Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the MIND Diet

It's easy to follow and may help protect your body from disease.

Updated on August 3, 2023

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Year in and year out, the MIND Diet ranks among U.S. News and World Report’s best diets. What makes it so effective?

For starters, it's not a diet of deprivation. Instead, the MIND Diet encourages you to eat specific, delicious options that support your heart and brain health. You’ll be motivated to make healthy swaps because MIND Diet foods are satisfying and can lower your risk of chronic illnesses like Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

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What’s the MIND Diet?

The MIND Diet, or Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, combines key disease-fighting principles from two other science-based diets. It blends the DASH Diet, which helps to control blood pressure, and the Mediterranean Diet, which has been linked to longevity, among other health benefits.

The MIND Diet stresses 10 food groups associated with a lower risk of dementia, including nuts, berries, and fatty fish. In a 2015 study, people who strictly followed this eating plan most closely had a 53 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Those who followed it “moderately well” reduced their risk by 35 percent. The MIND Diet may also help you avoid other conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure.

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Will you lose a lot of weight?

The MIND Diet doesn’t involve rigid rules or careful counting. Instead, it prompts you to eat a minimum number of healthy foods each week. It also urges you to eat less than your weekly allowance of unhealthy foods.

The more people swap out restricted items like desserts with healthier fare like fruits and nuts, the lower their disease risk. This plan was designed with Alzheimer’s prevention in mind, but filling up on brain-boosting foods means you’ll have less room for the kinds of unhealthy foods that may contribute to weight gain. The pleasant side effect is often weight loss. 

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Foods to love

Keep track of your servings, and eat at least the minimum amount of these essential foods:

  • Green leafy vegetables: 6-plus servings weekly
  • Other veggies like cauliflower and sweet potatoes: 1-plus servings daily
  • Fruit: No restrictions, but include at least 2-plus servings of blueberries weekly
  • Whole grains: 3-plus servings daily
  • Legumes: 3-plus servings weekly 
  • Nuts: 5-plus servings weekly
  • Fish: At least once a week, but preferably more
  • Poultry: 2-plus servings weekly 
  • Olive oil: Use daily for cooking
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Foods to limit

The less you can eat of these foods, the better. Aim for no more than these amounts:

  • Red meat: 4 servings weekly
  • Butter and margarine: 1 tablespoon daily
  • Cheese: 1 serving weekly
  • Fried or fast foods: 1 serving weekly
  • Desserts and added sugar: 5 servings weekly
  • Limit salt as well. The MIND guidelines don’t give a specific target for salt intake, but the DASH Diet recommends staying below 1,400 mg daily.
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How to track your weekly servings

Keeping a food journal can double your weight loss success, according to a large study from Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research. A journal can be especially helpful on the MIND Diet because it reminds you how many servings of each food you’ve had that week.

But you might not always have time to write down what you eat. If you tend to munch on the go, consider keeping a photo journal instead. Just snap a pic of each meal with your smart phone. Later, you can swipe back to remember what you’ve had.

You could also use a food tracker app. In addition to helping you record meals, these apps often provide information about your food’s sugar and sodium content, along with other nutrition facts. 

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Have whole grains for breakfast

Oatmeal is the ideal MIND Diet breakfast. It’s quick, easy, and simply delicious when made properly. It also has a long list of health benefits, including:

  • Helping to control blood sugar for people with diabetes
  • Lowering your levels of total cholesterol and LDL (aka “bad” cholesterol)
  • Keeping your digestion regular
  • Filling you up so you can power through your morning 

You can up your whole grain intake by choosing an oatmeal mix that contains other grains. You can also stir in leftover whole grains from the previous night’s dinner, like brown rice, for extra fiber and texture.

Avoid instant oatmeal with added sugar and artificial flavors. Opt for plain rolled or steel-cut oats instead. Then, choose from these healthy toppings: berries, nuts, seeds like chia or flax, cinnamon, ground ginger, almond milk, almond or vanilla extract.

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Sprinkle in some blueberries

Blueberries are the only fruit that’s specifically included in the MIND Diet. Blueberries contain flavonoids, antioxidant plant compounds that give them their color. Research suggests flavonoids may improve memory by encouraging communication between brain cells.

Add blueberries to oatmeal or smoothies, or snack on them with a handful of nuts. Aim for two servings or more per week.

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Make lunch leafy

Lunch is the perfect time to sneak leafy greens into your routine because prewashed greens are a simple base for quick-prep salads

Keep two to three containers of green leafy vegetables in your fridge, such as arugula, kale, and watercress. In the morning, toss a handful of each green into your lunch container. Blending greens helps you get in more servings, while adding flavor and texture to your lunchbox.

Mix in a variety of other pre-cut and pre-washed veggies like shredded carrots, cabbage, and broccoli for toppings. Add grains like quinoa or bulgur from the night before to bulk up your salad, and don’t forget a protein like:

  • Nuts
  • A hard-boiled egg (boil and peel some eggs during Sunday meal prep sessions)
  • A frozen veggie patty (will defrost by lunch; then heat in a microwave or toaster)
  • Hummus
  • Leftover poultry from the night before
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Snack on fruit and nuts

Keep MIND Diet snacks visible and on-hand so processed foods from the pantry or freezer don’t lead you astray:

  • Put out bowls of nuts and dried fruit—on your desk, kitchen counter, or anywhere else you get the munchies. Nuts can be high in calories, though, so be mindful of your servings. 
  • Keep a bowl of washed, fresh fruit on the counter for snacking, too.
  • Ask your family to keep chips and packaged goods in the pantry (or to reduce purchases of them altogether). Keep cakes and breads in the freezer so they’re out of sight—and you have to defrost them before eating.
  • Enjoy cheese once a week or less.
  • Dark chocolate is great for snacking, too, but check the sugar content. Limit added sugar and desserts to fewer than five servings weekly.
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Make fish for dinner

Fish is a key brain-boosting food. Fatty fish is especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help protect against beta-amyloid plaques, brain proteins that contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. In one study, people who ate fish twice a week over six years experienced 13 percent less cognitive decline, compared to those who skipped it. People who ate it once a week had 10 percent less decline. 

