that are known to be healthy and those that are known to be unhealthy for the brain. It establishes daily and weekly targets, but you don’t have to meet them fully every day if it’s difficult for you to do so. Following these guidelines, even moderately, can reduce your Alzheimer’s risk.
The diet also allows you to eat foods that aren’t in the recommended categories, as long as they’re not on the unhealthy list. However, results are better the more closely you follow the guidelines. The goal, at least initially, is to eat more of the brain-healthy foods and less of the unhealthy ones. There are ten food groups on the healthy list:
Green Leafy Vegetables – once every day; including kale, salad, cooked greens and spinach
Other Vegetables – once a day; avoid starchy vegetables to get high nutrients with low calories
Berries – at least 2 times a week; strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries provide antioxidant benefits
Nuts – snack on at least five times a week; no specific kind recommended, just try to mix it up, raw or roasted
Beans – 3-4 times a week; all beans, soybeans, and lentils are included
Whole Grains – Whole Grains – at least 3 servings a day; choose from oatmeal, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, or whole-wheat bread
Fish – Fish – at least 1 time a week; wild, fatty fish are best, like salmon, trout, tuna, sardines, and mackerel; all have the desired omega-3 fatty acids
Poultry – Poultry – no less than twice a week; turkey or chicken, but not fried
Olive Oil – Olive Oil – use this, sparingly, as the main cooking oil
Wine – no more than a glass a day; red or white are acceptable, though red is usually the preference
Foods are categorized as being unhealthy for the brain because they contain saturated and trans fats. Research links trans fats to a myriad of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, and saturated fats are also associated with decreased brain health. According to the MIND diet, the following five groups of foods should be limited as much as possible:
Red Meat – Red Meat – 3 times a week at the most; including beef, lamb, pork and anything made from them
Butter and Stick Margarine – no more than 1 tablespoon a day; replace with olive oil as much as possible, bread can be dipped in herbed olive oil
Cheese – no more than once a week; this includes all types of cheese, regardless of which animal the milk comes from
Pastries and Sweets – a maximum of four servings a week; all processed junk foods and desserts fall into this category
Fried Foods – less than once a week; this includes all fast food
Based on their emphasis on nutrient, caloric, and antioxidant contents and their abilities to exert epigenetic influence on the body and brain, all these diets have proven cognitive benefits. Which one you choose is mostly dependent on your desired outcome. If you’re only interested in cognitive results, the MIND diet is the obvious choice. If, however, you also have other health concerns as well, you should explore one of the other options. According to the available data, though, these are the best diets to maximize cognition.