Feed Your Brain With the MIND Diet

As we age, many factors can affect how our bodies function. These factors may seem out of our control, but there are actually things one can do to boost physical and mental functioning. Pam VanKampen of Chippewa Falls has been a registered dietician for 32 years. She was raised on a farm and says she learned at an early age that “food is powerful, and food is healing.” While working in a hospital setting in the early years of her career, she noticed that many patients with other medical conditions had to be treated for malnutrition first; she decided it was necessary to prevent malnutrition in the first place. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, every 60 seconds, 11 hospitalized patients go undiagnosed with malnutrition. One misconception is that if someone is malnourished, it means they just aren’t eating enough. But the real issue is whether people are eating nutrient-rich foods.

The MIND diet is a combination of two diets: the Mediterranean diet, which encourages limiting unhealthy fats and red meat while eating high amounts of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains, and lean proteins; and the DASH diet, which encourages eating foods low in sodium to help lower blood pressure.

VanKampen is an advocate of the MIND diet, which studies have found could dramatically cut the risk of Alzheimer’s. “MIND” stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. According to livescience.com, this diet “was developed by a nutritional epidemiologist, Martha Clare Morris, at Rush University Medical Center through a study that was funded by the National Institute on Aging.” The MIND diet is a combination of two diets: the Mediterranean diet, which encourages limiting unhealthy fats and red meat while eating high amounts of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains, and lean proteins; and the DASH diet, which encourages eating foods low in sodium to help lower blood pressure.

The MIND diet recommends eating 10 foods on a daily basis: vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables), berries, nuts, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine. (That last one doesn’t sound too bad, right?) Some foods that should be consumed as little as possible are: fried or fast food, red meats, cheese (bummer), butter and stick margarine, and sweets. Particular amounts of the healthy foods are also suggested, with more information available online. Before starting any new diet, it is always important to talk with your doctor.

VanKampen knows that people often equate eating healthy foods with needing a lot of preparation time, but she stresses that there are many simple snacks and meals that are very nutrient-rich and easy to make. Some of her ideas include: a green salad with a pouch of tuna for protein (topped with fruit, veggies, and nuts), a baked potato in the microwave, microwavable frozen veggies, Greek yogurt, and instant rice. The MIND diet’s dramatic effect on Alzheimer’s risk can be achieved even with moderate compliance, VanKampen said. She says the MIND diet can be beneficial at any age, but age 50 is a great time to begin thinking seriously about diet and brain health.

Our bodies also become less efficient at absorbing protein as we age: VanKampen’s catchy reminder is “protein throughout the day helps your muscles stay.” Dehydration can be a significant issue for the elderly as well, sometimes impacted by memory issues. VanKampen says little cues to drink, such as rubber bands on the wrist, can help, she offers another catchy phrase: “Hydrate to think straight.”

As our doctors tell us, the necessary complement to a healthy diet is exercise, which can also help boost mental processing. “Little movements can make you stronger, and every step that you take is a gain,” VanKampen said. To get active, she suggests exercise classes at your local Aging and Disability Resource  or senior center, or check out the SilverSneakers program that is included with many Medicare Advantage plans.

If changing your diet seems overwhelming, Pam VanKampen wants you to know that “you are worth it!”

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