Foods that boost the health of our brains—call 'em "brain foods"—are rich in antioxidants, essential vitamins and minerals, and healthy fats. Loads of studies back up the positive impacts these foods have on the countless daily actions governed by that mass of tissue in our heads!
The best brain foods increase our alertness and attention spans while helping us process new information (and keep processing as we get older). Research even shows that some of these foods increase focus, making them great snacking options when preparing for an important meeting or studying for an exam.
Avocado is a superfood high in monounsaturated fats. These healthy fats keep blood sugar at a steady level and help keep skin, hair, and nails looking and feeling healthy. More importantly, avocados are rich in folate and vitamin K, which improve cognitive brain functions such as concentration and memory. This diverse fruit can be added to smoothies for a creamy texture but is also delicious on its own, spread on toast, or as the main ingredient in guacamole.
Broccoli is high in both choline and vitamin K. These nutrients contribute to memory function and focus. The veggie also has a lot of vitamin C and fiber. High levels of fiber help the body feel full quickly, reducing the amount of food it needs to be satisfied. Adding broccoli to stir-fries, stuffed chicken, or creamy casseroles is a great way to get more of this healthy vegetable.
Dark chocolate increases blood flow to the brain, which improves all-around cognitive function. It is high in flavonols and all their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. To reap all the benefits of chocolate, opt for varieties that are at least 70% cocoa. Milk chocolate and white chocolate are too high in refined sugars and other highly processed ingredients to provide the same health benefits as dark chocolate.
Salmon is very high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce brain fog and increase memory and concentration. Studies show consuming foods high in these fatty acids could help reduce the symptoms of ADHD and lower the risk of developing certain cancers. All types of salmon are high in omega-3s, but fattier fish sub-species will have more. The research on this varies, but some studies suggest Pacific chinook salmon have one of the highest concentrations.
Beets are high in antioxidants and nitrates. The former can prevent cancer and help the liver detoxify the blood, while the latter increases blood flow to the brain. Beets help the brain to think clearly and increase attention span. Additionally, beets naturally increase energy levels and help boost athletic performance. This root vegetable can be eaten raw in salads and makes a great addition to roasted vegetable medleys.
Walnuts are rich in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. Snacking on walnuts can increase memory, alertness, and concentration. Studies show including walnuts regularly in one's diet could help decrease the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Walnuts make a healthy snack on their own or, for a treat, add them to cookies or use them to top ice cream.
Blueberries protect the brain from toxins, degeneration, and stress. They have one of the highest antioxidant levels of any food and can help ward off certain cancers and aging, as well as protect against environmental toxins. Blueberries are also high in fiber and vitamin K, the latter of which regulates calcium in the bones and brain.
Turmeric has strong healing and anti-inflammatory properties thanks to the compound curcumin. The root has been popular in folk remedies for centuries, praised for its ability to heal wounds and ease illness. In the western world today, we mostly use turmeric to season foods, but even as a spice, these powers prevail, boosting overall immunity and oxygen intake in the brain, which increases alertness and focus.
Rosemary protects the brain from the effects of neurodegeneration, which can cause or exacerbate Alzheimer's disease and other age-linked conditions. It contains carnosic acid, an antioxidant that guards against chemical-free radicals that lead to degenerative disease. This savory herb can also protect against stroke and decrease macular degeneration and other vision problems. Rosemary has these benefits, whether consumed fresh, dried, or as an oil.
Coconut oil is a diverse superfood. It has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and can boost memory and cognitive function. Replacing the fat in baking or cooking recipes with coconut oil is a simple way to incorporate it into one's diet. Applying it topically can help dry skin, stretch marks, and eczema.
Oxidative stress is one possible cause of declining brain health as people get older, and that process leaves many at an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Tomatoes contain the antioxidant carotenoid lycopene; studies show a correlation in older adults between higher levels of this antioxidant in the blood and preserved cognitive function and less inflammation.
More research is needed to prove this association, but there are a variety of health benefits to consuming more lycopene-rich foods. Processed tomatoes, such as tomato sauce, are one of the best sources of lycopene.
Pumpkin seeds are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and zinc. Data shows that these seeds consist of approximately 73 percent unsaturated fats, which play a role in reducing inflammation. Omega-3s and omega-6s are polyunsaturated fats that the body can't make itself; they help keep the frontoparietal region, the part of the brain known for problem-solving, more fluid. Pumpkin seeds also provide over 70 percent of the recommended daily allowance of zinc, which improves communication between neurons and may help reduce memory loss.
