Why are berries brain food?
What's so special about berries? There's much to love, it turns out. Berries are the only type of fruit to make the cut of foods that prevent or delay brain aging. Berries and other foods that slow cognitive decline make up a pattern of eating called the MIND Diet.
The foods that make up the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet can lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease by more than half, and studies show that the diet delays aging of the brain by 7.5 years. Alzheimer's disease strikes more women than men, and one out of 10 people age 65 and older are affected by the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. A smaller subset have younger-onset Alzheimer's.
The good news is that because dementia-related diseases take years to develop, there is much we can do now to protect our brain, regardless of our genetics. A major part of preventing dementia is through dietary choices. Moreover, studies show that the longer participants stayed on the brain-friendly MIND Diet, the better the results.
Although it's called a diet, this is not a diet where the focus is on weight loss. While I never recommend restrictive diets that focus on weight, the MIND diet emphasizes brain health by bolstering fruit and vegetable intake. Plant-based eating, when done correctly, has enormous benefits for health.
The brain-loving food groups in the MIND Diet are vegetables and leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, beans, olive oil, and (surprise!) a daily glass of wine. Lean proteins such as chicken twice a week, and at least one serving a week of fish are recommended.
Since the Mind Diet relies heavily on plants, it can easily be changed to suit vegetarians or vegans. Eggs are not specifically included in the diet, and red meat and dairy are limited. Since beans are recommended every other day, you can simply replace all proteins with plant-based options.
I spoke to Maggie Moon, a fellow Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and author of The MIND Diet, who told me the same brain benefits can be found by replacing meats with vegetarian or vegan options. However, the MIND Diet clinical trials did not focus on vegetarian or vegans. If you are vegan, just make sure to include B12 supplements and omega-3 sources.
The MIND Diet is a combination of two other eating patterns that have been clinically shown to improve hypertension, heart health, and dementia. These are the DASH and Mediterranean diets. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The MIND Diet is based on the research of nutritional epidemiologist Dr. Martha Clare Morris at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, together with researchers from Harvard University.
But the MIND Diet seems to have some advantages over these other well-known diets:
It was developed specifically for optimal brain function, such as eating berries and dark, leafy greens.
It is easier to adhere to long-term.
Unlike the two diets it's based on, the MIND Diet shows remarkable benefits even if you don't follow it perfectly. In fact, many foods can still be enjoyed in small servings.
Blueberries and Strawberries have special brain benefits
Although all fruit have nutritional benefits, berries were seen as having the most cognitive advantage. Blueberries and strawberries were singled out as reversing cognitive declines (in rats), and blueberries (or grape juice) at improving memory in older men.
Blueberries and strawberries were shown to be best at protecting the brain. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have other fruits. Pomegranates have been shown to be beneficial for brain health after a month of drinking a cup a day, and all berries were considered to impact short-term and long-term cognition.
How much do you need? The MIND Diet specifies the following:
One serving of berries twice a week.
Each serving is 1/2 cup fresh berries or 1/4 cup dried.
Berries contain anthocyanidins, a type of flavonoid with health benefits. These antioxidants strengthen the immune system, improve blood sugar and blood pressure, and even help with burning fat. The anthocyanidins may help brain function because they can cross the blood-brain barrier to the regions for learning and memory, and even open pathways to these areas. The flavonoids are also anti-inflammatory, reducing diseases such as cancer.
According to Maggie Moon, MS, RDN, the researchers of the MIND Diet agree that dementia is not a normal part of aging. The MIND diet, especially when combined with exercise, can have a definite and long-lasting impact on maintaining healthy aging brains.
For a recipe which includes strawberries and pomegranates, see my blog post recipe for Ridiculously Easy Fruit Sauce, with only 3 ingredients. Pour it over a whole grain for a morning 'braintastic' bowl.
In my next blog post, I'll show examples of MIND-based dishes. You can also follow me on Instagram and Facebook for more photos of MIND ingredients.