Dementia is defined as the “deterioration in cognitive function beyond what might be expected from normal aging” (World Health Organization). As the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, individuals with dementia are at greater risk for malnutrition, falls, infections, compromised immune systems, and early death.
As prevalent as dementia is at the population level, only few studies investigate the potential connection between diet and brain function. The two most prominent studies that highlight a positive association between healthy diet and brain function are the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) Diets. Historically, individuals who live in regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea have demonstrated significantly lower rates of cardiovascular disease and a greater life expectancy. The Mediterranean Diet is based on a high intake of whole grains, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil, along with a moderate intake of poultry and fish, and a low intake of red meat and sweets. On the other hand, the DASH Diet recommendations stem from a long-term study looking at diet and high blood pressure. The DASH Diet is based on a high intake of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit, choosing white meats instead of red meats, and a moderate intake of some dairy and nuts.
In 2016, a research group examined the relationship between the components of these two diets and brain function. The results were impressively positive. Researchers surveyed the diet of nearly 1,000 senior-aged participants in the Chicago area. A “diet score” was assigned for each participant based on the frequency of foods consumed within the Mediterranean and DASH Diet guidelines. The more foods a participant consumed within these diets, the higher the score. For example, a high intake of green vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grain products, and poultry or a low intake of red meat, dairy products, and fried foods dictated a high score. The cognitive ability of all participants was then tested on a yearly basis. Results of this study demonstrated an association between higher diet scores and improved cognition. Participants with the highest diet scores exhibited a brain age equivalent of 7.5 years younger than those with lower diet scores.
Based on this long-term study, we now know that an increase in some foods, along with a decrease in others, are associated with preserving brain function. These findings have been established as the MIND Diet (Mediterranean-Dash Intervention of Neurodegenerative Delay). Here are the details:
Say YES to all kinds of vegetables, leafy greens, berries, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, poultry, fish, beans, and wine.
Throughout literature, an increase in vegetable intake has been demonstrated to benefit our general health through weight loss, improving gut health, stabilizing blood sugar, reducing cholesterol, preventing cancer, and lowering blood pressure. In addition to these qualities, vegetables can now make us smarter! Researchers believe that the antioxidants found in vegetables prevent the deterioration of brain cells. Focus on the rainbow –whether the vegetables are dark green or bright orange or luscious purple, the pigments found in fruits and vegetables are the antioxidants that provide us an array of benefits. Berries, among all fruits and vegetables, contain the highest amount of antioxidants.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also known to fight inflammation in our bodies. They provide protective properties against harmful chemicals called radical oxygen species, and further help to prevent decline in brain function. Some foods that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids include deep-sea fish, nuts, and olive oil.
Here are some tips to implement these recommendations in daily life:
Eat a substantial serving of leafy green vegetables (2 fist-sized salads, 1 fist-size cooked vegetable) at least once a day.
Go for colorful vegetables (bell peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, pumpkins, etc).
Swap at least half of your grains to whole-grain products (whole grain rice, pasta, or bread).
Consume any berries twice a week; use them in smoothies, toppings, baking.
Snack on nuts; have them readily available at home, at work, with you during the day.
Cook with olive oil.
Say NO to butter/margarine, red meat, fried food, cheese, and sugary foods.
The saturated fat and trans-fat found in butter, red meat, and other baking goods have long been associated with health risks, including an increase in cholesterol and blood pressure. The MIND Diet study further confirmed their detrimental properties, even in our brains! Here are some tips to reduce the intake of these items:
Eat red meat (beef, pork, lamb) no more than two times a week.
Opt for grilled, rather than fried, meats.
Reduce the intake of sweets (soft drinks, caramel macchiatos, ice cream, candies, pastries, etc).
Interested in learning about weight goal and nutrition needs? Schedule a free body weight and % body fat analysis with Our Smart Eater Dietitians at 626-283-5128 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.