Research shows that brain foods support healthy cognitive function. After all, just like the rest of the body, the brain needs optimal nutrition to perform efficiently.
Some foods are beneficial for the brain, while others can contribute to cognitive impairment. So how do you know which ones to eat for a sharper mind? Just follow the science.
Here are seven scientifically proven foods to enhance cognitive function and support overall brain health.
Salmon and Other Fatty Fish
Salmon and other fatty fish — i.e., albacore tuna, sardines, herring — are top brain-boosting foods. They’re rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids needed to make brain cells. They’re also essential for building the nerve cells necessary for memory and learning. (1, 2)
Why are omega-3 fatty acids so crucial for brain function? An estimated 60% of the brain is fat, so this nutrient needs replenishing constantly. But also, more than half of the fat in the brain is the omega-3 kind. (3)
Research suggests that omega-3s offer multiple brain-boosting benefits. For example, they may slow or prevent age-related cognitive decline, which is good news for those at risk of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s. (4, 5)
Conversely, scientific evidence shows that omega-3 deficiency may depress mood and cognitive performance. Diets low in this nutrient have been linked to various mood disorders like depression, while supplemental omega-3s have shown promise in treating postpartum depression and the depressive phase of bipolar disorder. (6)
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids, meaning the body doesn’t produce them. So instead, you must get them through your diet, and eating salmon is a delicious way to do that.
Berries are among the best foods for overall health; however, blueberries’ health and brain-boosting benefits are particularly notable. Blueberries are high in phytochemicals, plant compounds that have preventive disease properties. They are also an abundant source of anthocyanins, phytochemicals with numerous health and neuroprotective properties.
According to recent research:
“Epidemiological studies associate regular, moderate intake of blueberries or anthocyanins with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, death, and type 2 diabetes, and with improved weight maintenance and neuroprotection.” (7)
Studies suggest that regular intake of blueberries may improve memory and executive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). (8) In a small study of older adults with early memory decline, wild blueberry supplementation for 12 weeks improved memory. (9) The latter study is crucial because it suggests that regular blueberry consumption may help prevent or reverse the cognitive decline of various neurological diseases.
Though we’ve been taught to avoid chocolate primarily because of its fat and caloric content, dark chocolate is good for your brain and body!
Dark chocolate is loaded with flavanols, a large class of phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. According to a review article published in Frontiers in Nutrition:
“Epidemiologic studies suggest that a regular intake of flavonoids could be associated with better cognitive function, decreased risk of dementia and cognitive decline, lower prevalence of cognitive impairment, better cognitive evolution over a 10-year period, and better dose-dependent cognitive performance in normal aging”. (10)
Please remember that the chocolate typically found on store shelves is highly processed and loaded with sugar, so it is unsuitable for the brain or body. To enjoy the brain-boosting benefits of this food, look for minimally processed dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa. (In general, the darker the chocolate, the more health benefits it provides.)
An egg is a healthy food with cognitive benefits.
For example, eggs contain many nutrients that support brain health, including folate, choline, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B6 and B12.
- Folate: Also called vitamin B-9, folate is crucial for normal brain development. For example, it is required for making neurotransmitters that power the brain. In older adults, a deficiency of this nutrient is associated with depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, and some forms of dementia. (11, 12) A study of 180 people with mild cognitive decline showed that folic acid supplementation improved cognitive function. (13) (Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate.)
- Choline: Like folate, choline is essential for normal brain development. It is needed for producing acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved with mood and memory. (14, 15) In some studies, higher choline intakes are associated with better memory and cognitive performance. (16, 17)
- Vitamin B-6: According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamin B-6 “plays a role in cognitive development through the biosynthesis of neurotransmitters and in maintaining normal levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood.” (18) Numerous research studies show an association between vitamin B-6 levels and cognition. For instance, the Boston Normative Aging Study showed a link between higher levels of B-6 and better memory test scores in older men. (19)
- Vitamin B-12: Often used to boost brain function, vitamin B-12 is involved in the development and proper operation of the brain and nerve cells. Consequently, it’s often taken in supplement form for various mental health issues, including poor concentration, memory loss, and depression. Indeed, scientific evidence suggests that supplementing with B-12 and folate may slow brain shrinkage in those with MCI. (20)
Leafy Green Vegetables
Leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach are healthy foods that support a healthy brain. A study published in Neurology showed that eating at little as one cup of green leafy vegetables per day may slow cognitive decline. (One serving of leafy greens equals one cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked, so that’s not a lot to eat!)
A report published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia in 2015 showed the same results but went a bit further. This study found that those who most closely followed the DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) — a diet that emphasizes green leafy vegetables, fish, and other healthy foods — could slash their Alzheimer’s disease risk by up to a whopping 53 percent! (21)
The reason? Leafy greens are packed with nutrients, such as vitamin K and folate, associated with brain health. For example, numerous studies indicate that vitamin K may play a crucial role in slowing or halting the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. (22)
If you hate the thought of eating a plate of plain leafy greens, there are some easy workarounds. First, simply add them to your salads, soups, casseroles, and smoothies. Second, if you want to avoid a strong plant taste, choose a leafy green with a mild flavor like spinach.
It may surprise you to learn that avocados are one of the best brain foods. The reason? They are loaded with healthy fats, especially the monounsaturated kind, shown to provide numerous cognitive benefits. Indeed, the Mediterranean diet’s emphasis on monounsaturated fats is likely the reason it’s associated with lower rates of age-related cognitive decline and other issues.
In one systemic review of 12 studies regarding the Mediterranean diet’s effect on brain function, researchers found that “Published studies suggest that greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with slower cognitive decline and lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.” (23)
Indeed, studies on monounsaturated fats reveal that regular consumption changes the composition of fat in the brain, thereby altering the brain’s basic chemistry and electrical properties in such a way that it boosts cognitive performance. (24)
In addition, avocados contain neuroprotective vitamin K and folate, supporting mental function, memory, and focus.
Coffee is the most popular beverage after water globally, and Americans are particularly fond of it. For example, according to National Coffee Data Trends (NCDT), 64% of U.S. adults drank coffee every day in 2019. (25)
One of the reasons for its popularity is caffeine, a compound that stimulates the central nervous system. It makes us feel more awake and alert, giving us a much-needed mental jolt when we need it. But it does much more than that.
In epidemiological studies, chronic caffeine consumption is associated with a significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. (26) Studies suggest that large doses of caffeine may even be effective in improving various cognitive processes in sleep-deprived individuals. (27)
If you don’t like the taste of coffee, no problem. You can simply consume other foods and beverages that contain caffeine, such as tea and chocolate.
Learn how these 4 “brain transforming” nutrients were used by an 80-year-old “Women’s World” cover model to escape a nursing home death sentence and how they can slow brain aging, reduce brain fog, improve brain function, and save your brain from a dementia death sentence here.