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Health Information | 04/02/2018

Smart Eating for a Healthier Brain

By  Margaret Ullmann-Weil, RD
spinach, salmon, and blueberry salad on a plate

For centuries people have been in search of the Fountain of Youth to restore health and vitality and to reverse aging. The anti-aging business today is a multibillion-dollar worldwide industry built on selling products, services, supplements, and procedures to help defy the aging process of the body as well as the brain.

When it comes to the brain and aging, the (sort of) bad news is that “cognitive aging” is a fact of life. A normal brain’s volume peaks in the early 20s and gradually declines for the rest of life. In middle age, the brain cortex starts to shrink, decreasing blood flow. The result: many people begin to notice subtle changes in their ability to remember new names or do more than one thing at a time. They may experience a decrease in verbal fluency, or the ability to find the words they want. And they may have to work harder at "executive function” activities requiring planning and organization.

The good news is that there is growing evidence that diet and other lifestyle factors are key to healthy aging, and eating an antioxidant-rich diet that includes healthy fats is a simple and effective method for maintaining a healthy brain. Recent research strongly correlates certain foods – especially green leafy vegetables – with protecting your memory from age-related decline.

MIND Diet Intervention

Nutritional experts at Rush University in Chicago came up with a list of foods that support healthy brain aging, slow cognitive decline, and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. MIND diet stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.

They conducted a study in which they evaluated the eating habits and mental ability of 954 men and women between the ages of 58 and 98 for an average of five years. Every year participants completed a 144-item food and beverage questionnaire and underwent 19 mental skill tests.

Results of the study showed that the MIND diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53% in participants who adhered to the diet rigorously. Participants who didn't stick to the diet perfectly but followed it moderately well reduced their risk of Alzheimer's by about a third. This decrease in the rate of cognitive decline and protection against Alzheimer's occurred regardless of other risk factors.

In particular, the researchers singled out leafy green vegetables as playing a protective role in decreasing cognitive decline. They concluded that, compared with people who rarely ate leafy greens, those who had at least one serving per day showed slower brain aging. It was as if they had shaved 11 years off their age as far as their brain function was concerned.

More MIND Diet Research

A three-year MIND diet study is currently underway at both Harvard University and Rush University. This study is looking at the effects on cognitive outcome of the MIND diet plus mild caloric restriction versus a control (usual) diet plus mild caloric restriction in subjects who are overweight and have a family history of Alzheimer’s disease.

Antioxidants: an Antidote for Oxidative Stress

One of the theories on how diet may protect and delay brain aging is that naturally occurring antioxidants in foods neutralize free radicals that can damage cells.

Oxidative stress is a naturally occurring chemical reaction that occurs in every cell of the body. Unfortunately it can produce free radicals, which are compounds that cause damage to organ systems and contribute to aging and chronic diseases. As we age the body’s mechanisms for coping with oxidative stress can become overwhelmed and less effective, which then causes an accumulation of free radicals in the body. In the brain, this leads to accelerated aging and a decrease in cognitive functioning with age.

However, we are not completely defenseless against free radicals. Foods naturally contain antioxidants in the form of vitamins, minerals, and other substances that help neutralize free radicals.

The MIND diet investigators identified two vitamins (vitamin K and folate) and one particular antioxidant (lutein) that they felt accounted for the link between leafy greens and slower brain aging.

Leafy greens – such as spinach, collard, mustard and turnip greens – as well as kale, parsley and asparagus are foods that are very rich in vitamin K. Leafy greens also are a great source of folate, one of the B vitamins. Other good sources of folate include starchy beans (pinto, pink, black, navy, kidney, and lima), chickpeas, lentils, avocado and whole-wheat bread.

