Eat Your Way Smarter: The 8 Best Foods for Brain Health
What if you could eat your way smarter? Funny as it might sound, there’s no question that diet can support the function of your brain, just as it can improve (or impair) the health of almost any organ. Brain food isn’t just a metaphor.
There are several ways foods can be literally brain foods. Antioxidant properties help to fight harmful environmental toxins that accumulate as your brain ages, certain fats improve cell function and communication, and nutrient-dense foods may fight plaques that hinder brain function.
Of course, like there’s no magic pill to cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Huntington’s disease; no single food can ensure or guarantee a healthy brain. It comes down to your entire pattern of eating, usually one that’s full of lots of fruits, veggies, fish, whole grains, and good fats. And of course, for many people there are factors outside of diet that affect your brain.
Regardless, if you want to help support your healthy mind as long as possible, I recommend you eat smart and add the best foods for brain health to your plate. I’m going to give you eight of the best brain foods out there that I eat daily.
Note: If you are concerned about your brain health, be sure to talk to your healthcare practitioner. They know your unique health needs better than I do. This is general information and not intended to treat, diagnose, or cure any diseases.
Legumes like beans and lentils are an excellent source of fiber[*]. And that’s good news for your mind: The kind of fiber in beans has been shown to lower "bad" cholesterol and increase "good" cholesterol. High levels of bad cholesterol seem to be linked to brain decline with age[*].
If you’re worried about phytic acid, an “anti-nutrient” that’s present in some beans, consuming them with a source of vitamin C can help counteract the negative effects.
Cruciferous Vegetables and Leafy Greens
I asked my friend and New York-based dietitian Leyla Shamayeva MS, RD what she eats for her brain. Straight to the top of her list was cruciferous and leafy greens, like kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and Swiss chard. As Leyla said, “The MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, was developed specifically for brain health, and crucifers such as broccoli and cauliflower are winners for cognitive performance.”
Cruciferous vegetables are an excellent source vitamin K, an underrated nutrient that has been linked to slower cognitive decline[*]. A five-year prospective study of 950 older adults even found that people who ate one to two servings per day of leafy greens had the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who consumed none[*].
Struggling for ways to get enough cruciferous veggies in your diet? I’ve added cauliflower to a smoothie for an extra way to squeeze cruciferous veggies in.
The monounsaturated fats found in olives are important for your brain — they’re incorporated into almost every cell in your body and may help to promote the transportation of oxygen to the brain.
To get the most benefits, consume uncooked virgin olive oil by adding it to a salad or making your own dressings. I’ll sometimes add it to my Mushroom Miso soup after heating the liquid and removing it from heat.
Lion’s Mane Mushroom
A medicinal fungus that can be found across North America, Europe, and Asia, this mushroom is a great source of beta glucans, a type of carbohydrate that can help support healthy blood sugar and cholesterol. But Lion’s Mane is perhaps best known for its effects on the brain.
Preliminary research in vitro and in mice suggests that consuming Lion’s Mane can stimulate "neurite outgrowth," parts of the brain that convey electrical impulses from neuron to neuron. By doing so, Lion’s Mane may support cognition and focus[*][*][*]. I’m very excited to see this research expanded.
You can find raw Lion’s Mane in many speciality grocery stores. Or you can try Lion's Mane in an extracted powder.
Salmon and other fatty fish, like mackerel, herring, and sardines, are great sources of omega–3 fatty acids[*]. Omega–3 is important for many parts of your body and health, especially your brain.
“Omega–3 fatty acids in fish like salmon have an impact possibly because your brain also contains DHA, a kind of omega–3 fatty acid that enhances cell function and helps neurotransmitters communicate information throughout the brain and body,” says Shamayeva.
Once demonized for their high fat content, nuts are making a well-deserved comeback.
A large, six-year study showed an association with eating nuts and improved working memory in older women[*].
Walnuts are especially fantastic because they also have omega–3. Your brain goes nuts for...nuts...for many reasons. One is their phytochemicals, which include a lot of polyunsaturated fatty acids. These types of fat may reduce the oxidant and inflammatory load on your brain cells while improving interneuronal signaling and boosting neurogenesis (the formation of new brain cells)[*].
Berries may be some of the most potent fruits available for providing antioxidant properties for your brain[*].
“Berries, in particular blueberries, contain antioxidants that help fight harmful toxins in the body, thus preventing brain deterioration as your brain ages,” says Shamayeva.
A 2012 study entitled “Berry Fruit Enhances Beneficial Signaling in the Brain” found that in addition to the fact that they have antioxidant properties berries also have a direct effect on the brain. They appear to mediate signaling pathways in the brain and enhance neuroplasticity, which refers to the mind’s malleability, or ability to learn new things into old age.
The cocoa bean is rich in a type of antioxidant called flavanols, and there's some evidence that flavanols can reverse damage done over time to your brain cells. Research suggests cocoa flavanols may improve blood flow in the brain and reduce cognitive decline[*].
The darker the chocolate, the more health benefits and flavanols it’ll have. Try to develop a taste for the more bitter stuff.
Fruit or Vegetable Juice
“Fruit and vegetable juices have high levels of polyphenols, which are antioxidant-rich compounds from plants, and one large study suggests that they can help delay Alzheimer's disease,” says Shamayeva[*].
These antioxidant properties are concentrated in fruits and vegetable juice. Juice is no replacement for whole fruits and veggies, but it can be a good supplement.
“The bottom line is that healthy eating habits are important. In general, that means focusing on fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains, and lean proteins and incorporating them into balanced meals that don't offer excess calories,” says Leyla Shamayeva MS, RD. “The MIND diet recommends nuts, berries, leafy greens and other vegetables, antioxidant-rich drinks like grape juice or wine, beans, fish, poultry, whole grains, and olive oil while limiting other fats and sweets.”