Foods to fight cognitive decline

Functional medicine

Few things scare us about getting old as much as the prospect of losing cognitive function. Much research has gone into understanding ways to prevent and lower the risk of cognitive decline, and specifically Alzheimer’s disease. Research has shown that maintaining a healthy diet, rich in certain super foods, can improve cognitive function and slow brain aging by as much as 7.5 years1.

That said, feeling like our brains are firing on all cerebral cylinders is something we should aim for in all stages of life. And while there are some factors that may not be in our control when it comes to fighting cognitive decline, our diet is one we do have complete control over.

The MIND diet (which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) is a research-based hybrid diet designed to slow cognitive decline, improve verbal memory and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease2.

It borrows elements from the Mediterranean diet for heart health and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. The MIND diet consists of 10 types of recommended foods and 5 foods to avoid. Here are the 10 foods it recommends, and 5 to avoid:

A lot of leafy greens

Leafy green vegetables are unsurprisingly a key part of a healthy brain diet and should be eaten frequently – with the recommended six servings a week showing the most brain-benefits. Broccoli, kale and spinach are excellent options, filled with nutrients such as beta carotene and vitamins A, C and K.

All other vegetables

Beyond leafy greens, the MIND diet recommends we should eat at least one other vegetable at least once a day.

Berries at least twice a week

Flavonoids that give berries their deliciously bright and rich colours are also good for memory function. One 20-year study showed that eating two servings of strawberries and blueberries a week resulted in the slowest rate of memory loss3. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are all good options to eat with your breakfast cereal or yoghurt.

Go nuts

The MIND diet recommends eating nuts five times a week or more. They’re an excellent brain-healthy snack to reach for and they’re full of good fat, fibre and antioxidants. Always check the listed ingredients on the pack though, and try to steer clear of options that have too much salt or other additives. Dry-roasted, raw and unsalted are the healthiest options.

Switch to olive oil

Swap out butter in your daily cooking for extra virgin olive oil. According to the research, people who use olive oil as their main cooking oil (rather than butter, margarine or canola) show less cognitive decline5.

Beans, beans, beans

Low in calories, high in fibre and protein, beans and legumes are an excellent staple of the MIND diet. It’s recommended to eat them no less than three times a week. Beans, soy and lentils are all healthy options and great meat substitutes if you’re wanting try introducing more plant-based meals into your diet. Research has shown people who eat more beans and legumes show less cognitive decline than those who have a lower intake.

Fish once a week

On the MIND diet, it’s recommended to eat oily fish such as tuna, mackerel, herring or salmon once a week. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, these types of fish also contain unsaturated fats. While the Mediterranean diet recommends fish daily, the research conducted on the MIND diet didn’t show any measurable benefit beyond eating healthy fish just once a week6. If you don’t eat fish, other good sources of omega-3s are nuts, flaxseed and soy beans.

Wholesome whole grains

According to the diet guidelines, we should aim for at least three servings of whole grains a day. Options include 100% whole-wheat bread and pasta, oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa.

Poultry

Eating chicken or turkey twice a week is encouraged on the MIND diet. But it’s important to note that the way you prepare it is key – grilled or roasted is ideal, fried is not.

A glass of wine

If you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, the good news is that you might actually be doing your brain a favour. Research shows light drinking could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by a couple of years7. Moderation is key though – and the recommendation only holds for a maximum of one glass a day.

Five foods to avoid

The following food types should be limited on the MIND diet as they contain a high amount of saturated and trans fats, which are associated with decreased brain health8.

  1. Fried foods. Try to limit to less than once a week.
  2. Pastries and sweets. Keep portions down to less than four per week.
  3. Red meat. Including beef, pork and mutton.
  4. Cheese. It recommended to limit intake to once a week or less.
  5. Butter and margarine. Try to limit intake to just one tablespoon a day, and rather substitute with olive oil.

While following any diet can be challenging, the good news is that even just adhering to the MIND diet a moderate amount has a positive impact on lowering your risk for cognitive decline8.

References

1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 Morris, M.C., Tangney, C.C., Wang, Y., Sacks, F.M., Bennett, D.A. & Aggarwal, N.T. (2015). MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimers Dement. 11(9), 1007-1014.

3 Devore, E.E., Kang, J.H., Breteler M.B., Grodstein, F. Dietary intakes of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline. Annals of Neurology, 2012; DOI: 10.1002/ana.23594

7 Morris, M.C., Tangney, C.C. (2014) Dietary fat composition and dementia risk. Neurobiology of Aging. 35 (Suppl. 2) S59-64.

Dr. Matt le Roux is a man of many talents: chiropractor, sports scientist and functional medicine practitioner. His science-based approach motivates him to explore the synergy between health and performance that changes the way you move, live, train, think, and eat.

Dr Matt le Roux

Chiropractor, Functional medicine practitioner

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