by Taeh A. Ward, PhD

The phrase “You are what you eat,” takes on new meaning when we consider that our diet can affect brain health and thinking abilities. Appropriate nutrition helps to maintain alertness and energy and to maximize cognitive performance.

While research is divided on the importance of eating breakfast, eating consistently at regular intervals may reduce risk factors for declines in body and brain health, such as obesity, insulin resistance, high blood pressure and high cholesterol/triglycerides. Skipping meals might reduce your caloric intake, but it is healthier to eat regularly.

Watching your daily nutrition and eating consistently is particularly important if you have a glucose disorder such as diabetes. Highs and lows in blood sugar can affect attention, memory and processing speed, eventually causing brain cell damage through inflammation.

Research indicates that certain foods tend to promote long-term brain health. In general, eating a largely plant-based diet with healthy proteins and fats, less red meat and low sodium has been demonstrated to reduce conditions negatively affecting the heart, blood vessels and brain.

For at least 60 years, researchers have investigated the potential benefits of eating the culturally-based Mediterranean diet that consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, olive oil, fish and poultry, limited red meat, and moderate consumption of red wine. The Mediterranean diet has been associated with lower risk of dementia and chronic health problems.

More recently, researchers have examined the combination of a modified Mediterranean diet with a blood-pressure lowering diet or DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and foods to optimize brain health. This combined diet is called MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay).

While following any of these diets closely is associated with better brain function and brain protection in general, even mild compliance with the MIND diet may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The MIND diet:

Whole grains (e.g. whole wheat, oats, barley, quinoa etc.) 3+ servings per day
dark green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale, spinach, romaine) 6+ times per week
at least one other vegetable (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) every day
one ounce of nuts (e.g. walnuts, almonds) 5+ times per week
beans (e.g. navy beans, kidney beans, black beans, etc.) 4+ times per week
berries (e.g. blueberries, strawberries) 2+ times per week
poultry (e.g. chicken, turkey) 2+ times per week
fish (e.g. salmon, tuna) 1+ times per week
olive oil (used as your primary oil)
5 oz glass of red wine per day

less than 1 tablespoon of butter or margarine per day
pastries and sweets less than 5 times per week
red meat, including beef and lamb, less than 4 times per week
fast food or fried food less than once per week
cheese less than once per week

Of note, leafy green vegetables can interfere with certain anticoagulant medications like warfarin, and alcohol may interact with some medications and increase the risk of falls in older adults. It is generally recommended that patients consult their medical provider before making any significant changes to their diet.


Dr. Ward, a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology, can be reached at 910-420-8041 or by visiting