Food for thought: the smart way to better brain health (2023)

We all intuitively appreciate that the foods we eat shape our thoughts, actions, emotions and behaviour. When you are feeling low, you reach for chocolate; when you are tired, you crave coffee. We all use food to soothe our moods and clear our heads without seeming to think much about it.

Yet the focus of most diets is on the way we look rather than the way we think. This is in part due to western society’s fascination with appearance, and medicine’s bias towards drugs and surgery. In fact, contemporary medicine often disregards the ways that our diet helps shape our cognitive health. Medical students are not trained in nutrition. And, for what it is worth, neither are scientists.

When I was a neuroscience student, I would marvel at how apparently simple substances such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and sugars determine whether our brain cells fire or not, grow or not, form new connections or wilt and die. It only became obvious in retrospect: the sodium, potassium, magnesium and sugars referenced were the same nutrients as in diet books or on food labels. To put it simply, the human brain is made of food.

In concrete terms, this means that whatever you just ate will be part of what you will think. For anyone lucky enough to use their brain for a living, this has immediate professional outcomes. In the long term, this affects every one of us, because food affects not just our moods and thoughts but also the way we age.

This has been the focus of my work as the associate director of the Alzheimer’s prevention clinic at the Weill Cornell medical college, New York City. For the last 15 years, we have been doing long-term studies to demonstrate the ways that diet prevents, delays or leads to cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s. The good news is that we have learned so much about what every one of us can do to optimise our brain health day to day.

Studies using next-generation imaging and genomic sequencing, both central to my work, have helped reveal that some foods such as vegetables, fruit, fish, wholegrains, nuts and seeds are neuro-protective. They not only shield the brain from harm, but also support cognitive fitness over the course of a lifetime.

Food for thought: the smart way to better brain health (1)

It comes perhaps as no surprise that other foods such as fast food, fried food, excess fatty foods and refined sugar are downright harmful instead, slowing us down in general, making us feel sluggish and tired, while at the same time deeply increasing our risk of dementia.

These effects are particularly evident by looking at brain scans of people on different diets. For example, when we compared the scans of middle-aged people who had eaten a Mediterranean diet most of their lives with those of people of the same age who ate a western diet with processed food, processed meats, sweets and fizzy drinks, we saw the way the latter group’s brains had shrunk prematurely. Subsequent studies provided even more alarming evidence that people on the western diet had started developing Alzheimer’s plaques already in their 40s and 50s. These are all signs of accelerated ageing and increased risk of future dementia.

(Video) Brain Foods for Brain Health - Boost Brain Health with Good Eats

The bottom line is this: the more processed, packaged and refined foods that you consume on a regular basis, the higher your risk of cognitive decline further down the line.

In terms of the food that helps, there is no single miracle food or supplement that will keep us young, healthy and bright-eyed with a perfect memory (and beware anyone who tells you there is). There are, however, some important and urgent best practices that we need to get into people’s kitchens.

Food for thought: the smart way to better brain health (2)

My top five brain foods:

Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, bluefish, sardines, anchovies) contains a blend of nutrients that are perfect for the brain, including omega-3 fats (a brain-must), choline (a B vitamin needed to make memories), vitamins B6 and B12 (needed to support the nervous system), minerals such as iron and magnesium (needed for healthy blood and tissues) and a good amount of protein. Research shows that consuming fish only once a week is associated with a 70% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s in old age. Of all the nutrients present in fish, the omega-3s seem to be particularly protective against dementia. For those who do not eat seafood, alternative sources of omega-3s include flax seeds, olive oil, almonds, avocados and other plant-based foods.

Dark leafy greens (spinach, swiss chard, kale and all sort of greens) and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) are all full of vitamins, minerals, fibre and disease-fighting nutrients that are crucial for a healthy nervous system. Large-scale studies show that people who consume one or two servings of these vegetables every day experience fewer memory problems and cognitive decline than people who rarely eat greens. Simply eating a salad every day keeps your brain 11 years younger.

Berries (especially blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries but also dark cherries, goji berries, mulberries) are packed with antioxidants that help keep memory sharp as you age. They are also a great source of fibre and glucose, the main energy source for the brain. They are sweet but have a low glycaemic index so they help regulate sugar levels.

Extra virgin vegetable oils, especially olive oil and flaxseed oil. These are loaded with anti-ageing nutrients, such as omega-3s and vitamin E. Olive oil is also rich in monounsaturated fat, a kind of fat that is good for the heart. What is good for the heart is good for the brain.

Complex carbohydrates, such as wholegrains, legumes and sweet potatoes, are packed with brain-supportive nutrients from protein to B vitamins to a bounty of antioxidants and minerals. They are also a good source of glucose combined with a high fibre content to stabilise blood sugar levels. The more fibre, the lower the food’s effects on insulin. As a result, these foods enhance your metabolism, support a healthy digestion and boost the immune system too.

