Some think that brain-healthy diets are just a fad, with no scientific backing behind them, however this couldn’t be further from the truth. The brain is the most important organ in the body. Not only do cognitive abilities, such as memory, rely on its health, but every single function of the body is regulated, in some way, by the brain.
The Western diet tends to be high in saturated fats and processed carbohydrates, which can lead to inflammation and oxidative stress. Scientists believe these conditions can contribute to decreased memory and other cognitive abilities, but this is difficult to prove through research. One thing research has shown, however, is that this type of diet is associated with a decreased hippocampal size.
The hippocampus is responsible for, among other things, memory and learning. One reason the brain is so fragile is that most areas of it can’t generate new cells, or neurons, after birth. However, the hippocampus is one of the few areas of the brain that is capable of neurogenesis into adulthood. This is good news because it means that improving the diet can not only stop the loss of hippocampal neurons, it can also reverse it.
There are other parts of the brain involved in cognitive processes, including memory. Although they’re not as susceptible to diet-based changes in size, their function is affected by the quality of nutrition available to them. There are also gut hormones, whose numbers depend on the quality of the diet, that can get to the brain and influence cognition. The ability of neurons to communicate with each other, which is vital to all brain functions, is also dependent on food intake.
Because the brain experiences higher metabolism than the rest of the body, as evidenced by its consumption of a disproportionate amount of nutritional resources, it is also more likely to develop oxidative stress. This can lead to the degeneration of neurons seen in disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the loss of both memory and cognitive abilities. A diet that’s high in antioxidants can reduce the effect of oxidative stress on this degeneration and preserve brain function.
There are several nutrients known to affect cognitive ability. They provide the brain’s neurons with nutrition, stimulation, and relief from oxidative stress. Listed below are the natural ingredients with the most scientific evidence of memory enhancement and cognitive boosting ability, and the brain foods that contain the greatest numbers of them.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – There are three Omega-3 fatty acids essential to learning and memory. One, ALA, comes from plant oils and two, EPA and DHA, come from marine oils. Consuming a moderate amount of Omega-3 fatty acids can delay the cognitive decline of aging that can result from the effect of oxidative stress on the brain.
- Vitamin E – This fat-soluble antioxidant naturally occurs in the oils of both plants and animals. It is particularly useful in protecting cell membranes from oxidative damage. It accomplishes this by reversing the effect of oxidative stress on the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is vital to the processes of memory and learning.
- Curcumin – This yellow chemical is an antioxidant that comes from plants of the ginger family. It is a food additive that adds both color and flavor and is one of the ingredients in curry powder. It has neuroprotective qualities and can reverse the cognitive deficits caused by oxidative damage due to free radicals.
- Flavonols – These bioactive compounds are a subgroup of flavonoids, which are plant pigments. They have no nutritional value but have demonstrated antioxidant qualities. These compounds enhance memory and cognition, which animal studies have demonstrated. Chemical analysis also shows that they encourage the activity of genes associated with learning and discourage hippocampal degeneration.
- Anthocyanins – Another subgroup of the plant pigments called flavonoids, thesecan appear blue, purple, or red depending on their pH. They function as antioxidants for both the plants in which they’re found and the animals that eat them. Research shows that they can improve memory and learning and also reduce the number of proteins in the brain that are found in Alzheimer’s plaques.
- Pterostilbene – This plant phenol is a natural antioxidant and antimicrobial. Its purpose, for the plants in which it’s found, is to protect against environmental damage and attack from microorganisms. It can decrease the cognitive deficits of oxidative damage and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Copper – This essential dietary mineral is an essential element in the process of cellular respiration. It also helps the body to absorb iron from the diet. Research shows there is a correlation between low levels of copper in the blood and the cognitive decline that occurs in the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Selenium – Although it can be toxic in high doses, this mineral is an essential micronutrient. Some plants use it for self-protection by producing it at levels that are toxic to the animals that might eat them. In humans, it facilitates the reduction of glutathione, which is key to the control of oxidative stress. Research shows it can protect the brain from the damage of oxidative stress.
- Calcium – This mineral is essential to the normal function of neurons. It is involved in the neurotransmitter release that occurs when neurons send signals through the brain. Studies show that even slight changes to the calcium level in the brain can have significant consequences to cognitive function.
