How the Food We Eat Affects Our Brain: Learn About the “MIND Diet”

We humans did a num­ber on our­selves, as they say, when we invent­ed agri­cul­ture, glob­al trade routes, refrig­er­a­tion, pas­teur­iza­tion, and so forth. Yes, we made it so that mil­lions of peo­ple around the world could have abun­dant food. We’ve also cre­at­ed food that’s full of emp­ty calo­ries and lack­ing in essen­tial nutri­ents. For­tu­nate­ly, in places where healthy alter­na­tives are plen­ti­ful, atti­tudes toward food have changed, and nutri­tion has become a para­mount con­cern.

“As a soci­ety, we are com­fort­able with the idea that we feed our bod­ies,” says neu­ro­sci­en­tist Lisa Mosconi. We research foods that cause inflam­ma­tion and increase can­cer risk, etc. But we are “much less aware,” says Mosconi—author of Brain Food: The Sur­pris­ing Sci­ence of Eat­ing for Cog­ni­tive Pow­er—“that we’re feed­ing our brains too. Parts of the foods we eat will end up being the very fab­ric of our brains…. Put sim­ply: Every­thing in the brain that isn’t made by the brain itself is ‘import­ed’ from the food we eat.”

We learn much more about the con­stituents of brain mat­ter in the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above by Mia Naca­mul­li. Amino acids, fats, pro­teins, traces of micronu­tri­ents, and glucose—“the brain is, of course, more than the sum of its nutri­tion­al parts, but each com­po­nent does have a dis­tinct impact on func­tion­ing, devel­op­ment, mood, and ener­gy.” Post-meal blahs or insom­nia can be close­ly cor­re­lat­ed with diet.

What should we be eat­ing for brain health? Luck­i­ly, cur­rent research falls well in line with what nutri­tion­ists and doc­tors have been sug­gest­ing we eat for over­all health. Anne Linge, reg­is­tered dietit­ian and cer­ti­fied dia­betes care and edu­ca­tion spe­cial­ist at the Nutri­tion Clin­ic at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton Med­ical Cen­ter-Roo­sevelt, rec­om­mends what researchers have dubbed the MIND diet, a com­bi­na­tion of the Mediter­ranean diet and the DASH diet.

“The Mediter­ranean diet focus­es on lots of veg­eta­bles, fruits, nuts and heart-healthy oils,” Linge says. “When we talk about the DASH diet, the pur­pose is to stop high blood pres­sure, so we’re look­ing at more serv­ings of fruits and veg­eta­bles, more fiber and less sat­u­rat­ed fat.” The com­bi­na­tion of the two, reports Angela Cab­o­ta­je at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton Med­i­cine blog Right as Rain, results in a diet high in folate, carotenoids, vit­a­min E, flavonoids and antiox­i­dants. “All of these things seem to have poten­tial ben­e­fits to the cog­ni­tive func­tion,” says Linge, who breaks MIND foods down into the 10 cat­e­gories below:

Leafy greens (6x per week)
Veg­eta­bles (1x per day)
Nuts (5x per week)
Berries (2x per week)
Beans (3x per week)
Whole grains (3x per day)
Fish (1x per week)
Poul­try (2x per week)
Olive oil (reg­u­lar use)
Red wine (1x per day)

As you’ll note, red meat, dairy, sweets, and fried foods aren’t includ­ed: researchers rec­om­mend we con­sume these much less often. Harvard’s Health­beat blog fur­ther breaks down some of these cat­e­gories and includes tea and cof­fee, a wel­come addi­tion for peo­ple who pre­fer caf­feinat­ed bev­er­ages to alco­hol.

“You might think of the MIND diet as a list of best prac­tices,” says Linge. “You don’t have to fol­low every guide­line, but wow, if how you eat can pre­vent or delay cog­ni­tive decline, what a fab­u­lous thing.” It is, indeed. For a schol­ar­ly overview of the effects of nutri­tion on the brain, read the 2015 study on the MIND diet here and anoth­er, 2010 study on the crit­i­cal impor­tance of “brain foods” here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How to Live to Be 100 and Beyond: 9 Diet & Lifestyle Tips

Nutri­tion­al Psy­chi­a­try: Why Diet May Play an Essen­tial Role in Treat­ing Men­tal Health Con­di­tions, Includ­ing Depres­sion, Anx­i­ety & Beyond

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Jan Burgess says:

    The big prob­lem here is that all the research neglects to point to the US being the MOST obese in the world. Decades of what has become a free-for-all in cor­po­rate agri­cul­ture linked to the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ‘indus­try’, has cre­at­ed a very sick coun­try — note the deaths to covid. Eat­ing a Med diet means not just the sea­son­al process which is easy to adopt, less so is the long lunch hour not at a desk, work/life pat­terns that are stress­ful. For decades the infra­struc­ture of try­ing to eat well in the US is only avail­able to those who can afford not to eat pesticide/GM laden food. Trick­le down to the health of edu­ca­tors and chil­dren and the ris­ing envi­ron­men­tal can­cers. Brain food? obvi­ous­ly the past four years has high­light­ed that it’s prob­a­bly too late.

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