Diet Review: MIND Diet

Overhead View of Fresh Omega-3 Rich Foods: A variety of healthy foods like fish, nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables, and oil

Finding yourself confused by the seemingly endless promotion of weight-loss strategies and diet plans? In this series, we take a look at some popular diets—and review the research behind them.

What Is It?

The Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, or MIND diet, targets the health of the aging brain. Dementia is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, driving many people to search for ways to prevent cognitive decline. In 2015, Dr. Martha Clare Morris and colleagues at Rush University Medical Center and the Harvard Chan School of Public Health published two papers introducing the MIND diet. [1,2] Both the Mediterranean and DASH diets had already been associated with preservation of cognitive function, presumably through their protective effects against cardiovascular disease, which in turn preserved brain health.

The research team followed a group of older adults for up to 10 years from the Rush Memory and Aging Project (MAP), a study of residents free of dementia at the time of enrollment. They were recruited from more than 40 retirement communities and senior public housing units in the Chicago area. More than 1,000 participants filled out annual dietary questionnaires for nine years and had two cognitive assessments. A MIND diet score was developed to identify foods and nutrients, along with daily serving sizes, related to protection against dementia and cognitive decline. The results of the study produced fifteen dietary components that were classified as either “brain healthy” or as unhealthy. Participants with the highest MIND diet scores had a significantly slower rate of cognitive decline compared with those with the lowest scores. [1] The effects of the MIND diet on cognition showed greater effects than either the Mediterranean or the DASH diet alone.

How It Works

The purpose of the research was to see if the MIND diet, partially based on the Mediterranean and DASH diets, could directly prevent the onset or slow the progression of dementia. All three diets highlight plant-based foods and limit the intake of animal and high saturated fat foods. The MIND diet recommends specific “brain healthy” foods to include, and five unhealthy food items to limit. [1]

The healthy items the MIND diet guidelines* suggest include:

The unhealthy items, which are higher in saturated and trans fat, include:

  • Less than 5 servings a week of pastries and sweets
  • Less than 4 servings a week of red meat (including beef, pork, lamb, and products made from these meats)
  • Less than one serving a week of cheese and fried foods
  • Less than 1 tablespoon a day of butter/stick margarine

*Note: modest variations in amounts of these foods have been used in subsequent studies. [9,10]

Is alcohol part of the MIND diet?

Wine was included as one of the 15 original dietary components in the MIND diet score, in which a moderate amount was found to be associated with cognitive health. [1] However, in subsequent MIND trials it was omitted for “safety” reasons. The effect of alcohol on an individual is complex, so that blanket recommendations about alcohol are not possible. Based on one’s unique personal and family history, alcohol offers each person a different spectrum of benefits and risks. Whether or not to include alcohol is a personal decision that should be discussed with your healthcare provider. For more information, read Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits.

The Research So Far

The MIND diet contains foods rich in certain vitamins, carotenoids, and flavonoids that are believed to protect the brain by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. Although the aim of the MIND diet is on brain health, it may also benefit heart health, diabetes, and certain cancers because it includes components of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which have been shown to lower the risk of these diseases.

Cohort studies

Researchers found a 53% lower rate of Alzheimer’s disease for those with the highest MIND diet scores (indicating a higher intake of foods on the MIND diet). Even those participants who had moderate MIND diet scores showed a 35% lower rate compared with those with the lowest MIND scores. [2] The results didn’t change after adjusting for factors associated with dementia including healthy lifestyle behaviors, cardiovascular-related conditions (e.g., high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes), depression, and obesity, supporting the conclusion that the MIND diet was associated with the preservation of cognitive function.

Several other large cohort studies have shown that participants with higher MIND diet scores, compared with those with the lowest scores, had better cognitive functioning, larger total brain volume, higher memory scores, lower risk of dementia, and slower cognitive decline, even when including participants with Alzheimer’s disease and history of stroke. [3-8]

Clinical trials

A 2023 randomized controlled trial followed 604 adults aged 65 and older who at baseline were overweight (BMI greater than 25), ate a suboptimal diet, and did not have cognitive impairment but had a first-degree relative with dementia. [9] The intervention group was taught to follow a MIND diet, and the control group continued to consume their usual diet. Both groups were guided throughout the study by registered dietitians to follow their assigned diet and reduce their intake by 250 calories a day. The authors found that participants in both the MIND and control groups showed improved cognitive performance. Both groups also lost about 11 pounds, but the MIND diet group showed greater improvements in diet quality score. The authors examined changes in the brain using magnetic resonance imaging, but findings did not differ between groups. [10] Nutrition experts commenting on this study noted that both groups lost a similar amount of weight, as intended, but the control group likely improved their diet quality as well (they had been coached to eat their usual foods but were taught goal setting, calorie tracking, and mindful eating techniques), which could have prevented significant changes from being seen between groups. Furthermore, the duration of the study–3 years–may have been too short to show significant improvement in cognitive function.

The results of this study showed that the MIND diet does not slow cognitive aging over a 3-year treatment period. Whether the MIND diet or other diets can slow cognitive aging over longer time periods remains a topic of intense interest.

Other factors

Research has found that greater poverty and less education are strongly associated with lower MIND diet scores and lower cognitive function. [11]

Potential Pitfalls

  • The MIND diet is flexible in that it does not include rigid meal plans. However, this also means that people will need to create their own meal plans and recipes based on the foods recommended on the MIND diet. This may be challenging for those who do not cook. Those who eat out frequently may need to spend time reviewing restaurant menus.
  • Although the diet plan specifies daily and weekly amounts of foods to include and not include, it does not restrict the diet to eating only these foods. It also does not provide meal plans or emphasize portion sizes or exercise.

Bottom Line 

The MIND diet can be a healthful eating plan that incorporates dietary patterns from the Mediterranean and DASH, both of which have suggested benefits in preventing and improving cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and supporting healthy aging. When used in conjunction with a balanced plate guide, the diet may also promote healthy weight loss if desired. Whether or not following the MIND diet can slow cognitive aging over longer time periods remains an area of interest, and more research needs to be done to extend the MIND studies in other populations.


Last reviewed August 2023

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