The Best Foods for Brain Health
Your brain is one of the most important organs in your body, controlling everything from basic bodily functions to higher thinking. Keeping your brain healthy is essential for overall wellness, happiness, and quality of life. Fortunately, there are many delicious and nutritious foods that can support and nourish your brain. We will explore some of the top foods that are great for brain health and cognitive function.
Blueberries top many lists of brain-healthy superfoods due to their antioxidant content. Blueberries contain anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant pigment that gives them their blue color. Anthocyanins have been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and protect brain cells from oxidative stress and inflammation. Their antioxidant properties also help promote memory function and cognitive flexibility.
Several studies provide evidence that blueberries can boost brain health and cognitive function as we age. In one study, older adults who consumed freeze-dried blueberry powder equivalent to 1 cup of fresh blueberries daily for 12 weeks saw improvements in memory and cognitive processing speed. Another study found blueberries may help preserve brain volume and delay age-related declines in memory and motor skills.
Blueberries are also high in vitamin K, manganese, vitamin C and fiber - all of which contribute to brain health in different ways. Vitamin K plays a role in cognition and vitamin C is an antioxidant that protects the brain from oxidative stress. Manganese is important for nervous system health and fiber contributes to overall cardiovascular health, keeping blood sugar levels steady. You can eat blueberries fresh, frozen, dried or as part of a smoothie. Aim to consume around 1 cup per week for optimal brain benefits.
Salmon and Fatty Fish
Fatty fish like salmon, trout, sardines and herring are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA. These fatty acids are crucial for building and maintaining the structure of brain cells called neurons. Studies have found higher omega-3 intakes from fish are associated with reduced brain shrinkage and lower risk of cognitive decline as we age.
One large study found that older adults who consumed 1-2 weekly servings of baked or broiled fish saw benefits on thinking skills and memory tests compared to those who rarely ate fish. Eating fish just once a week was associated with a 60% reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline compared to eating fish less than once a month. Several other studies link higher fish intake to a reduced incidence of age-related brain diseases like Alzheimer's disease.
Omega-3 fatty acids are also key for brain development in children, supporting cognitive function and memory formation. Pregnant and breastfeeding women in particular should focus on obtaining adequate omega-3s from fatty fish. Aim for at least two 4-ounce servings weekly of salmon or other fatty fish when possible for optimal brain health benefits. You can also take an algae-based DHA supplement if needed to reach recommended intake levels.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds provide multiple nutrients that work together to support brain function as we age. Population studies have found higher nut consumption is linked to better cognitive performance and reduced memory decline in older adults. The types of nuts with the most brain benefits include walnuts, almonds and pistachios. Here's a look at some of the top brain-healthy components in nuts and seeds:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fat that crosses the blood-brain barrier. ALA supports neuron health, brain cell communication and cognitive flexibility.
- Monounsaturated fats: Almonds are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats like oleic acid. These fats help maintain neuron membranes and support cardiovascular health.
- Vitamin E: Almonds, walnuts and sunflower seeds provide vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain.
- Folate: Cashews, pistachios and pumpkin seeds are good sources of folate, which supports both brain structure and mental processes. Folate may play a role in protecting memory and preventing cognitive decline.
- Magnesium: Almonds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds provide magnesium, which supports learning and memory processes, neuron health, and neuronal communication in the brain.
Aim to eat a small handful of nuts or seeds, around 1/4 to 1/3 cup, a few times per week. Enjoy them as snacks, added to yogurt or salads, or used in homemade trail mixes for on-the-go brain nourishment. Nuts and seeds pack a powerful nutrition punch for cognitive support.
Avocados are aunique, creamy fruit that offers multiple brain-healthy components. They are rich in monounsaturated fats like oleic acid as well as fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants - all supporting both cardiovascular and brain health. Several population studies link higher avocado intake to better cognitive function and memory as we age. Some specific brain benefits of avocados include:
- Monounsaturated fats: Oleic acid is the main fat in avocados. As discussed earlier, these fats help maintain healthy brain and neuron cell structure while reducing inflammation.
- Lutein and zeaxanthin: Avocados provide carotenoid antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which are taken up in the brain and eyes where they help protect cells from oxidative damage. Higher blood levels of these nutrients are linked to better cognitive function.
- Vitamin K: One avocado contains over 20% of your daily vitamin K needs. Vitamin K contributes to cognitive abilities involved in learning and memory processes.
- Folate: Avocados provide close to 10% of your daily folate needs. Folate is important for brain development and protects cognition as we age.
Add half an avocado to your meals a few times per week for potent brain-supporting fats, fiber and antioxidants. Enjoy avocado sliced on toast, in salads or guacamole, or mashed on vegetables and chicken or fish. Along with its taste appeal, avocado is a nutrient-dense food for your brain.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Like avocados, olive oil offers mainly monounsaturated fats that support brain health. Population studies found those consuming higher amounts of olive oil, around 3 tablespoons a day, saw 34% reduced cognitive decline compared to those consuming little olive oil. Monounsaturated fats aid in neuron integrity, brain cell communication and the health of nerve endings in the brain.