Buy fish when you see it on sale. But don’t hesitate to ask the person working at the counter when it was caught and how long it’s been sitting out. The sale price isn’t worth it if the fish is no longer fresh.

Freeze your fish if you’re not planning to cook it that night. Buying fish whenever you see sales then freezing it for later is a smart way to cut costs on this diet. It’ll ensure you always have affordable lean protein on hand.

Pro tip: Salmon, tilapia, cod, and catfish tend to contain fewer heavy metals like mercury. Also, tilapia and catfish are often less pricey.

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Skip the salt without sacrificing flavor

Spice mixes can be delicious alternatives to salt. But you still need to read the ingredients and nutrition facts since blends sometimes contain salt. 

Salt substitutes are usually safe, but check those labels, too. Some substitutes contain potassium chloride, which can interfere with medications or aggravate symptoms for people with certain medical conditions like heart disease. 

If your food’s still missing something, don’t reach for the salt shaker. Try one of these Mediterranean-inspired toppings instead:

  • Red wine or apple cider vinegar
  • Olive tapenade (check the sodium content first) 
  • Roasted red peppers
  • Peppers pickled in vinegar, not salt
  • Sliced red onions 
  • Fresh squeezed lemon 
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The special question of wine

The MIND Diet allows for a moderate intake of one serving, or four to five ounces, of wine daily. But if you’re not a drinker, don’t start just for the sake of this diet. And no, you can’t have all your weekly servings in one night. Once you move beyond moderate intake, experts agree that alcohol will only harm your health.

While wine is technically allowed on this meal plan, researchers are still divided over whether the benefits of moderate drinking outweigh the potential risks. Some studies suggest it may help to:

  • Lower your risk of heart attack, heart disease, and stroke
  • Increase your levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol
  • Fend off the buildup of the brain proteins associated with Alzheimer’s, thanks to resveratrol, a compound found mostly in grape skins

On the other hand, a 2017 study published in BMJ suggests even moderate alcohol intake may cause atrophy, or the shrinking, of certain brain regions involved in memory. The amount of damage found on MRI brain scans increased along with the amount of alcohol people drank. The result? Both moderate and heavy drinkers experienced some loss of lexical fluency (how many words with the same first letter they could name in one minute), compared to non-drinkers.

The bottom line: If you’re currently a drinker, reduce your daily intake to one serving or less. If you don't drink, don't start.

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Sample breakfast: Gingerbread Pancakes

Oatmeal is a great morning go-to, but you can still enjoy more indulgent recipes—with a healthy twist. Try these yummy, good-for-you pancakes. They don’t need syrup, but if you use it, measure out one serving and count it toward your weekly sugar allowance. Even without syrup, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by comforting flavors like cinnamon, vanilla, and cloves—they taste great and they’ll make your kitchen smell amazing.

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Try this scrumptious side instead of processed meats

Skip the salty breakfast meats. Serve your pancakes with homemade turkey sausage instead. Mix 2 lbs lean ground turkey, 1 egg white, 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup, 1 tablespoon ground sage, and ½ teaspoon ground rosemary. Add red pepper flakes, fennel seeds, black pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Form into patties and pan fry with olive oil.

Calories per serving: 138; 1.9 g fat; 27.3 g protein; 64 mg sodium; 0.3 g fiber; 2.2 g carbs; 1.6 g sugar

Inspired by The Everything Guide to the MIND Diet: Optimize Brain Health and Prevent Disease With Nutrient-Dense Foods

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Sample lunch: You Won’t Believe It’s Kale Salad

This kale salad recipe is salad at its best. The dressing combines savory soy sauce (low sodium), sweet agave nectar, and refreshing lemon, which isn’t just delicious, but also tenderizes the kale leaves. A blended topping of toasted pecans and dried cranberries adds crunchy, chewy texture. This is sure to be your new lunchbox favorite.

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Sample dinner: One-Pan Maple Mustard Chicken and Potatoes

Gotta love one pan meals—this easy but filling chicken and potato dish is exactly what you need at the end of a long day. The mustard glaze tastes rich and savory; just make sure you choose low-sodium and low-sugar mustard. For a simple side, toss in some veggies—any you have on hand—or whip them up separately on your second oven rack. Put parchment paper on a baking sheet, cover with vegetables, and flavor to taste with olive oil, black pepper, garlic, lemon juice, or low-sodium hot sauce.

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Some challenges and limitations

The MIND Diet doesn’t account for every detail of what you should and shouldn’t eat. And since it’s a relatively new diet—the original research was published in 2015—it can be a challenge to find resources when questions come up. Invest in one or more MIND Diet cookbooks so you have a go-to source for recipes and answers.

Another challenge can be the price of key ingredients like fish, nuts, and olive oil. The good news is that dry ingredients like nuts and dried fruit can be bought in bulk and last for a long time. When it comes to fresh ingredients like fish and produce, buying local and in-season can cut costs.

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