Below is a sample of some of the antioxidants identified as having various health benefits and their food sources:

Antioxidants Examples of Food Sources
Vitamin A Carrots, spinach, broccoli, sweet potato, papaya, apricot, pumpkin, melon, and mango
Vitamin C Oranges, strawberry, guava, pineapple, broccoli, cabbage, and lettuce
Vitamin E Almonds, sunflower seeds, broccoli, pumpkin, kiwis, mango, avocado, butternut squash, peanuts, and spinach
Lycopene Tomato, watermelon, pink grapefruit, purple cabbage (Red Cabbage), and red bell pepper
Resveratrol Purple grapes, peanuts, pistachios, red and white wine, blueberries, cranberries, and dark chocolate
Allium sulphur compounds Leeks, onions, and garlic
Anthocyanins Eggplant, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries
Cryptoxanthins Red bell peppers, pumpkin, and mangoes
Flavonoids Black tea, green tea, red wine, onion, apple, citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and limes
Indoles Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower
Lignans Sesame seeds, bran, cereals like wheat, oat and barley, vegetables like cabbage and broccoli
Lutein Corn, dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collard greens

What About Taking Antioxidant Supplements?

Eating a healthy diet consisting of natural foods is usually recommended over adding supplements to your diet. Foods provide a complex balance of nutrients that cannot be replicated in a pill. A supplement may contain a single type of antioxidant or even several. A given food, on the other hand, may contain many different types of antioxidants.

Also, some nutrients are better absorbed when eaten with other foods as part of a meal. For example, some nutrients in leafy greens are better eaten with fat, like an oil-based salad dressing.

Popeye was Way Ahead of His Time with His Spinach Obsession!

The MIND diet is a healthy food plan that encourages the consumption of all kinds of vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, fish, beans, poultry and a moderate amount of wine. The MIND diet is more of a lifestyle and less of a “diet.” It’s also easy to follow. The focus is on increasing your intake of foods that are healthy for your brain and cutting back on unhealthy foods that contribute to inflammation (such as red meat, whole milk cheeses, and high sugar foods). There is no daily calorie limit, no specific rules about timing of meals or rules about snacks. It does not eliminate entire food groups. The MIND diet can be adapted to meet anyone’s individual dietary needs: gluten free, vegetarian, kosher, halal, low salt or diabetic.


More “Food for Thought”

Other lifestyle suggestions for staying young and healthy into your older years:

  • Control your cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure with diet, exercise, and medications if needed.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Stimulate your brain by actively working with the computer, doing puzzles, playing a music instrument, phoning friends, reading books, etc. All of these activities will help keep the mind sharp and may help slow down the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Watching TV or movies is passive thinking, which means it is not as valuable.
  • Try new challenging tasks, such as those mentioned above if they are not already part of your routine.
  • Stay connected socially. Stay involved with your family, church, or community. Have a purpose in life.
  • Practice deep breathing and meditation for stress management.
  • Build physical activity into your daily routine with brisk walking, stationary bicycling, swimming, water aerobics, dancing, and/or tennis. Be sure to discuss with your health care provider which types of exercise are right for you. Ideally a variety of physical activities will help you build and maintain endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. 

Recipe for Spinach Salad with Blueberry-Basil dressing. Bon Appetit!

Ingredients for salad

Baby spinach or other dark leafy greens such as Arugula

Blueberries (or other berries)

Walnuts (or toasted almonds)

Ingredients for the Blueberry-Basil Dressing – makes ½ cup dressing

1/2 cup fresh blueberries

1/8 cup fresh basil, chopped

1 1/2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1/2 tsp. honey or agave

Pinch of salt - optional


In a blender or food processor, add all dressing ingredients and blend until relatively smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. (Salt/pepper if needed, more agave/honey for sweetness, more vinegar for tang, etc.)

Assemble salad on a plate, and drizzle desired amount of dressing on top.

Note: the dressing will gel a little upon sitting. Simply stir before drizzling or add a touch of water to thin it out if desired. Store in a covered container in the fridge for a couple days.

The dressing is also good drizzled over grilled salmon.

About The Author

Margaret Ullmann-Weil, RD

Margaret (Margie) Ullmann Weil is a registered dietitian and provides nutritional guidance and education to our patients. She joined Atrius Health in 2003. Her clinical interests are food allergies, celiac disease, other gastrointestinal issues, nutrition & functional medicine, and women’s nutrition.

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