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.
There are several ways that this can happen: Antioxidants help to fight harmful toxins and prevent deterioration as your brain ages, certain fats improve cell function and communication, and nutrient dense foods can prevent the buildup of mental plaques that hinder brain function.
If you want to keep your mind as healthy and functional as possible, for as long as possible, the following foods should find their way to your plate.
Legumes like beans and lentils provide far more fiber per serving than any other food. Believe it or not, that’s good news for your mind: the kind of fiber in beans has been shown to lower "bad" cholesterol and increase "good" cholesterol, which may be an effective way to reduce brain deposits that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies also suggest that the plant sterols in beans assist genes that delay brain diseases like Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease.
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.
“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,” says Leyla Shamayeva, MS, RD, a New York-based dietitian.
Crucifers are high in vitamin K, an underrated nutrient that has been linked to slower cognitive decline — a 5-year study of 950 older adults even found that people who ate one to two servings per day had the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who consumed none.
Crucifers are also high in folate and B9, which may improve cognition and reduce depression, and they contain carotenoids that lower homo-cysteine, an amino acid that has been linked with cognitive impairment.
The polyphenols found in olives and olive oil have been linked to beneficial effects on learning and memory deficits found in old age, and there’s even evidence that they can reverse the buildup of beta-amyloid plaque, a significant factor in dementia.
The monounsaturated fats are also important — 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 olive oil by adding it to a salad or making your own dressings.
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 it’s perhaps best known for its effects on the brain.
Research published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms 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, it may support cognition and memory and perhaps help to slow breakdown that occurs as your brain ages. Can’t find Lion’s Mane at your grocery store? Don’t sweat it. We have you covered.
Salmon and other fatty fish, like mackerel, herring, and sardines, are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which help to improve the body’s ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. That’s important for inflammation, cholesterol, bone health, and your mental health.
“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.
Regularly consuming omega-3s has been strongly linked to improved anxiety, and its even been used in test the treatment depression and schizophrenia in clinical settings.
Once demonized for their high fat content — nuts are making a well-deserved comeback.
A large, six-year study showed an association with improved working memory in older adults.
This may be because their phytochemicals, which include a lot of polyunsaturated fatty acids, reduce the oxidant and inflammatory load on your brain cells while improving interneuronal signaling and boosting neurogenesis, or the formation of new brain cells.
“Berries, in particular blueberries, contain antioxidants that help fight harmful toxins in the body, thus preventing brain deterioration as your brain ages,” says Shamayeva.
Indeed, for the purposes of improving mental health, berries may be some of the most potent fruits available. A 2012 study entitled “Berry Fruit Enhances Beneficial Signaling in the Brain” found that in addition to the fact that they have antioxidative and anti-inflammatory effects — which are both good for mental health — berries also have a direct effect on the brain. They appear to mediate signaling pathways in the brain and enhance neuroplasticity, which is kind of what it sounds like: it refers to the mind’s malleability, or ability to learn new things into old age.
Other research has found that consuming the equivalent of 230 grams of blueberries (about 1.5 -2 cups) had a significant increase in brain activity, blood flow, and memory.
The cocoa bean is rich in a type of antioxidant called flavanols, and there's some evidence that they can reverse damage done over time to your brain cells.
In one study, elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment were split into three groups. For eight weeks they consumed beverages with low, medium, or high amounts of cocoa flavanols, and it was found that those who consumed the strongest drinks performed significantly better on cognitive testing at the end of the study. Other research suggests cocoa flavanols can decrease the risk of stroke, improve blood flow in the brain, and help blood pressure.
Of course, 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.
In fact, polyphenols are the most abundant dietary antioxidants, and they have stronger neuroprotective effects against hydrogen peroxide — an agent that causes oxidation — than antioxidant vitamins like Vitamin C.
“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 Shamayeva. “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.”
Like Michael Pollan says: Eat whole food, not too much, mostly plants. Your mind will thank you.