When it comes to eating to preserve brain health as you age, it's all in the mind – that is, an approach to eating called the MIND diet.
The MIND diet combines the principles of two other well-researched diets – the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. And just like these well-regarded ways of eating, the MIND diet's main focus is vegetables and wholefoods, yet it has a distinct point of difference.
The MIND diet also singles out specific brain-healthy foods groups, and the science supports that it can help slow down the ill-effects on brain health that occur with age.
Jean Hailes naturopath Sandra Villella says that the research on the MIND diet is promising, and particularly important given dementia is the second leading cause of death of women in Australia (behind heart disease).
"A research study on 80-90 year-olds found that after almost five years, those who closely followed the MIND diet had brains that were the equivalent of being 7.5 years younger than those who didn't eat according to its principles," Sandra says.
Another study, of almost 1000 people aged 58-98, found that those who stuck closely to the MIND diet had a 53% reduction in the risk of getting Alzheimer's disease. What's more, those in the study who followed the MIND diet only modestly still benefited substantially, reducing their risk of getting Alzheimer's by 35% compared to those who followed the diet's rules poorly.
Broaden the focus
Accredited Practising Dietitian Kim Menzies says that a key factor of the MIND diet is its emphasis on a range of healthy foods, as well as quality of the diet overall, rather than individual nutrients.
"Research studies continue to highlight the importance of having a wide range of foods including colourful fruit, vegetables and legumes as well as different types of wholegrain cereals, protein sources and plant-based oils," says Kim.
"Being based on the Mediterranean diet, the MIND diet is colourful because such a wide variety of fruit, vegetables and other foods are incorporated," explains Kim. "I encourage people to try and 'eat a rainbow' across the week."
MIND-healthy food groups
To learn the overarching principles of the MIND diet, start by getting to know the basics of the Mediterranean diet; for now though, here are some of the MIND diet's brain-healthy food groups outlined below.
Getting your green on
There's no denying it, green leafy vegetables are a star player in the MIND diet – and that's because they pack a nutritional punch. Filled with brain-loving nutrients such as folate and flavonoids, a 2018 study found that eating a daily serve of green leafy vegetables (eg ½ cup of cooked spinach/kale or 1 cup of raw lettuce) was associated with slower age-related mental decline.
In fact, those who consumed the most serves of green leafy vegies were shown to be 11 years younger in cognitive (thinking) processes than those who consumed the least.
The lesson: don't pause on the greens; load up with spinach, rocket, kale, Swiss chard, lettuces, silverbeet and collards. As Sandra says, "it's not rocket science, it's the rocket".
Reverse brain-age with berries
When it comes to nourishing your memory and mind, berries – especially blueberries – tick all the boxes. They are low in sugar, high in antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory.
Blueberries reputation for improving memory is based on animal and test tube studies (with only small studies having been conducted on humans so far) but Sandra explains that they are indeed a rich source of the antioxidants called polyphenols – plant compounds linked with beneficial changes on ageing.
Fresh or frozen, Sandra recommends adding blueberries to your breakfast every morning. "If you can't afford blueberries every day, go for plums, prunes (my favourite!), blackcurrants and black grapes – these deeper-coloured fruits are great ways to boost your intake of polyphenols," she says.
Favoured fish fats
Your brain is 60% fat so it's no surprise that the fats you eat can affect brain health. Eating good sources of healthy fats, such as omega-3s found in oily fish, can help to control inflammation and oxidation, important factors in protecting the brain (oxidation plays a major role in age-related cognitive decline).
Twenty years of research have indicated that omega-3s – in particular, the omega-3 called DHA – may help delay cognitive ageing, including Alzheimer's disease. Plus, a 2017 analysis of the research concluded that eating more fish helped in halting age-related memory decline.
Just one fish meal per week is enough to lower your risk of dementia according to some research, but if you bump it up to the recommended two or three times weekly, the better protected you (and your brain) will likely be.
The best fish and seafood for the brain are the ones with the highest amounts of these omega-3 fats: sardines, mackerel, herring, salmon, trout, tuna and calamari. Check out Sandra's calamari recipe below.
"Linseeds, hemp seeds and chia seeds are also plant sources of omega-3 fats," says Sandra.
Please note: although omega-3 fats or fish oils are available as supplements, the evidence does not show they hold the same benefit as food sources of omega-3. Most experts recommend eating fish, rather than taking omega-3s in pill-form.
The other major players
The other major players of the MIND diet include other vegetables, nuts, beans, wholegrains, poultry, olive oil and wine. You can read more about these star players in our article on the Mediterranean diet or jump straight into the kitchen and start using them: Sandra's Bounty bowl (recipe below) was designed with the Mediterranean diet in mind.
Balance for brain health
Just as there are nutrients that nourish the brain, there are foods that can have the opposite effect when eaten too often.
A study on older people with significant memory loss found that a diet high in processed foods (such as biscuits, snack foods, sweets, fried foods and processed meats) was associated with some level of mental impairment.
It is also increasingly recognised that eating patterns that reduce the risk of heart disease may also protect against the development of dementia, especially Alzheimer's disease. So if it's a heart healthy-choice, chances are it will be good for your brain too.
Some human studies have also shown that obesity is linked to the risk of developing of mild cognitive impairment as well as dementia and Alzheimer's disease. The exact reason and mechanism behind the link is still largely unknown, but future research may look at factors such as insulin resistance, imbalanced gut bacteria and inflammation.
As with most things in life, it's all about balance, as Sandra explains.
"It's fine to have 'sometimes foods' as special treats every now and then, but for real brain-boosting benefits try out my raw cacao and ginger balls or my raw cacao prune balls made with healthy nuts, seeds and other brain-loving ingredients," she says.
Recipes to get you started
Breakfast brain topper – Pop this on your porridge or yoghurt each morning to help give your brain a boost.
Bounty bowl – This nutritionally rewarding Mediterranean salad lets you swap ingredients according to taste.
Green pestos – Sneak in a big dose of green leafy vegetables with these easy and flavourful pestos.
Herb-nut crusted salmon & vegetable loaf – A family favourite, plus bonus side dish recipe of fennel and kohlrabi slaw.
Calamari al forno – A healthy, easy-to-prepare dish using calamari, which is rich in the brain-boosting fish oil, DHA.
Browse more recipes and videos in the Jean Hailes Kitchen.