- “Brain foods” are the most helpful items to eat or drink for optimal brain health.
- The three best brain foods are blueberries, walnuts, and fatty fish.
- Vegetarians can get similar brain benefits from eating healthy fats like olive oil and avocados.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
The foods we eat can significantly affect our mood, emotions, and cognitive abilities. “Brain food” is a term used to describe the most helpful items to eat and drink for optimal brain health. These foods can help strengthen brain functions such as memory, concentration, and more.
Many of these foods contain healthy components such as omega-3 fats, which can help fend off dementia. Others may be high in antioxidants, which stimulate the flow of oxygen and blood to the brain while also decreasing inflammation.
“The key is eating non-processed foods, which unfortunately comprise most of the standard American diet,” says Shad Marbasti, MD, associate professor of family community and preventive medicine at the Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. “Once you get into real foods, there are nutrients, chemicals, and healthy fats that help brain function. The three big winners are blueberries, walnuts, and fatty fish.”
With that in mind, below is a list of the top foods to eat for a healthy brain, and what makes them so nutritious.
These bite-sized fruits can reduce inflammation, preserve brain cells, and helpscells communicate – and in turn, reduce the risk for neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.
According to Marbasti, blueberries have the most health benefits. While the majority of controlled human trials have studied blueberries, other common berries that have been found to boost brain health include:
What the research says: According to a study published in Neural Regeneration Research, the natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory elements of berries reduce stress and inflammation in the brain.
Aside from walnuts, the best nuts for brain health include:
The human brain is nearly 60% fat, so it needs plenty of healthy fats to function well.
Omega-3 fats perform several jobs, including the building of cell membranes in your brain that protect from deterioration.
Choline is converted into a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which plays a role in brain functions like memory and focus. Though many people eat only egg whites to reduce calorie and fat intake, yolks are where the high concentrations of choline are found.
A 2018 study suggests about one daily serving of leafy greens can slow age-related memory loss.
The best leafy greens for brain health are those packed with antioxidants and vitamins like lutein, which is known for its effects on eye and brain health. Other leafy greens include:
What the research says: The American Academy of Neurology suggests one daily serving of leafy greens may slow age-related memory loss.
Whether scooped right from the pumpkin or bought separately, pumpkin seeds are a brain-healthy snack to keep around, as long as they are not roasted with extra sugar as that may take away from the beneficial antioxidants.
However, caffeine should be consumed in moderation. The FDA recommends 400 milligrams a day – that’s about four or five cups of coffee. Exceeding that amount can have negative side effects such as an upset stomach, headaches, and insomnia. It is best to drink coffee with a little cream, milk, or sugar to get the most benefits. Specialty coffees should be saved for a special occasion as they are often calorie-dense and high in sugar, which increases inflammation.
This is partly due to caffeine, but green tea also contains a plant chemical called L-theanine, which improves calmness and reduces tension.
Because green tea contains less caffeine than coffee, more can safely be consumed – up to eight cups a day compared to four or five.
This vitamin C-rich fruit isn’t just good for the common cold. The vitamin C in oranges and other fruits and vegetables – such as bell peppers, strawberries, Brussel sprouts and broccoli – also plays a crucial role in mood and memory.
Researchers have linked turmeric to improved memory and mood in people with age-related memory loss. In a small 2014 study, people ranging in age from 51-84 were split into two groups: those who took 90 mg of curcumin twice daily for 18 months, and those who did not. Those who took the curcumin showed improved memory and focus.
This treat is much healthier than its milk- and white-chocolate counterparts. That’s because it contains flavanols, a type of flavonoid, which is a plant-based substance with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
When it comes to getting the right nutrients for your brain, it is important to avoid what Marbasti calls “Frankenfoods” – in other words, processed foods that have undergone many changes to their natural state. These are generally thought to be inferior to unprocessed foods, and are often pre-packaged, containing many ingredients, artificial colors, flavors, or other chemical additives.
Instead, stick to foods in their raw state, like fruits, vegetables, and fish. For vegetarians, Marbasti says they can get the same type of brain benefits from eating other healthy fats like olive oil and avocados.
“When I say, ‘eat the rainbow,’ I don’t mean colorful candy,” Marbasti says. “Make sure you get plenty of nuts, seeds, and berries, and throw in some greens. Refined grains and excess sugar won’t do anything good for brain health.”