Olive oil also contains antioxidants called phenolic compounds that have anti-inflammatory effects. Compounds like oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol in olive oil cross the blood-brain barrier and protect neurons from oxidative damage linked to neurodegenerative diseases. Higher olive oil consumption is associated with reduced risk of conditions like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
Use extra virgin olive oil as your primary cooking oil or salad dressing oil whenever possible for added cognitive protection from its heart-healthy fats and antioxidants. Drizzle over steamed or roasted vegetables, sauté fish or chicken in it, toss with pasta or rice, or enjoy with bread. Try to obtain most of your fat from heart-healthy olive oil rather than butter or less healthy oils.
Green tea is packed with bioactive plant compounds called flavonoids, particularly a catechin called EGCG, that have powerful effects in the brain. Green tea helps to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain and may aid in neuron protection. Studies show drinking green tea is associated with reduced risks of both cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease.
Some specific brain benefits of green tea include:
- It helps improve verbal fluency and working memory ability.
- Compounds like EGCG help clear amyloid plaques found in Alzheimer's disease from the brain.
- Green tea drinkers scored higher on cognitive tests assessing skills like attention, memory and executive function in middle age and older populations.
- EGCG has a neuroprotective effect, helping to guard neurons and their signaling from damage over time.
Aim for 3-4 cups of green tea daily for the most potent brain-boosting effects. Green tea contains less caffeine than coffee but still around 30 mg per 8 oz serving. Choose a high-quality loose leaf or bagged green tea for maximum antioxidant flavonoid content.
Not all chocolate is created equal when it comes to brain health - the darker the chocolate, the better. Dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa contains flavonoids called flavonols that cross the blood-brain barrier. These powerful antioxidants may help protect neurons from damage, boost cerebral blood flow and enhance memory and cognition.
Studies have found:
- Dark chocolate consumption improves both mood and cognitive skills like verbal fluency acutely after eating.
- Regular dark chocolate intake is linked to better memory and cognition in older adults and reduced risk of cognitive impairment over time.
- Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate daily enhances reaction times, choice response accuracy and other executive functioning skills after 4 weeks in a young adult population.
- Cocoa flavanols enhance brain blood flow, improving oxygen and nutrient supply to brain tissues.
A small high-quality dark chocolate serving of around 1-2 ounces provides cognitive benefits without excess sugar and calories. Focus on dark chocolate varieties with at least 70% cocoa for the most brain-healthy antioxidants.
Broccoli is packed with brain-boosting nutrients like vitamin K, fiber, antioxidants, and inflammation-fighting compounds. Vitamin K has been shown to support cognition and memory processing. Fiber from broccoli helps maintain steady blood sugar levels and supports cardiovascular health. Compounds called kaempferol and sulforaphane in broccoli are potent antioxidants that cross the blood-brain barrier as well.
Population studies have found higher intakes of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli may protect against cognitive decline as we age. Aim to eat at least a cup of steamed or raw broccoli a few times per week to support your brain's health and function.
In addition to blueberries, other berries like strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are brain-healthy choices. All berries contain antioxidant anthocyanins and phenolic compounds that reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. Common berry nutrients that aid cognition include vitamin C, fiber, folate, vitamin K and manganese.
Studies have found berry consumption supports memory recognition and verbal recall abilities. Diets rich in mixed berries may also help slow cognitive aging. Enjoy berries in season when possible as tasty snacks, on cereal or yogurt, or in smoothies. Frozen berries provide availability year-round for brain health benefits.
As one of the nuts highest in omega-3 ALA, walnuts are especially brain-boosting. ALA supports overall brain structure and function. Population studies find higher walnut intakes correlate with better performance on tests of executive function and memory in older age. Walnuts also contain plant compounds like polyphenols with antioxidant properties beneficial for neurons.
Aim to eat 1-2 ounces of walnuts, around 7-14 halves, a few times per week for optimal cognitive protection. Enjoy walnuts as a stand-alone snack, mixed into homemade granola or trail mix, or sprinkled on salads or yogurt.
While not a whole food, cinnamon contains active compounds that cross the blood-brain barrier and positively impact cognition. Ceylon or "true" cinnamon provides anti-inflammatory antioxidants such as cinnamaldehyde. Studies link cinnamon intake to improved memory performance and reduced buildup of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain - a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease progression.
Adding 1/2-1 teaspoon of cinnamon to items like oatmeal, yogurt or spread on toast delivers cognitive support. Overall, focus on obtaining brain-healthy nutrients from whole foods along with limited use of supplements and spices for holistic cognitive function and protection against decline over time.
This article explored the best foods to support brain health and cognitive function as we age. Blueberries, nuts, and fatty fish like salmon provide important antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids that protect brain cells from damage. Avocados, olive oil, and other plant foods like dark chocolate supply heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and compounds to maintain neuron integrity. Vegetables like broccoli offer vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to reduce inflammation throughout the brain.
Green tea, cinnamon, and berries contain flavonoids and antioxidants to boost cognition, blood flow, and memory processing in the brain. Population studies show regular consumption of these nutritious whole foods is linked to better performance on tests of attention, learning, executive function, and verbal skills compared to low intakes. Eating a diet focused on colorful, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables along with omega-3 rich fish supports overall brain structure and function for life.
While supplements may provide concentrated doses of nutrients, it's best to obtain cognitive protection from whole real foods whenever possible for multiple synergistic compounds and benefits. A balanced plate incorporating items from each category highlighted will nourish the brain for optimal health, memory support and reduced risk of decline as aging occurs.