Mind and Memory
25 Brain-Boosting Foods That Will Keep You Sharp
You can stay sharp by being active and engaged in the world around you—but you can also keep your brain healthy by eating these amazing foods.
Those strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries? They’ll do wonders for your health and your noggin. “Large studies show some promise for berries and brain health, particularly in slowing cognitive decline,” says Ginger Hultin, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “A huge study found that women who ate more blueberries and strawberries saw an association with slower cognitive decline. Berries are high in flavonoids, especially anthocyanins, which are antioxidants that can cross the blood-brain barrier and possibly positively affect areas of the brain associated with learning and memory function. The reason for these positive results may be due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the berries. The portion size used in the study was just half a cup of berries, and eating them daily appears to yield the best results.” Discover how berries at breakfast could help you lose weight.
Roshianu and moloko/Shutterstock
Great news for dark chocolate lovers: Several studies demonstrate the sweet treat’s brain-boosting powers, including enhanced cognitive function, reduced risk of dementia, and improved performance on memory activities. For example, one review study found that epicatechin, a flavanol found in cocoa, tea, berries, and other fruits, yields cognitive benefits—especially in tasks involving memory, executive function, and processing speed in older adults. Chocolate has even been found to assist in improving feelings of depression and anxiety and to help enhance feelings of calmness and contentedness, as it may boost levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin. Find out exactly what happens to your body when you eat chocolate.
Many nuts are helpful for brain health, but walnuts are the only tree nut that are an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid that’s converted to the omega-3s DHA and EPA within the body. The nuts have been linked to improved cognitive performance in adults. In fact, in one study, adults eating higher amounts of walnuts had better cognitive test scores. Don’t miss 7 more foods loaded with omega-3 fatty acids.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli contain the compound sulforaphane, a substance that some early research suggests could protect the brain. Broccoli also offers vitamin K, important for healthy brain function. In fact, one study assessed the dietary intake of patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and found that they got considerably less vitamin K from their diet than people without the disease.
Although these grapes are available for just a short time each year, you can also get their benefits through 100 percent grape juice made with Concord grapes. And the grapes can help aging adults with brain issues. In one study, for instance, older adults with age-related cognitive decline regularly drinking Concord grape juice saw a positive impact on memory function and also had increased blood flow to areas of the brain linked with memory. Drink the juice on its own, add it to a breakfast smoothie or a crostini recipe, or whisk it into a salad dressing. Grapes are just one of the anti-inflammatory foods that help reduce pain, so arthritis suffers will want to take note.
The brain needs plenty of omega-3 fats to stay healthy. And oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines, and tuna offer the omega-3s EPA and DHA. Keeping the brain fueled with DHA and EPA is important since the brain is the body’s fattiest organ. Preliminary research suggests that DHA especially may be particularly important for brain health in older people who are not cognitively impaired, per a review study. And deficits in these omega-3s have been associated with neurodegenerative disorders, although more research is needed. This handy chart will help you choose fish with the highest omega-3 content.
You may have heard that the cholesterol in eggs is a concern again, but you can still safely eat an egg a day. And it is one of the biggest nutrition bangs for your buck. According to Finnish researchers, eating eggs can boost brain power—and much of the benefit is again thanks to choline. The researchers monitored the diets of about 2,500 men without dementia for about 22 years. Not only were regular egg eaters less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but it was linked to a better performance on cognitive tests. Enjoy eggs on hummus toast, a breakfast Panini, or one of these 55 delicious egg recipes.
Seeds can be great for the brain, and pumpkin seeds may be especially helpful. These little delights offer ALA omega-3s. They also contain magnesium, which is believed to play a role in mood and brain function, as well as zinc, important for healthy brain function. A quarter cup of pumpkin seeds provides you with 15 percent of the daily value for zinc. Pumpkin seeds are just one of the 6 super seeds you should be eating.
It’s no longer simply an old wives’ tale: Sage really does help sharpen the mind. According to preliminary research, extracts or essential oils of the herb may help memory as well as mood, attention, and executive function. Sage is one of the healthy herbs that can boost your brain and here’s a clever way to store herbs.
Your evening glass of wine might make you feel relaxed, but it’s actually giving you a great workout—in your brain, at least. Neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, MD, from the Yale School of Medicine says that drinking wine engages more working parts of the brain than any other human activity. Shepherd says it all comes down to taste: He believes that the process of swirling wine in your mouth—and triggering the tongue muscles and taste receptors in the process—engages more of the brain than listening to music or even solving a math problem. And wine offers other brain benefits: In one study, older adults consuming the flavonoid-rich foods wine, chocolate, or tea performed better on cognitive tests. This is what happens in the body when you drink a glass of wine a day.
This dairy drink provides choline, a nutrient important for brain health. Pregnant women really need to focus on choline because it plays a role in the early brain development of infants. In addition, a handful of observational studies have connected cognitive performance in adults with higher choline intake and plasma concentration. And some researchers believe that some natural component in milk that may help protect against insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Some scientists have hailed turmeric a “wonder spice,” due to its seemingly endless list of health benefits—including helping to relieve digestive issues such as heartburn and gas. Much of the research done on turmeric has focused in on curcumin, a substance in turmeric. In terms of brain health, preliminary research found that a group of older adults receiving a curcumin supplement did not have the cognitive decline experienced by a group that didn’t take the supplement. Turmeric is thought to be an anti-inflammatory powerhouse; here’s exactly how much turmeric you need to take to reduce inflammation.