Since ancient Greece, sage has been sought out for improving cognition and mood. It contains monoterpenes and rosmarinic acid, which protect the plant from insects. These compounds, when consumed, also improve memory! Sage is a natural anti-inflammatory, and it may protect the brain in part by inhibiting amyloid deposits, which are linked to diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's.
Low to moderate red wine consumption has possible brain health benefits. Resveratol, a polyphenolic compound prominent in the beverage, helps protect the brain by strengthening the blood-brain barrier and reducing the ability of immune system by-products to infiltrate the organ and cause disease. This polyphenol also inhibits the growth and invasion of brain tumor cells in some studies. More research is needed to confirm these findings.
Not only does coffee provide a quick energy jolt, but it also has a positive effect on cognition. Caffeine is the primary stimulant in coffee, but its true benefit comes from its ability to block adenosine, a natural central nervous system depressant. This increases attention and alertness and boosts mood. In studies, caffeine ingestion is associated with better cognitive performance and slower cognitive decline into old age.
Oranges are rich in vitamin C, an antioxidant that fights off free radicals that can damage brain cells. A 2017 study showed that young adults who drank 17 ounces (0.5 liters) of either orange or grapefruit juice had greater blood flow to the brain. Older adults who drank the same amount over an eight-week period showed improved overall brain function.
Eating one medium orange every day could improve focus, memory, attention, and decision speed.
Choline is an essential nutrient necessary for normal brain development, but the body cannot produce sufficient amounts of it on its own. Eating just two eggs, the best source of choline, provides around 300 mg of this important compound.
Studies show that an abnormal level of choline during fetal or early postnatal life can alter memory function during adulthood. These abnormal choline levels could contribute to stress and age-related disorders, and memory issues in later life.
The phytochemicals in green tea are what cause its bitter taste, but they are also powerful antioxidants that protect the brain from neurodegenerative disease or damage.
Studies show that drinking green tea protects against free radicals and may provide some protection against Parkinson’s disease. The phytochemicals in green tea are also capable of improving relaxation, mental clarity, and cognitive function.
Complex carbohydrates are the brain’s primary source of fuel. They have longer molecule chains and take more time to break down, which means they provide a longer-lasting energy source. Barley, brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn, bulgur, millet, and whole-wheat bread are examples of whole grains foods.
A 2015 study found that eating whole grains along with other plant-sourced foods can slow cognitive decline and protect against dementia.
Eating just one-and-a-half servings of leafy green vegetables like kale each day could slow the decline of brain function in older adults. Studies found that certain nutrients associated with good brain health — lutein, nitrate, vitamin K, and folate — are abundant in kale and other leafy greens. A single cup of raw kale also has significant amounts of protein for a leafy green.
Kale is also quite high in iron and vitamin B6, which help the brain produce healthy levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine that regulate mood, making kale the perfect brain food.
This nutrient-dense source of protein also contains large amounts of fatty acids, polyunsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and it is low in saturated fat.
Several studies over the last two decades indicate that the isoflavones in soy may reduce the risk of cognitive function decline in older women. However, the beneficial effects of soy isoflavones have been a source of debate in recent decades, and researchers say more studies are necessary to better understand them.
For more than 2000 years, traditional healers have turned to ginseng as a way to control anxiety and depression, treat a variety of diseases, and enhance cognition. Today, it is one of the world’s most commonly applied medical herbs.
Research shows that ginseng has neuroprotective effects and can be used to prevent neurological damage from diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.
Olive oil is a significant source of vitamins E and K, which may have brain health benefits.
Ongoing research over the last decade found that depression may be associated with a poor diet. A 2019 study discovered that when test subjects followed a Mediterranean-style diet and consumed about two tablespoons of olive oil each day, they reduced their depression levels within three weeks and also lowered stress and anxiety levels to a normal range.
Lamb is rich in high-quality protein: around 25 grams per 3.5-ounce serving. It also contains vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, niacin, and heme iron, the type absorbed more efficiently by the body than that in plants.
A long-term study determined that weekly consumption of lamb instead of other red meats improved long-term cognitive abilities.
For years, nutritionists and physicians have touted the benefits of eating a healthy breakfast every day, and many studies support the practice.
Not only does having a nutritious meal shortly after you get up improve alertness and concentration, but it also enhances memory and problem-solving abilities and boosts mood. Research evidence suggests that after fasting through the night, the brain needs a fresh supply of glucose to operate as it should during the day.
The best way to provide the vitamins and minerals your brain needs for better health is to eat healthy foods that contain them.