an illustration of flowers arranged in the shape of a brain

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Plus, what to keep in mind about the MIND Diet.

Scientists are just beginning to grasp the intricacies of our most vital organ. Believe it or not, how the brain works and what causes it to malfunction are still poorly understood. But one thing that’s become pretty clear is that what we eat has a profound effect on our overall cognitive health.

To unpack the latest research on nutrition and brain health — from what foods can help protect against dementia to the scoop on the MIND diet — we’ve turned once again to nutritionist and cookbook author Maya Feller.

The heart of it all

One key to a healthy brain, Feller says, is maintaining a robust cardiovascular system. Keeping your heart in good shape will lower your risk for conditions like strokes and dementia. Strokes occur when a clot or a plaque blocks a blood vessel in the brain, or when a vessel in the brain bursts. This causes brain tissue to die and can lead to memory loss and disability, per the CDC. And, at least one type of dementia, called vascular dementia, is caused by a series of small strokes.

So how do you keep the heart healthy? Start with a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, cut down on processed foods and added sugars, and up your consumption of whole grains and healthy fats, found in nuts, seeds, and fish. Feller also stresses limiting your alcohol intake and keeping your blood sugar in check. High blood sugar can damage blood vessels and nerves.

What to know about the MIND Diet

Given the heart’s profound impact on brain health, the MIND diet — a fairly new eating regimen that’s meant to promote a healthy brain — makes sense. The diet is a hybrid of the popular DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which looks to lower blood pressure, and the Mediterranean diet, another heart-healthy way of eating.

Here’s how the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay works. It encourages eating whole grains and leafy vegetables every day, and a couple of servings of beans, berries, and fish a couple of times a week. Feller says seafood is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids

It also emphasizes using olive oil — another healthy source of fat — to cook with, while limiting red meat, cheese, and dairy in meals.

The MIND diet has been shown in studies to lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease and slow cognitive decline.

The role antioxidants play in brain health

You’ve probably heard by now about antioxidants and the potential benefits they carry. Researchers have been studying berries and the superfood’s effects on brain health for years. Several studies have concluded that eating strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, which are high in flavonoids — antioxidants that give foods their vibrant color — could prevent Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Some research even suggests flavonoids may have a hand in reversing declines in memory and learning as we age.

But a fistful of blueberries is not a magic pill, Feller says.

“It’s not like if you eat a handful of blueberries every single day, you’re not going to have dementia. It’s about reducing the risk for vascular complications,” she says.

And that can be accomplished through rethinking the way you eat.

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