Talk about a healthy ingredient with very few calories—as long as you stick to the unsweetened variety. “Pure cocoa powder contains brain-boosting compounds, including a large number of antioxidant molecules, mainly flavonoids,” says Hultin. “The main one is epicatechin. These compounds do make it into the brain and have been linked in some studies to positive outcomes in learning and memory areas. Epicatechin is a special antioxidant and appears to improve cognition in studies. Aside from antioxidant capacity, another way cocoa could help our health is through improved cardiovascular health—better blood flow to the brain for more oxygen and nutrients.” Eating cocoa can actually help prevent and treat diabetes.
This vegetarian protein provides vitamin B6, which assists with healthy brain function. When you’re not getting enough B6, you’ll notice it: A deficiency may lead to depression, dementia, or cognitive decline, research says. Don’t miss these 3 tasty ways to add soy to your diet.
Kale has been in the spotlight for years, and it even has its own day: National Kale Day is the first Wednesday in October. Kale is packed with plenty of nutrients, including vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, and the mineral manganese. And green leafy veggies like kale may help your brain: In one study, people eating leafy vegetables daily experienced the cognitive function of people about 11 years younger, compared to people eating little to no leafy green veggies. Here are 4 creative kale recipes to try right now.
Beets contain high levels of dietary nitrates, which your body converts to nitric oxide—and that relaxes blood vessels in the body and increases blood flow to the brain. In one study, older adults who exercised and drank beetroot juice experienced brain benefits. Their brain networks, remarkably, had a similar appearance to those of younger adults. Note that more study is needed since other research on beetroot juice and the brain is mixed. Discover why beets are a superfood vegetable you should really stop avoiding.
A Mediterranean-style diet is often hailed for its health benefits, including helping to protect brain health. Olive oil is made from olives, which offer health-helping polyphenols. In fact, research suggests these polyphenols may lower risk for certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke. Use olive oil in anything from a bean salad recipe to baked chicken to a vegetarian grain bowl. Want more healthy meals for your dinner rotation? Here’s how to introduce health-boosting Mediterranean foods into your diet without even trying.
There’s a lot of hype about bone broth, and much of it is warranted. To make bone broth, you take—you guessed it, bones (such as chicken bones), bake them at a low temperature in the oven until they brown, then simmer, often along with veggies like onions and herbs and seasonings. The main draw of bone broth is its high protein content, and the brain requires protein to optimally function. Add bone broth to homemade soup, or use it to sauté vegetables.
Beans offer fiber and protein, which help keep you satiated for longer to provide sustained energy. Beans also contain ALA omega-3s to support brain growth and function; go for navy and kidney beans for a bigger ALA fix. Beans also provide carbohydrates, which are converted to glucose to fuel the brain—the organ’s preferred source of energy. Garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, provide magnesium, which helps keep the brain functioning optimally. Don’t miss: The 5 health benefits of beans—plus 5 surprising risks.
Tea is often credited with aiding weight loss and helping prevent cancer, but many scientists believe the drink is just as beneficial for the brain. Many teas contain caffeine, an instant energy booster, but tea also delivers the more calming amino acid L-theanine, which can help relax you without causing drowsiness. And drinking tea, particularly green tea, could help reduce your risk of cognitive disorders, according to a review study. There’s just one caveat to the health benefits of tea: Don’t drink it too hot. Drinking tea hotter than this temperature can increase your risk for certain cancers.
Iron is vital for good health; without it your red blood cells could not carry oxygen to from the lungs to the body’s tissues. Beef contains the most easily absorbed type of iron, heme iron. If you don’t eat meat, the best iron-offering foods for vegetarians include eggs, beans, iron-fortified cereal, and whole grains. Just be sure to pair any plant-based sources with a food high in vitamin-C, such as citrus to boost absorption. Iron deficiency often goes undiagnosed, though fatigue is a common sign.
In South America, yerba mate is just as common as coffee is in the United States. The beverage maté is brewed from the leaves of yerba maté. This hot drink is believed to have a stimulant effect, which may help enhance short-term brain power. According to yerba maté manufacturer Guayaki, yerba maté contains 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, and an abundance of polyphenols. Besides caffeine, yerba mate provides two compounds, theobromine and theophylline, which work together to provide unique, mild stimulant effects. Enjoy a cup of yerba maté in place of your morning coffee.
For a brain-boosting breakfast, you can’t go wrong with whole-grain oats. The brain relies on glucose for fuel, and healthy carbs like oats are a great source. Oats have an advantage over other carbohydrates in that they’re low on the glycemic index—meaning oats won’t jack up your blood sugar as quickly as some other foods. In fact, in part thanks to their fiber content, whole-grain oats are broken down slowly by the body. Your brain will reap the benefits for hours! Oats also contain B vitamins, iron, and magnesium. Best of all, oats really are a convenience food; it’s very simple to prepare overnight oats, chill them in the fridge, and grab them on the go in the morning.
Make lentils a staple in your soups and salads, and your brain will thank you for it. Lentils are packed with folate, a B vitamin shown to help boost cognitive performance. The vitamin can also play a role in decreasing levels of the amino acid homocysteine. This is important because too-high levels may impair brain functioning as you age. Finally, a favorite go-to for vegetarians, lentils are one of the 9 complete protein foods that aren’t meat.
Luis Echeverri Urrea/Shutterstock
A top source of ALA, flaxseed is a good way for vegetarians and vegans to add healthy fats to their diet. And preliminary research suggests that ALA may have a positive impact on Alzheimer’s disease. The only trick is figuring out how to work the seeds in. Sprinkle a tablespoon of ground flaxseed over salad, hot or cold cereal, or in a smoothie to get your daily fix. Don’t miss the 10 healthy reasons you should be eating more flaxseed.