BEST FOODS FOR YOUR MIND
Which are the best foods to MIND your mind
With so much advice that is often conflicting about the best foods to eat, it can get confusing to know exactly what is good or not so good for our bodies and brains. While cholesterol recently lost its ‘Mr. Evil’ tag in the fats race, losing out to the even more sinister ‘Master Trans Fats’, sugar is now in pole position as the champion of all nasties. With more and more people choosing to go lactose free, gluten free, raw, paleo or vegan, it’s getting to the point where holding a dinner party for friends is nigh on impossible.
In 2014 David Katz and Stephanie Meller undertook a meta-analysis of all the currently trending diets to see which if any were superior to others. What they discovered was that while all had some good points, the findings indicated that what mattered the most was eating a wide variety of fresh (mostly plants) and unprocessed foods and not too much!
The Mediterranean style of eating has been extensively studied over the years and has been shown to assist with better retention of memory and cognition over the longer
term. Another good meal plan devised for hypertension is Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) which is rich in vegetables, fruits and low fat dairy products but low in salt.
Now there’s a new kid on the block for brain healthy eating, compiled by an American researcher Martha Clare Morris and her team based at Rush University. All foods in this plan were chosen because they had been shown in scientific studies to promote better brain health and function - which has to be a good thing!
At first glance it is very similar to the Mediterranean diet, but with a couple of differences. Morris believes it is an easier plan to follow. The plan provides a guide for the number of recommended minimum serves for the 10 different foods to be consumed on a daily or weekly basis. It also includes five foods that are suggested we should eat less of.
What is useful here is that it is a guide not a dogma. It’s not saying that ‘thou shalt not ever consume’ a French fry or chocolate-coated Krispy Kreme again. It’s about encouraging us to eat more of the healthy foods and less of the not so healthy stuff.
This is helpful because we are creatures of habits, often with well-established likes and dislikes. Trying to make too big a change to our way of eating often fails because habits can be tricky to dislodge and when we are under pressure, tired or super hungry we default to our old patterns of eating.
What is exciting has been the understanding that it is our gut biome - that 1.5 kg of bacteria that live in our gut, direct our food choices. And you thought you had free will! What has also been discovered is that by introducing small changes to our diet we can start to change our likes and dislikes of different foods and the species of bacteria that inhabit our gut will quickly change in just a couple of days.
The MIND Diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) described below has similarities with the two other healthy diets, the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet.
The MIND Diet includes the following 10 items and groups.
1. Green leafy vegetables: with a minimum of 6 serves a week. We always knew Mum was right when she told us to eat our greens. Spinach, broccoli, kale and Romaine lettuce make a great start.
2. Other vegetables: one serve every day to provide a wide range of different vitamins and nutrients.
3. Nuts: a small handful (e.g. 6 almonds) 5 serves a week is packed with healthy fats and antioxidants. They keep you feeling full and can help lower cholesterol.
4. Berries: blueberries, strawberries, blackberries take your pick. At least two serves a week.
So which are the best foods to boost memory and cognition?
5. Beans: chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans etc. Why not use them as the basis for a vegetarian meal three times a week? They provide a great source of protein and fibre and slow release of energy.
6. Whole grains: three serves a day. Oats, barley, rye and wheat.
7. Fish and other seafood: one serve a week. This is the main difference from the Mediterranean diet that encourages four or more serves a week. 8. Poultry: two serves each week.
9. Olive oil: use in salads and cooking, where a high temperature is not required. It’s the oleocanthol that provides the benefit.
10. Wine: up to one glass a day (not the bottle). A standard drink is 125 mL.
In the foods that are in the ‘recommended to eat less of’ group there were no major surprises, bar perhaps one.
1. Red meat: up to 4 serves a week is fine.
2. Butter and margarine: less than one tablespoon a day.
3. Cheese: Less than one serve a week.
4. Pastries and sweets: less than 5 serves a week.
5. Fried or fast foods: less than 1 serve a week.
For someone like me with a ‘cheese’ tooth, cutting down my cheese consumption will be the hardest thing to do. I’d happily swap all my pastries and sweets for an extra serve of creamy goat’s cheese. It’s important to remove the guilt from eating and to savour the amazing array of different foods flavours and textures our diet can provide.
One incentive to being more MINDFUL about what you eat, could be the finding of an initial study undertaken by Morris and her colleagues. Nine hundred people who followed the MIND diet where found to lower their potential risk of Alzheimer’s by a whopping 54% if they adhered to it very closely. But even those who weren’t quite as fastidious also showed a reduction in their potential risk of the disease by 35%!
Naturally watching our diet alone is not enough to ward off the ravages of disease such as Alzheimer’s. However, as part of a brain healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, stimulate your brain with plenty of mental challenge, keep your stress in check and get enough sleep and you’ll be contributing to staying as healthy as you can for the longer term.
It’s not what we do on a given occasion but our overall pattern that counts.
Dr Jenny Brockis specialises in the science of high performance thinking. She is the author of Future Brain - The 12 Keys to Create Your High-Performance Brain, (Wiley) available at all leading book stores, online retailers and from her website.