Most of us don’t think about our brains until there’s a problem. The brain, which is really like a computer, processes information that it receives from our body and our senses and sends messages back to the body. But the brain goes above and beyond being just a computer: it gives us the ability to think and to have emotions. It also regulates our vision, breathing, body temperature, hunger, and every other process that maintains the body. When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing what this 3-pound, walnut-shaped organ, made up of about 86 billion nerve cells, does every second of the day.
Unfortunately, the older we get, the higher the risk of developing cognitive impairment (meaning, trouble remembering, learning, and concentrating), as well as Alzheimer’s and dementia. And people with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Luckily, more and more research points to the benefits of a healthy eating plan (specifically, the MIND diet) to help lessen the devastating effects of cognitive decline and even possibly protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
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What is the MIND diet?
The MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, promotes foods that improve brain health and lower the risk of mental decline. Research shows that the MIND diet lowered Alzheimer’s risk by about 35% for people who followed it moderately well, and by up to 53% for those who strictly followed it. There’s even research showing that the MIND diet may protect against Parkinson’s disease.
Not surprisingly, a number of healthy foods make up a MIND diet eating plan, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and fatty fish. Along with eating good foods, it’s important to cut back on saturated fats, fried foods, fast foods, and added sugars.
The MIND diet: focus on these foods
Interested in keeping your brain fully functioning for as long as possible? Make the following foods a part of your eating plan on a regular basis. And by the way, not only will you help your brain, but you’ll also keep your heart and blood vessels in top shape, too!
Pretty much all fruits are healthy, but berries go above and beyond, thanks to their flavonoids (types of antioxidants). Flavonoids give berries their beautiful colors, but they also help to improve memory by easing communication between brain cells, increasing “plasticity,” which helps brain cells form new connections, and by reducing inflammation. An added bonus: Berries are a lower-carb fruit (generally, one cup contains 15 grams of carb), so you can easily fit them into your menu. Go for blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries — any kind of berry will do!
Leafy green vegetables
Kale and spinach may not be your favorite vegetables, but you might rethink learning to love them. That’s because leafy greens, which also include chard, collard greens, and even broccoli, contain beta carotene, folate, vitamin K, and lutein — nutrients that might slow cognitive decline. Try adding these veggies to soups or stews or throw them in a smoothie.
We really can’t say enough good things about beans! Chickpeas, cannellini beans, black beans, edamame, lentils, and more are bursting with B vitamins that are needed to support the brain and nervous system, along with magnesium, zinc, fiber, and antioxidants. Beans help with blood sugar control, too, thanks to their soluble fiber content that slows blood sugar rises after eating. How can you go wrong with beans? Add them to soups, stews, stir-fries, and salads.
You brain needs a lot of energy to do what it does, and the preferred source of energy is glucose, which comes from the digestion of carbohydrate foods. Of course, healthy carbs are key. Whole grains are linked with boosting memory and brain function, thanks to their B vitamins, vitamin E, and antioxidant content. Whole grains also protect the heart and blood vessels and can even help with keeping blood sugar levels more stable. Choose brown rice, corn, oats, quinoa, barley, or millet; also try whole-grain breads and pasta, too.
Nut, in general, contain a combination of healthy fat and protein, as well as vitamin E and antioxidants. Walnuts, in particular, contain an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) that can help lower blood pressure and keep arteries clear, helping your brain and your heart stay in top form. Nuts are a great snack choice, but go easy on the portion, as they’re high in calories and fat.
Speaking of omega-3 fatty acids, fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines contain omega-3 fatty acids that are thought to lower beta-amyloid, a protein that forms in the brain in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent problems with memory and slow mental decline. Try to eat fatty fish at least twice a week. If you’re not a fish fan, talk with your doctor about taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, or choose plant-based sources of omega-3s, such as flaxseeds, walnuts, and avocados.
Olive oil is revered for its beautiful green hue and delicious flavor. But olive oil is more than just a pretty fat — it’s bursting with healthy fats and polyphenols (which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties). Extra-virgin olive oil is linked with better visual memory, verbal fluency, and a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Chicken and turkey are other brain-boosters because they contain vitamins B6 and B12, as well as choline. These nutrients help with cognition, and choline may help protect against dementia. Poultry is an excellent source of protein that is low in saturated fat. Fortunately, there are many ways to enjoy poultry — just make sure to bake, roast, grill, sauté, or stir-fry your chicken or turkey (save the fried poultry for a special treat).
Red wine has its nutritional merits in the form of resveratrol and other polyphenols that can improve cognitive function and possibly reduce the risk of dementia. Of course, moderation is the key here. The MIND diet recommends no more than 5 ounces of red wine daily. But always talk with your health care provider about drinking alcohol, in general, as some people should limit or avoid alcohol. And if you don’t drink alcohol, it’s not recommended that you start drinking.
Want to learn more about maintaining cognitive health with diabetes? Read “Nine Tips to Keep Your Memory With Diabetes,” “Staying Sharp: Seven Ways to Keep Your Brain Healthy With Diabetes,” “Keeping Your Brain Strong With Diabetes” and “Memory Fitness: How to Get It, How to Keep It.”