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Nutrition’s Effect on Cognitive Function and Decline

Though the connection between brain health and nutrition is a complex and emerging science, there is promising observational research  on the dietary patterns most commonly associated with cognitive health.  It can be tempting to reach for dietary supplements who claim protective benefits to the brain, but the supplement industry is highly unregulated when it comes to ingredients or evidence. Also, single nutrient research has yet to produce the strength of evidence as dietary pattern research has. 

The three diet patterns reported to have the strongest associations to long-term cognitive benefits and a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease include, the Mediterranean Diet, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), and the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) Diet.

A quick look at these diets reveals unsurprising commonalities. Each of these patterns leans heavily on vegetables, fruit, minimally processed lean meat and fish, whole grains, nuts and legumes, and particular fats such as olive or avocado oil. These dietary patterns also all exhibit low intake of added sugar, high fat and highly processed meat, and high fat dairy. In nutrient language, all three of the diets provide high intake of protective vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, antioxidants, polyphenols, and omega-3 fatty acids. These and other nutrients in the diet likely help to reduce systemic inflammation and oxidation that is related to Alzheimer’s Disease.

The three diet patterns reported to have the strongest associations to long-term cognitive benefits and a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease include, the Mediterranean Diet, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), and the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) Diet.

The differences in the diets are not remarkable and fall under a common sense umbrella for neuroprotective dietary patterns. For instance, the Mediterranean Diet promotes small amounts of full-fat dairy while the DASH Diet recommends only low-fat dairy, and the MIND Diet isn’t convinced dairy benefits the brain at all. 

It remains to be seen if one of these three dietary patterns will rise to the top as a clear winner. Without well run randomized control trials we have yet to see if the particulars of these diets are the catalyst for better brain health or if other factors, such as the social determinants of health,  are driving the results.

It will be interesting to see how the research plays out, but in the meantime, there are simple nutrition guidelines you can incorporate into your day-to-day life that will likely have a number of health benefits in addition to the probable cognitive benefits.

  1. Eat greens once every day (most days of the year)
  2. Fruit- eat a couple of servings per day, especially berries
  3. Choose whole grains for at least half of your starchy grains each day
  4. Avoid deep fried foods most days, but enjoy French fries as needed
  5. Use olive oil, avocado oil, walnuts, and other nuts and seed for most of your fat intake
  6. Protein should be present at most if not all meals. Choose lean cuts and include fatty fish like wild salmon 

If these suggestions feel overwhelming to implement for any reason, reach out to a registered dietitian who can help you create and sustain an eating pattern that nourishes you and fits your lifestyle.