Can this diet actually protect your aging brain from Alzheimer’s?

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Cheryl writes: “I’ve been reading a lot about the MIND diet lately. A 50% reduction in Alzheimer’s cases seems pretty significant. Even if it’s not a controlled study, I’m willing to eat a few more blueberries just to hedge my bets. But I’m not ready to give up cheese quite so easily! How strong is the evidence that cheese increases the risk of Alzheimer’s?”

What is the MIND diet?

The MIND diet is a set of dietary guidelines proposed by researchers from Rush University. The diet combines elements from both the Mediterranean and DASH diets, two dietary patterns that have a long track record for promoting health and longevity, with a particular emphasis on foods and nutrients that have been associated either with cognitive health or decline.

 

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The researchers hypothesized that following this diet could keep your brain healthy, preserve your cognitive abilities as you age, and perhaps even ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. To test their theory, they reviewed dietary and medical records for almost a 1,000 people to see how closely their diets adhered to the MIND guidelines and how they fared in terms of brain health.

 

Their initial findings made quite a splash. In a study published in 2015 in the Journal of the American Alzheimer’s Association, they reported that those whose diets conformed most closely to the MIND diet principles were only half as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as those whose diets conformed the least well. The risk for those whose diets conformed only moderately well still was reduced by a third.

 

As Cheryl says, that certainly got everyone’s attention.

What’s on the MIND diet?

The MIND diet promotes 10 “brain healthy” foods and discourages five foods. Along with the berries that Cheryl mentioned, you’re encouraged to eat plenty of vegetables, especially the green leafy kinds, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine. The foods that you’re supposed to limit are red meat, butter, and margarine, pastries and sweets, fried and fast food, and cheese. (Hey, who are they trying to kid here? That’s actually eight categories of foods!)

How strong is the evidence?

The original MIND diet study had a few limitations. First, as Cheryl points out, this was not a controlled study, where one group was put on a specific diet and another group served as a control. This was an observational study. That means that the subjects weren’t given any particular dietary instructions. They just agreed to let researchers gather information on what they ate and to take various neurological tests over time.

 

The researchers found an association (or correlation) between the MIND dietary pattern and improved cognitive health. But we don’t know how much of that benefit was due to the diet as opposed to some other factor(s) that the lucky subjects had in common. For example, those who had the best diet scores also exercised significantly more than those who had the lowest diet scores. Although the researchers adjusted for that particular variable, it could be people who eat well and exercise more have other healthy habits or attributes that they didn’t control for.

 

It’s also possible that, out of the 15 foods singled out in the MIND diet, some have a much bigger impact on brain health than others. This analysis doesn’t attempt to see how big a role each individual dietary factor plays in the overall effect.

 

For 20 years, we’ve been recommending the DASH diet as a way to control high blood pressure because studies have shown it to be extraordinarily effective. One key feature of the traditional DASH diet is that you consume low-fat and fat-free dairy products. However, it turns out that those who follow a DASH-like diet but replace low-fat dairy products with full-fat dairy products do just as well as those who stick to low-fat dairy.  It appears that the “low-fat dairy” part of the DASH prescription may have been unnecessary.

 

Which brings me back to Cheryl’s question: Is avoiding cheese really necessary in order to preserve our brainpower?

What’s the case against cheese?

According to the researchers, the reason that cheese (as well as butter and red meat) are limited in the MIND diet is because of their saturated fat content.  Some, but not all, studies have found a positive association between saturated fat intake and dementia. In a 2014 review of 12 studies, only half found a positive relationship, five found no relationship, and one study actually found an inverse relationship: people who ate more saturated fat had a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s.

 

Moreover, some research suggests that diets high in full-fat dairy products (like cheese) do not carry the same risks as diets high in saturated fats from other types of foods. That may have to do with the specific types of fatty acids found in dairy products or with other nutrients they contain.

 

When it comes to preserving brain health, I would say that the case against cheese is pretty weak. I wouldn’t be surprised if a variation of the MIND diet which didn’t limit cheese performed just as well in a similar statistical analysis. (They could call it the Head Cheese Diet!)

 

Cheese board

Further research on the MIND diet

Since the original paper, there have been a few follow-up studies. A 2019 Australian study found that those who adhered to the MIND diet pattern had a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s and dementia over time, while those who followed the more general Mediterranean diet pattern did not. A 2022 study found that people following the MIND diet had better sleep quality and less daytime sleepiness.

What’s the bottom line on the MIND diet?

The evidence for the MIND diet as a strategy to prevent dementia is still preliminary. In 2021, researchers launched a 3-year study that will prospectively test the effects of the MIND diet on about 600 individuals. Depending on how it turns out, this randomized, controlled trial could give us much more confidence in the original observational data, although it won’t necessarily help in sorting out which individual components of the diet are most impactful.

 

For the time being, I would divide the MIND diet recommendations into three categories:

GREAT ADVICE

  •     Eat more berries, vegetables, and leafy greens.
  •     Use olive oil as your primary source of fat.
  •     Eat legumes and nuts several times a week.
  •     Limit your intake of pastries and sweets.

GOOD ADVICE BUT OPTIONAL

Eating fish at least once a week and enjoying one (ONE!) glass of red wine daily is also good advice. But if you don’t eat animals or drink alcohol, you shouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep over not following this part of the prescription.