In addition, I always recommend drinking water as the main source of fluids. Even though water is not usually considered a food, it is definitely a major source of nutrition for our thirsty brains. More than 80% of the brain’s content is water. Every chemical reaction that takes place in the brain requires water, especially energy production. The brain is so sensitive to dehydration that even a minimal loss of water can cause symptoms such as brain fog, fatigue, dizziness, confusion and, more importantly, brain shrinkage. Why is this important? Because people often do not realise that the “water” they are drinking is not actually water. Purified water, fizzy water – all these beverages were stripped of the precious nutrients and natural electrolytes the brain needs to stay hydrated and work efficiently. The brain needs more than something wet; it needs the essential nutrients that real water carries with it.

(Video) 5 Foods That Boost Brain Power And Memory

These foods and nutrients are valuable at all stages of life. While the dietary needs of the rest of the body vary somewhat with age (more protein is needed when we are younger; more calcium and vitamin D when we are older), this does not seem to be the case for the brain. However, like every diet, the effects and efficacy of these foods will vary massively from individual to individual. My current research is looking at the differences between the ways that male and female brains need and metabolise specific nutrients. Of note in the research thus far: women’s brains seem to need more antioxidants, especially vitamins A, C and E (which can all be found in the plant-based foods listed above), as well as the anti-inflammatory omega-3s found in fish, nuts and seeds.

In the end, a brain-healthy diet optimises your capacity for keeping a healthy, sharp and active brain over a lifetime – while reducing the risk of developing age-related cognitive impairments and dementia. As individuals and as a society, we must refocus attention on how our food choices shape our brains, as surely as they shape the rest of us.

So, what are you going to have for dinner tonight?

Recipes for a brain-healthy day

Breakfast: Yoghurt parfait

Food for thought: the smart way to better brain health (3)

Total time: 5 minutes

Ingredients (serves 2)
1 cup plain yoghurt
2 tablespoons toasted wheat germ
2 teaspoons ground flax seeds
½ cup blueberries
½ cup raspberries

Directions
In a bowl, mix together yoghurt, wheat germ and flax meal. Transfer to small jars. Top with blueberries and raspberries or your favourite fresh fruit. Feel free to sweeten with a little honey or maple syrup if needed.

Lunch: Vegetable soup served with brown rice

(Video) 11 Steps to Better Brain Health and Success in Life with Dr. Daniel Amen

Food for thought: the smart way to better brain health (4)

Prep: 20 minutes (less than 10 minutes if using an electric chopper)

Cook: 25 minutes

Ingredients (serves 6 or more)
450g broccoli, finely chopped
1 cup red cabbage, finely chopped
1 small onion, chopped
6 medium carrots, finely chopped
6 green onions, finely chopped
4 stalks of organic celery, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 cups sweet peas (frozen are good)
1 cup shelled edamame (eg soybeans)
3cm piece ginger root, grated
3 litres of vegetable broth (no added salt)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Brewer’s yeast, 1 teaspoon per person

Directions
1. Put all the veg in a large pot. Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or until tender. (Personally, I prefer to cook these al dente as I like the consistency better than mushy vegetables and I believe it preserves the veggies’ ability to better deliver nutrients).

2. Turn off the heat, add olive oil and let cool for a few minutes.

3. Distribute in bowls. Sprinkle brewer’s yeast over the soup. Add brown rice for extra texture.

Food for thought: the smart way to better brain health (5)

Dinner: Scandinavian salmon, served with a salad of mixed baby greens, broccoli sprouts and cherry tomatoes with a lemon vinaigrette dressing

Scandinavian salmon

(Video) The 10 Best Foods To Boost Brain Power and Improve Memory

Prep: 5 minutes

Cook: 15 minutes

Ingredients (serves 4)
½ cup of dry white wine
½ cup of water
4 salmon fillets (about 80g each)
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1 small garlic clove, minced
Salt to taste
4 teaspoons of salmon roe (optional)

Directions
Heat wine and water over medium high heat in a large non-stick pan (approx 5 minutes)

Slide salmon pieces into poaching liquid and dot with butter. Sprinkle with dried parsley, garlic, and salt to taste. Bring to a slow boil, reduce heat to medium and poach until salmon flesh is firm, about 10 minutes. Plate and sprinkle with salmon roe (optional).

Lemon vinaigrette dressing and salad

Ready in: 5 minutes

Ingredients (serves 4)
Juice of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon maple syrup (optional)
Selection of baby greens, broccoli sprouts and cherry tomatoes

Directions
Put all ingredients into a small jar and mix to combine. Pour over the mixed salad.

