A healthy diet can help you maintain a healthy waistline and weight, as well as prevent heart disease and type 2 diabetes. And mounting research also suggests that what you eat may affect your brain health. Unfortunately, many staples of the American diet don’t promote a healthy brain.

“The American diet that often includes sandwiches for lunch, fast food, fried foods, refined grains and sugars, cheese, butter and red meat could affect your brain health, in addition to being high in calories and saturated fat,” said Maya Lichtenstein, M.D., a neurologist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center.

The research suggests that diets that promote cardiovascular health, such as those rich in vegetables, whole grains and lean meat, however, may also help you prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s safe to say there’s a lot of activity in the brain. In addition to other metabolic activity, highly reactive molecules called free radicals are produced. These free radicals can damage cells in the brain and cause cognitive decline.   

Brain-friendly foods are high in vitamin E and vitamin C, which contain antioxidants that neutralize toxic free radicals in the brain and help keep cells healthy. These vitamins also contain anti-inflammatory properties that prevent other cell-level damage in the brain.

A brain-friendly diet includes leafy greens, vegetables, nuts, berries, whole grains, fish, poultry, seeds, olive oil and beans.

The MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, features these brain-healthy foods. It also takes cues from two other popular diets, the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.

Following the Mediterranean diet includes eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, nuts, whole grains and fish. The DASH diet, which stands for the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, includes limiting foods high in saturated fat, sweets and red meat, and focusing on fruits and vegetables, as well as other heart-healthy foods like whole grains, fish, poultry, nuts and low-fat dairy.

“Mediterranean and DASH diets are complimentary approaches that promote heart and brain health. It’s been found that food that’s good for the heart is also good for the brain," said Dr. Lichtenstein. “Though there is more research to be done, the initial findings are very promising.”

In addition to eating a healthy diet, research has shown that exercising and keeping your stress levels at bay can help keep your brain healthy. Reading, social interaction and brain exercises like crossword puzzles or memory games can also help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s.

“Following a generally healthy lifestyle will help you prevent a number of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, heart attack and type 2 diabetes, and it could prevent brain-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said Dr. Lichtenstein.