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What Is the MIND Diet? A Mediterranean Diet Offshoot Aimed at Giving You a Sharper Brain

Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

The human brain contains an estimated 86 billion neurons that comprise 100 trillion connections. These connections and the chemical signals sent through them are the reason you’re able to put one foot in front of the other, take a deep breath, and remember the daily tasks you need to accomplish. As you age, these neurons begin to shrink, and their function naturally decreases. However, research shows that you can slow down or reduce this cognitive decline by loading your plate with certain “neuroprotective foods” and limiting how much and how often you consume foods that are known to cause inflammation in the body.

The most popular—and most studied—framework for eating to support brain health is a variation of the Mediterranean diet known as the MIND diet (short for the Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), which was introduced by researchers from Rush University and the Harvard Chan School of Public Health in 2015.

“[Lead researcher Martha Clare Morris] took a look at Mediterranean diet studies that were already showing reduced dementia risk and cardiovascular risk reduction across the board and said: ‘Okay, the Mediterranean diet's good for the heart. We've got some data that shows it's good for the brain. What if you take the Mediterranean diet and you make it more brain specific?’” explains physician and chef Annie Fenn, MD, founder of Brain Health Kitchen, who has studied the effects food has on Alzheimer’s disease for nearly a decade.

The result, which Dr. Fenn has built off of in her own work, is an eating plan that includes nine “brain-healthy” food groups and five types of foods to limit or avoid. “I try to make it really simple for people: eat more of this, less of that,” Dr. Fenn says. “Because with the brain-healthy diet, in terms of actually reducing outcomes, reducing dementia later, very small changes in diet for most people have huge benefits later.”

Foods to Eat for a Healthier Brain

According to psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety, eating for a healthier brain means eating more whole, real foods. He says prioritizing home-cooked meals and nutrient-dense foods over ultra-processed food products not only aids brain function but also benefits mental health.

“The new science of mental health is much more about, how do we increase brain growth and repair and decrease inflammation?” says Dr. Ramsey. “Food is involved in all of these processes.”

So, what’s on the menu for a healthier brain—and mind? Dr. Fenn breaks down the food groups currently recommended by the MIND diet:

Whole grains: According to Dr. Fenn, whole grains (like oatmeal, quinoa, or brown rice) reduce cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar, both of which play important roles in reducing metabolic diseases associated with Alzheimer’s.

Vegetables: Veggies are rich in flavonoids, which are known to suppress inflammation in the brain.

Leafy greens: Leafy greens get their very own category in the MIND diet, says Dr. Fenn, with research showing that as little as a single serving a day can reduce cognitive decline.

Nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds are rich in antioxidants, chemical compounds known to quell the inflammation and oxidative stress that can lead to neurodegenerative disease. Dr. Ramsey adds that many seeds—including pumpkin, hemp, and sesame—are also high in zinc. “Zinc is involved in 300 biochemical reactions in the brain, and lower levels of zinc are correlated with higher levels of depression,” he says.

Beans and legumes: A diet staple of people who live in Blue Zones, or regions of the world with the longest average lifespans, beans and legumes improve metabolic health and reduce cholesterol, says Dr. Fenn.

Berries: “Berries are recognized as the only fruit that's proven to be neuroprotective,” says Dr. Fenn. Scientists believe this is because they’re high in antioxidants.

Poultry: The MIND diet recommends a limited amount of animal-based protein: approximately two meals a week. Poultry (as well as beans, legumes, and many seafood) is also high in vitamins B9 (folate) and B12. “It’s known that deficiencies in these B vitamins cause depression, dementia, and anxiety,” says Dr. Ramsey.

Fish and seafood: According to Dr. Ramsey, fish and other forms of seafood are rich in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. He recommends wild salmon, rainbow trout, mussels, sardines, and anchovies as great sources of this brain-healthy nutrient.

Olive oil: This Mediterranean diet fave is a great source of vitamin E, which Dr. Ramsey says is brain-protective, and polyphenols, a type of antioxidant. “Researchers started to give really young, really nutrient-dense olive oil to people who already have early dementia, and they have found that it actually improves symptoms, and it might be that polyphenol content,” says Dr. Fenn.

Foods to Avoid for Better Brain Health

Let’s get this out of the way: You’re not going to be happy with this list. According to the MIND diet, you should limit your intake of pastries and sweets, red meat, cheese, fried foods, and butter.

“So this entire discussion of brain-healthy eating is about including the foods that we know are neuroprotective—like the leafy greens, the vegetables, and the berries—but also excluding the foods that we know drive up our cholesterol, specifically our LDL cholesterol,” says Dr. Fenn. All five food groups that the MIND diet recommends limiting are high in saturated fat, which is known to increase LDL cholesterol.

“These foods are also bad for metabolic health, and that's a huge factor in Alzheimer's disease,” says Dr. Fenn. People with diabetes, for instance, have at least double the risk of Alzheimer’s later in life, she says. “So when you're cutting out sugary drinks, processed food, nutrient-poor foods that tend to feed into obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, all these metabolic problems, then you are also reducing Alzheimer's risk at the end of the day.”

Research also increasingly supports cutting back on or completely eliminating your alcohol intake. The version of the MIND diet, which was first published in 2015, included red wine as the tenth most brain-healthy food, but newer research has caused medical professionals to reverse the course here. “There's an accumulation of data showing that there's probably no minimum dose of alcohol that is beneficial to brain health long-term,” says Dr. Fenn.

“As a psychiatrist, I think alcohol is bad for your mental health,” adds Dr. Ramsey. “We're increasingly understanding that the science of alcohol has really been wrong. Five years ago, three years ago, we would've had that soundbite: two drinks for a man, one drink for a woman, red wine’s great for health. All that science has been turned on its head. There's no amount of alcohol consumption that is beneficial for health.

Eating Habits for a Healthier Brain

“This is never just a discussion about nutrition; it's always about lifestyle,” says Dr. Fenn. The key to the MIND diet, Mediterranean diet, and also Blue Zones-style eating is slowing down and savoring the food you’re putting in your mouth. “[These lifestyles include] enjoying food with family and friends, sitting down at a table to eat, walking after dinner—simple things like that that are huge contributors to the health of those populations,” she says.

Dr. Ramsey agrees that “finding your food roots,” as he calls it, is an important part of using food to support your mental health. “I like omega fats and brain growth and all this stuff, but…my favorite way that food helps mental health is the way that it connects us,” he says. “It connects us to the soil, it connects us to each other, it connects us to this really rich culinary history, this kind of shared experience.”

Finally, Dr. Fenn notes that while the MIND diet is the most studied form of brain-healthy eating, it’s surely not the only way to go about staving off cognitive decline through food. “The reality is a brain-healthy diet is a very mindful look at mixing animal- and plant-based products. But that's going to be different for everybody, and it can depend on where you're from,” she says. “You don't have to be eating like Mediterranean people. If you grew up in a Latin-American household, an African-American household, an Asian-American household, there are heritage diets from other cultures that are probably just as brain-healthy as Mediterranean-style ones.”

So, in her eyes, the MIND diet is a useful starting point, not gospel. “Adapt it to what you like to cook, what you like to eat, what your food heritage is,” she says. “These are the things that make a diet sustainable.”

Originally Appeared on GQ