FEEL FREE TO IGNORE (PENDING BETTER EVIDENCE)

I very much doubt that it’s necessary to eat poultry twice a week or whole grains three times a day. And, Cheryl, you’ll be glad to hear that, based on the current evidence, I don’t think that you need to give up cheese in order to keep your brain healthy.

 

This article originally appeared on QuickAndDirtyTips.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org

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How to eat better without going on a fad diet

 

A smart friend of mine keeps falling for gimmicky fad diets. A while back, he told me he couldn’t eat beans. When I asked why, he said, “Cause I heard there’s lectins in beans.”

“OK, what’s the bad part about that?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“I don’t know,” he replied, “but there was a whole book about it, so now I can’t eat beans.”

More recently, he decided to go on a food cleanse, which has been super popular the past few years. Never mind that your body naturally detoxes and most of those approaches are based on pseudo-science. Here’s the bottom line. If a diet has a funky name, encourages strange portioning, or tells you to eat extra bacon, it’s probably wrong.

Instead of adhering to the latest “healthy eating” fad, here are 10 healthy eating practices that are simple to follow and easy to work into your daily routine.

 

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Chop up your veggies and portion them in to-go containers so they’re ready to grab the next morning. Prepping the night before is especially good if you aren’t a morning person and want to get a couple extra minutes of sleep.

You may have heard that it’s better to chop up food right before you eat it so it’s fresher and has more nutrients. This is true, but not-quite-as-fresh veggies are still better than no veggies at all. It may not be the most perfect of all perfect practices, but creating convenience foods is time-effective and health-forward.

 

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If you and your family enjoy Taco Tuesday every week, knowing that allows you to plan accordingly. Not only can you health-up your tacos by adding lettuce and sautéed veggies, you can also plan to eat salmon every Wednesday. By removing the choice and planning ahead, it keeps you from making bad decisions and can help with your shopping and food prep.

Everything doesn’t have to be homemade from scratch, either — try supplementing pre-made foods with healthier ingredients. For instance, pre-made quinoa, chopped veggies, or even leafy greens are super healthy add-ins to canned soups.

 

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Ordering in social settings can be uncomfortable. You see everybody else ordering some big greasy menu item, so your impulse is to order something similar, even though it’s not what you want for your body. It’s too bad that guilt and shame can follow us to social situations—increasing the likelihood of an impulsive decision that isn’t aligned with our health plans.

Combat the impulse by looking at online menus before you go to a restaurant. That way, you know exactly what you want and can make a point to order first so others’ orders don’t tempt you.

 

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There’s always plenty to eat at a get-together, but most spreads could use a couple more healthy options. You can decide to be the person who brings a healthy dish—even if you’re the only one who eats it.

For those moments when bringing a healthy dish simply isn’t an option, choose to eat something healthy ahead of time. That way, you’re not starving when you get to the event, you can better limit your food and portion choices, and you can enjoy yourself, grazing lightly on the unhealthy stuff.

 

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If someone gives you a Hershey’s Kiss, what do you do? Most likely, you take it, quickly unwrap it, pop it in your mouth, swallow it, and then find yourself wanting another one.

Food is many things. It’s social, sensual, and attached to a variety of experiences. We use all our senses to enjoy food—smell, taste, touch, sight, and even sound. But nobody wants to mindlessly eat the foods they enjoy. We want to experience them with every sense.

Naturally, we all still want to graze from time to time, too. That’s where chopping veggies ahead of time comes in handy. Now, you always have a convenient, but healthy, mindless option to munch on.

 

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Some people eat the thing they like the least on their dinner plate first—and really quickly—and then they slow down to enjoy the rest of their meal. This is a great trick to get your healthy eating in without having to entirely cut out the foods you like.

 

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Spices have high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components. It’s like adding a little antioxidant, anticancer punch to your meals. There’s almost no downside. Plus, they make food less boring.

Experimenting with spices can be an unexpected, fun component of your new healthy eating goals. Hit the markets for interesting dried and fresh spices, and put them on everything.

 

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Try sneaking some black beans into your brownies—you won’t even notice they’re there. It’s an easy thing that’s a nice compromise between homemade and pre-made. Plus, little touches like this make it a whole lot easier to check off those weekly food boxes and get your required amount of fruits and vegetables.

 

If you need to put toppings on your vegetables or quinoa to make it palatable, go for it. Eventually, you’ll probably find that your taste buds will change and you won’t need them anymore.

This goes for microwaving, too. You may have read that it’s not great to microwave vegetables, but again, microwaved vegetables are better than no vegetables. A little Parmesan cheese on your broccoli is better than no broccoli at all.

After a few weeks of this, you’ll likely notice yourself dialing down these toppings anyway. Plus, when you’re eating more fresh foods, you’ll become much more sensitive to the salt and artificial flavors in prepackaged foods and crave them less.

 

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Make a conscious decision to eat and enjoy something. If you’re going to eat a piece of cake, eat it—and don’t hide in the bathroom in shame while you do. Instead, portion the cake out, look at it, and say, “Yes, this is a portion that I’m comfortable with.” Then, enjoy the hell out of it.

If you follow these ten healthy eating practices and make them a part of your everyday habits, you won’t need a fad diet or complicated rules to keep you aligned with your goals.

This article was adapted from Dr. Jaime Hope’s book, Habit That! and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org. Dr. Hope is a dual board-certified physician in one of the busiest emergency departments in the country. Her book helps show others how to create better habits and make healthy living fun, practical, and accessible.

 

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