FAQs

What are the 3 foods that fight memory loss? ›

What are the foods that fight memory loss? Berries, fish, and leafy green vegetables are 3 of the best foods that fight memory loss. There's a mountain of evidence showing they support and protect brain health.

What are the 7 brain health foods? ›

7 Brain Foods for Kids
  • Eggs. The protein and nutrients in eggs help kids concentrate, says Los Angeles-based chef Beth Saltz, RD. ...
  • Greek Yogurt. Fat is important to brain health, says Laura Lagano, RD. ...
  • Greens. ...
  • Fish. ...
  • Nuts and Seeds. ...
  • Oatmeal. ...
  • Apples and Plums.

What is the best food to eat in the morning for your brain? ›

The 7 best brain-friendly breakfast foods, according to RDs
  • Salmon. Crave smoked salmon when you wake up? ...
  • Eggs. Speaking of omelets… as it turns out, the humble egg is one of the best brain-friendly foods, too. ...
  • Oatmeal. ...
  • Turmeric. ...
  • Berries. ...
  • Coffee. ...
  • Water.
Sep 29, 2021

What are the 10 best foods for the brain? ›

The Top 10 Foods for a Healthy Brain
  • Walnuts. The Good Stuff: ...
  • Sardines. The Good Stuff: ...
  • Green Tea. The Good Stuff: ...
  • Chocolate. The Good Stuff: ...
  • Eggs. The Good Stuff: Amino Acids. ...
  • Blueberries. The Good Stuff: Vitamin C. ...
  • Avocados. The Good Stuff: Monounsaturated fatty acids. ...
  • Spinach. The Good Stuff: Folic Acid.

Which fruit is best for brain? ›

Certain fruits such as oranges, bell peppers, guava, kiwi, tomatoes, and strawberries, contain high amounts of vitamin C. Vitamin C helps prevent brain cells from becoming damaged and supports overall brain health. In fact, a study found that vitamin C can potentially prevent Alzheimer's.

What is good for memory? ›

Get adequate omega-3 fatty acids.

Essential for good brain health, omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, in particular, may help improve memory. Seafood, algae and fatty fish — including salmon, bluefin tuna, sardines and herring — are some of the best sources of the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA.

How can I sharpen my memory? ›

Advertisement
  1. Include physical activity in your daily routine. Physical activity increases blood flow to your whole body, including your brain. ...
  2. Stay mentally active. ...
  3. Socialize regularly. ...
  4. Get organized. ...
  5. Sleep well. ...
  6. Eat a healthy diet. ...
  7. Manage chronic conditions.

Which nut is good for brain? ›

Nuts like almonds, pistachios and macadamias each bring something special to the table. Almonds help improve memory, pistachio nut oils help preserve fatty acids and prevent inflammation, and macadamias contribute to normal brain function.

Can vitamin D reverse dementia? ›

The research team estimated that 17% of dementia cases could potentially be prevented by increasing vitamin D levels from 25 nmol/L to 50 nmol/L. “In some contexts, where vitamin D deficiency is relatively common, our findings have important implications for dementia risks,” Hypponen said.

Is coffee good for brain? ›

In addition, caffeine has many positive actions on the brain. It can increase alertness and well-being, help concentration, improve mood and limit depression. Caffeine may disturb sleep, but only in sensitive individuals.

How can I make my mind sharp and intelligent? ›

6 simple steps to keep your mind sharp at any age
  1. staying physically active.
  2. getting enough sleep.
  3. not smoking.
  4. having good social connections.
  5. limiting alcohol to no more than one drink a day.
  6. eating a Mediterranean style diet.

What milk is best for brain? ›

Older adults who drink three cups of dairy milk a day can increase their brain's level of a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the brain from the damage that accompanies aging and aging-related diseases.

What fruits are best in the morning? ›

Best fruits for breakfast
  • Citrus breakfast: orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit. ...
  • Exotic twist for your morning meal: banana, mango, pineapple, coconut. ...
  • Berries extravaganza: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries. ...
  • Amazing stone fruits: cherries, peaches, plums.

How can I exercise my brain? ›

Play games

Doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku games, jigsaw puzzles and other games that rely on logic, math, word and visuospatial skills are great ways to increase brainpower. These types of games require multiple cognitive abilities, which challenges your brain and improves processing speed and memory.

Which fruit is best for brain? ›

Certain fruits such as oranges, bell peppers, guava, kiwi, tomatoes, and strawberries, contain high amounts of vitamin C. Vitamin C helps prevent brain cells from becoming damaged and supports overall brain health. In fact, a study found that vitamin C can potentially prevent Alzheimer's.

