How to Eat Your Way to a Healthier Brain

an illustration of flowers arranged in the shape of a brain

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Plus, what to keep in mind about the MIND Diet.

Scientists are just beginning to grasp the intricacies of our most vital organ, but believe it or not, how the brain works and what causes it to malfunction are still poorly understood. One thing that has become clear is that what we eat has a profound effect on our overall cognitive health. 

To unpack the latest research on nutrition and brain health — from what foods can help protect against dementia to the scoop on the MIND diet — we’ve turned once again to nutritionist and cookbook author Maya Feller.

The heart of it all

One key to a healthy brain, Feller says, is maintaining a robust cardiovascular system. Keeping your heart in good shape will lower your risk for conditions like strokes and dementia. Strokes occur when a clot or a plaque blocks a blood vessel in the brain, or when a vessel in the brain bursts. This causes brain tissue to die and can lead to memory loss and disability, per the CDC. And at least one type of dementia, called vascular dementia, is caused by a series of small strokes.

So how do you keep the heart healthy? Start with a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, cut down on processed foods and added sugars, and up your consumption of whole grains and healthy fats, found in nuts, seeds, and fish. Feller also stresses limiting your alcohol intake and keeping your blood sugar in check; high blood sugar can damage blood vessels and nerves.

What to know about the MIND Diet

Given the heart’s profound impact on brain health, the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (aka MIND) Diet — a fairly new eating regimen that’s meant to promote a robust brain — makes sense. This diet is a hybrid of the popular DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which looks to lower blood pressure, and the Mediterranean diet, another heart-healthy way of eating. 

Here’s how the MIND diet works in practice: It encourages eating whole grains and leafy vegetables every day, and a couple of servings of beans, berries, and fish a couple of times a week. (Feller says seafood is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.) It also emphasizes using olive oil — another healthy source of fat — to cook with, while limiting meals involving red meat, cheese, and dairy.

It sounds delicious, but there’s science behind it, too: Studies have shown that the MIND diet can lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease and slow cognitive decline

The role antioxidants play in brain health

Antioxidants are known to protect our cells from damaging free radicals, and as you no doubt know, they’re found in high amounts in certain foods. (Cheetos don’t make that list, sadly.) Researchers have been studying berries’ effect on brain health for years, and several studies have concluded that regularly consuming foods high in flavonoids — antioxidants that give foods their vibrant color —  like strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, could prevent Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Some research even suggests flavonoids may have a hand in reversing declines in memory and learning as we age.

But a fistful of blueberries is not a magic pill, Feller says. “It’s not like if you eat a handful of blueberries every single day, you’re not going to have dementia. It’s about reducing the risk for vascular complications,” she says. And that can be accomplished through revolutionizing the way you eat.