How to Get Started on a Brain-Healthy Diet – Brain and Life Magazine

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Quinoa salad with avocados, peppers, and chickpeas

For years, researchers have looked at the connection between a healthy diet and a healthy brain. Hundreds of studies have shown a link between a Mediterranean-style diet—which focuses on produce, beans, nuts, and fish and tries to avoid red meat, saturated fat, and refined carbohydrates—and slower cognitive decline.

Scientists say this type of diet may protect brain cells from damage by keeping blood vessels healthy, cooling inflammation, and neutralizing free radicals. “A healthy diet is generally beneficial for brain health,” says neurologist Ronald Petersen, MD, PhD, FAAN, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Rochester, MN. “What’s less certain is whether it influences the underlying biology of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. But we do discuss healthy diet, as part of a healthy lifestyle, with our patients.”

Diet matters, agrees Karima Benameur, MD, associate professor of neurology at Emory University in Atlanta. “In one study, following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a 33 percent reduced risk of stroke,” she says. “In people with multiple sclerosis, a healthy diet can make a difference between having mild disease and severe disability.” A healthy diet needs to be a priority, says Laurel J. Cherian, MD, FAAN, associate professor of neurology at Rush University. “I tell patients that if they’re doing other interventions but not making healthy changes to their diet, it’s like having one foot on the gas and the other on the brake.”

“I tell patients that if they’re doing other interventions but not making healthy changes to their diet, it’s like having one foot on the gas and the other on the brake.”
— Laurel J. Cherian, MD, FAAN, associate professor of neurology at Rush University

Despite the evidence and advice from neurologists like Drs. Petersen, Benemeur, and Cherian, fewer than 5 percent of Americans follow the Mediterranean diet, according to a 2023 national survey by the International Food Information Council, a research group funded by the food industry.

The reasons vary: People may not want to change their current eating habits. They may not know how to incorporate brain-healthy foods into their diets. They may worry about the cost or think they don’t have the time or skills to cook meals with grains, fish, and beans and other legumes.

The basic principles of the Mediterranean diet include consuming three servings per day of fruits and vegetables; one serving of beans, nuts, or seeds at least three times a week; and a daily dose of olive oil. Consumption of red and processed meats, sweets, fried foods, and butter and margarine should be limited.

A variation known as the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) combines the Mediterranean diet with the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). Its food recommendations are similar, but MIND also emphasizes a daily serving of leafy greens, berries five times a week, two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil a day, five servings of nuts per week, and one serving of fish weekly.

Adopting more healthful eating habits doesn’t have to be difficult, says Krista Linares, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Los Angeles. She and other registered dietitians offer these suggestions to get you started.

Track your eating habits

Keep a journal of what you currently eat, says Jennifer Ventrelle, RDN, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Rush University, and look for places to make changes. “Modify instead of restricting,” says Ventrelle, co-author of The Official MIND Diet: A Scientifically Based Program to Lose Weight and Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. “For example, if you eat pizza every Friday, add a leafy green salad to your meal and aim to eat pizza less often.” The journal will show the brain-healthy foods you already eat.

Go green

Up your intake of leafy greens such as spinach, kale, chard, collards, mustard greens, and even Romaine lettuce, which are packed with nutrients. “Add a cup of spinach to an omelet or a handful of kale to a smoothie,” says Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Atlanta and author of The Plant Love Kitchen. “Eating greens regularly is the most powerful MIND diet step you can take,” Ventrelle says.

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Open the olive oil

Besides using it in cooking, you can get the two daily tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil recommended by the MIND diet by putting it on bread, vegetables, or salad, Ventrelle says.

Add avocado or salsa

You can top almost anything with avocado or salsa (or both). Consider putting sliced avocado in sandwiches or dipping sliced veggies in salsa. “It’s a simple way to add extra vegetables to any meal, as well as extra healthy fats in the case of the avocado,” Linares says.

Bring on the beans

The beans and legumes category includes chickpeas, black beans, red beans, white beans, lentils, and peas. Toss them into salads or soups or mix with vegetables. “If everybody ate a half cup per day, they would see positive changes in blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol,” says Maya Feller, a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice in Brooklyn, NY, and author of Eating from Our Roots: 80+ Healthy Home-Cooked Favorites from Cultures Around the World.

Recipe: Summer Bean and Corn Salad

Choose whole grains

Aim for three daily servings of grains, but make sure they are whole rather than refined. A slice of whole wheat bread or half a cup of brown rice, barley, or bulgur would count as one serving. For nutritional variety and great flavor, check out ancient grains such as quinoa, farro, millet, corn, and teff, says Feller. Be mindful of the refined grains in white bread, pasta, cakes and cookies, and most packaged oatmeal.

Make meatless meals

Dishes featuring vegetables and grains are mainstays of traditional Mediterranean eating. Try ratatouille, made with tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and garlic. Or roast cauliflower with tahini or cook a casserole of peas, sweet potatoes, tomato sauce, olive oil, and spices. Add beans or an ounce or two of cheese for protein. Feel free to enjoy generous portions: People who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet eat about a pound of vegetables a day, says Elena Paravantes, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Athens, Greece, and author of The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook for Beginners.

Rethink protein

Get protein from fish, chicken, turkey, beans, and nuts instead of red meat (beef) and processed meats like sausage, bacon, cold cuts, and hot dogs. “Limiting red meat seems to be beneficial because it reduces your intake of saturated fat,” Ventrelle says.

Snack on seeds

“Stay energized between meals with nuts and seeds,” Moore recommends. “They are satisfying and deliver good fats and fiber.” Your snack could be a handful of almonds, some sunflower seeds, or a small dish of pistachios.

Find the fruit

“Dessert on the Mediterranean diet is a platter of fruit after a meal,” Paravantes says. “Save sweets for once a week and for special celebrations.”

Adapt for any cuisine

“The principles of the MIND and Mediterranean diets are applicable to any food culture, including Latin American,” says Linares. Some of these brain-healthy foods are common in Middle Eastern and North African dining. And you can find them in traditional Southern cuisine, too. “Collard greens, black-eyed peas, and corn bread are common sides, and corn is a whole grain,” Feller says.

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