What are the 10 best foods for the brain? ›

The Top 10 Foods for a Healthy Brain
  • Walnuts. The Good Stuff: ...
  • Sardines. The Good Stuff: ...
  • Green Tea. The Good Stuff: ...
  • Chocolate. The Good Stuff: ...
  • Eggs. The Good Stuff: Amino Acids. ...
  • Blueberries. The Good Stuff: Vitamin C. ...
  • Avocados. The Good Stuff: Monounsaturated fatty acids. ...
  • Spinach. The Good Stuff: Folic Acid.

Which drink is good for brain? ›

Green tea

As is the case with coffee, the caffeine in green tea boosts brain function. In fact, it has been found to improve alertness, performance, memory, and focus ( 75 ). But green tea also has other components that make it a brain-healthy beverage.

How can I improve my brain memory? ›

Advertisement
  1. Include physical activity in your daily routine. Physical activity increases blood flow to your whole body, including your brain. ...
  2. Stay mentally active. ...
  3. Socialize regularly. ...
  4. Get organized. ...
  5. Sleep well. ...
  6. Eat a healthy diet. ...
  7. Manage chronic conditions.

What is good for memory? ›

Get adequate omega-3 fatty acids.

Essential for good brain health, omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, in particular, may help improve memory. Seafood, algae and fatty fish — including salmon, bluefin tuna, sardines and herring — are some of the best sources of the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA.

Is coffee good for brain? ›

In addition, caffeine has many positive actions on the brain. It can increase alertness and well-being, help concentration, improve mood and limit depression. Caffeine may disturb sleep, but only in sensitive individuals.

Which protein is good for brain? ›

As far as protein goes, salmon ranks pretty high for brain health. Fatty fish, like salmon, is high in omega-3 fatty acids that are critical for brain development and function. Additionally, these fatty acids have been found to lower the risk for heart disease, depression and arthritis.

Is banana good for brain? ›

Eating a banana will give your brain the healthy, natural, low GI sugar that it needs during exam time. Plus bananas also make you happy, literally! Bananas contain high levels of tryptophan, an amino acid, which is converted into serotonin in your body.

Which coffee is best for brain? ›

This suggests that dark roasted coffee — whether regular or decaf — has the strongest protective effect on the brain.

Which juice is good for memory? ›

Berry Juices

They're high in antioxidants that protect your cells from damage. The little fruits are also a good source of plant chemicals like anthocyanins that support healthy memory.

How can I increase my brain power in 7 minutes? ›

There is no surety to increase brain power in 7 minutes. But 7 hours of sound sleep can enhance your mental ability and keep you active. Memory has a close association with sleep. Studies reveal that quality sleep is essential for memory consolidation, as memory-enhancing activities occur during your sleep.

How can I make my mind sharp and intelligent? ›

6 simple steps to keep your mind sharp at any age
  1. staying physically active.
  2. getting enough sleep.
  3. not smoking.
  4. having good social connections.
  5. limiting alcohol to no more than one drink a day.
  6. eating a Mediterranean style diet.

How can I be smart? ›

10 habits that can help you become smarter
  1. Read more. ...
  2. Surround yourself with like-minded people. ...
  3. Start exercising daily. ...
  4. Learn a new language. ...
  5. Look for learning opportunities. ...
  6. Lower your screen time. ...
  7. Practice meditation. ...
  8. Explore video games.
Jul 6, 2022

What causes memory loss? ›

Memory and other thinking problems have many possible causes, including depression, an infection, or medication side effects. Sometimes, the problem can be treated, and cognition improves. Other times, the problem is a brain disorder, such as Alzheimer's disease, which cannot be reversed.

Videos

1. 10 BEST BRAIN FOODS | Improve Alertness, Focus and Memory
(CXC Biology Tutor)
2. Power Foods for the Brain | Neal Barnard | TEDxBismarck
(TEDx Talks)
3. The Best Brain Foods That Helps Increase Your Memory!
(Ron White Memory Expert - Memory Training & Brain Training)
4. Diet and brain health: You are what you eat?
(CBS Sunday Morning)
5. Neuroscientist explains the best exercise to improve brain function
(Tech Insider)
6. 10 Foods That Make You Smart and Intelligent – Brain Foods
(WaysAndHow)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Kimberely Baumbach CPA

Last Updated: 12/05/2022

Views: 6390

Rating: 4 / 5 (41 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Kimberely Baumbach CPA

Birthday: 1996-01-14

Address: 8381 Boyce Course, Imeldachester, ND 74681

Phone: +3571286597580

Job: Product Banking Analyst

Hobby: Cosplaying, Inline skating, Amateur radio, Baton twirling, Mountaineering, Flying, Archery

Introduction: My name is Kimberely Baumbach CPA, I am a gorgeous, bright, charming, encouraging, zealous, lively, good person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.