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Brain foods on a budget

The foods that help prevent Alzheimer’s and improve memory can also be expensive. Use these tips to fill up on brain food without breaking the bank.

Hallie Levine By Hallie Levine

Mom was right: What you eat can have a major impact on your well-being, including your brain health and memory. But did you know that eating certain foods might help prevent Alzheimer’s disease? And a brain-boosting diet is easier — and tastier — than you may think.

One diet in particular has gotten a lot of attention for its brain health benefits. Called the MIND diet, it has been shown to slow brain aging by 7.5 years and lessen the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease.1

The MIND diet is made up of these healthy foods:

  • Leafy green vegetables (6+ servings per week)
  • Other vegetables (1+ servings per day)
  • Berries (2+ servings per week)
  • Whole grains (3+ servings per day)
  • Fish (1 serving per week)
  • Poultry (2 servings per week)
  • Beans (3 servings per week)
  • Nuts (5 servings per week)
  • Olive oil

There’s also a list of foods to limit: 

  • Red meat
  • Sweets
  • Cheese
  • Butter/margarine
  • Fast/fried food

The pros of this eating approach? In addition to the brain benefits, it’s delicious and easy to follow, says Gary Small, M.D. Dr. Small is the chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey and author of The Memory Bible. The one downside: Some foods on the good-for-you list can be pricey.

But in good news, you don’t have to blow your budget to feed your brain. Keep reading to learn about some of the key MIND diet staples, plus ways to pay less for them when you grocery shop.


Many Aetna® Medicare Dual Eligible Special Needs Plan, or D-SNP, members get a benefit card with a monthly allowance for approved healthy foods. These foods include fruits, veggies, seafood and more. Go to AetnaMedicare.com/DSNPInfo to learn more about D-SNP plans.


Berries

Berries can decrease cognitive decline (trouble with memory, concentration and decision making). The fruit is rich in substances called antioxidants that help fight the effects of aging. In one study of middle-aged adults, those who ate the most antioxidant-rich foods were 20 percent less likely to have early signs of cognitive decline later in life.2

Money-saving tip: Buy frozen berries instead of fresh. Many people think fresh is healthier than frozen. But that’s not the case with berries. “The antioxidant properties of the frozen versions can actually be five times greater than the fresh varieties,” says Dr. Small.

Leafy greens

Eating leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach may slow down the loss of memory and thinking skills that can come with age. In one study, participants who ate leafy greens had brains that worked as well as those of people 11 years younger.3 The power of leafy greens may lie in a combo of nutrients: 

  • Vitamin K
  • Folate (a B vitamin)
  • Antioxidants, such as lutein

It takes only 1 cup of fresh greens a day, or ½ cup of cooked dark leafy greens, to get the benefits. 

Money-saving tip: Leafy greens tend to be available year-round, so they’re lower priced than other seasonal fruits and veggies. But you can still save money by avoiding bagged salad mixes. They cost more than a head of greens and might not stay fresh for as long. 

Nuts

Nuts such as walnuts, pecans and almonds are packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, says Dr. Small. They’re a great swap for processed chips and cookies.

“These snacks are high in refined carbohydrates, which are bad for brain health because they have high levels of saturated fat and sugar,” says Dr. Small. Snacking on nuts has the opposite effect: One study found that people older than 55 who ate nuts every day had better brain function than those who didn’t.4

Money-saving tip: Buy in bulk. Nuts can last four to six months — or longer if you store them in the fridge. So they’re a great item to load up on. If you don’t have a membership at a wholesale warehouse such as BJ’s or Costco, try discount supermarket chains like Aldi, Lidl or WinCo. 

Lean proteins such as chicken, fish and beans

Red meat such as beef is high in saturated fat, which is bad for the brain. So it should be avoided as much as possible, says Dr. Small. A better bet: chicken or beans. They have plenty of B vitamins, which you need for brain health. Fatty fish such as tuna or salmon is also a smart food. It’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids. 

Money-saving tip: Poultry and seafood are good options to buy in bulk. Keep some in the refrigerator to eat for a few days. Then freeze the rest in portion-sized bags. Fish can be more expensive, so save it for an occasional treat. Canned and frozen fish do the trick too, and they’re cheaper than fresh. Once a week is all you need to get brain-boosting benefits, according to the MIND diet researchers.5

Olive oil

Some fats can speed up brain aging. On the list:

  • Butter
  • Margarine
  • Some oils such as corn or canola

But other fats, such as the healthy monounsaturated fat found in olive oil, help your brain, says Dr. Small. A recent study found that eating more than ½ tablespoon (7 grams) of olive oil a day lowered the risk of neurodegenerative disease (like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s) by 29 percent.6

Money-saving tip: Buy store-brand olive oils — they usually cost less than a name brand. They are made under a special label, sometimes with the store name. You might have to look on shelves that are higher or lower than eye level to find them. 

The bottom line

Remember: You don’t have to follow all the rules of the MIND diet to get some major brain benefits. Making a few smart food switches whenever possible can go a long way toward helping your mind and body stay healthy. And as always, talk to your doctor before making any dietary changes.


Have questions about your health? If you’re an Aetna® D-SNP member, call your care team. They can help you find answers and get the support and care you need. Go to AetnaMedicare.com/DSNPInfo to learn more about D-SNP plans.


 

1Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y et al. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimer’s & Dementia Journal. June 15, 2015; 11(9): 1015-1022. 

2Yeh TS, Yuan C, Ascherio A et al. Long-term dietary flavonoid intake and subjective cognitive decline in US men and women. Neurology. September 7, 2021; 97(10).

3Morris MC, Wang Y, Barnes LL et al. Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: prospective study. Neurology. January 16, 2018; 90(3): e214-e222.

4Li M and Shi Z. A prospective association of nut consumption with cognitive function in Chinese adults aged 55+ — China health and nutrition survey. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging. 2019; 23(2): 211-216.

5Mayo Clinic. Improve brain health with the MIND diet. July 31, 2019. Accessed April 8, 2022.

6Guasch-Ferre M, Li Y, Willet WC et al. Consumption of olive oil and risk of total and cause-specific mortality among U.S. adults. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. January 2022; 79(2): 101-112.

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