- Iron – The brain can’t survive without oxygen, and this mineral is essential to both its transportation in the blood and its use in the cells. Iron deficiency, or anemia, is a common worldwide problem. Reduced iron levels in the brain can diminish cognitive function, but dietary supplements can reverse this problem.
- Vitamin C – This antioxidant nutrient is vital to brain functioning, which is why neurons can bring it in from their environment. Although there are vitamin C transporters throughout the body, the majority of one type, sodium-dependent vitamin C transporter 2 (SVCT2), occur in the brain. Because it is a water-soluble vitamin, the body can eliminate any unneeded dietary excess before it can accumulate at toxic levels. So large amounts, which can delay the cognitive decline of aging, may be taken without adverse effects.
- Lutein – This yellow-red plant pigment is a carotenoid that helps plants absorb light energy, which is why most of the consumed pigment ends up in the eyes. However, it also protects plants from damage due to ultraviolet radiation, so it functions as a powerful antioxidant. When it reaches the brain, it can slow cognitive decline.
- B vitamins – Another of the water-soluble vitamins, these coenzymes play a vital role in cell metabolism. Although they are a class of distinct chemicals, they’re usually grouped together because they tend to be found in the same foods. Each has a common name which is sometimes more recognized than its number. For example, B9 referred to more often as folate than its B vitamin number. These vitamins can improve memory and slow the brain atrophy involved in the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Choline – This essential nutrient is similar to the water-soluble vitamins and is used in the body to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The body is only able to produce a small amount of this molecule, so dietary supplementation is necessary. Research demonstrates that it can increase cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Caffeine – Although classified as a stimulant, this chemical can function as either a nutrient or a drug, depending on how you use it. It is used as a dietary supplement to increase mental alertness. Its main effect in the brain is as a mild psychostimulant. It can enhance cognitive functions, such as the speed and accuracy of memory.
Dark Berries (Nutrients 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)
These are the superstars of brain foods. They contain more of the healthy nutrients than any other category. Their rich colors come from having elevated levels of antioxidant-rich plant pigments. It’s usually best to eat the skins too, as they have more of these pigments than the lighter-colored flesh beneath them.
These are, by far, the most antioxidant-rich dark berry, due to their elevated level of plant pigments, which their dark color indicates. They are the ultimate brain food and, although scientists’ opinions differ as to which foods to include, most agree that this berry belongs on that list. Fresh, frozen, and freeze-dried berries, as long as they don’t contain added sugar, fulfill this daily recommendation.
Although most fruit recommendations are for whole fruits, this dark berry is the only exception. The fresh fruit does contain more fiber but their construction, thousands of seeds surrounded by fluid-filled sacs, makes them extremely difficult to consume. The thinking is that most people won’t put out the effort required to eat the berries, so the decreased benefits of drinking the juice are better than no benefit at all.
Blackberries, Cranberries, and Strawberries
Although these berries have fewer pigments, they are still a major source of antioxidants. Berries contain carbohydrates, but they are still low on the glycemic index because those sugars maintain steady bloodstream levels, rather than causing a rapid spike followed by a sharp drop off. They also have a low glycemic load, which means that their effect on blood glucose levels is minimal.
Green Leafy Vegetables (Nutrients 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)
Spinach and Kale are the two most beneficial leafy additions to a brain smart diet. While spinach conjures images of bulging muscles, it is actually better at boosting brain than brawn. Kale could easily be the most nutrient-dense vegetable you can find. It is also worth noting that some of the nutrients found in leafy green vegetables are absorbed better when eaten with a healthy fat, such as a salad dressing made from olive oil.
Avocados (Nutrients 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)
Technically, this fruit is classified as a berry but, due to its unique mixture of nutrients, it deserves to be listed separately. Also, other fruits are mostly carbohydrates, but avocados are 75% monounsaturated fats. They were considered too fatty to be included in a healthy diet before dieticians discovered the benefits of these fats, which are also found in the olive oils that are included in most healthy diets. Although the brain usually burns carbohydrates, it will happily use healthy fat for fuel too.
Wild Fish (Nutrients 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14)
In addition to being a great source of brain nutrients, fish also contains proteins, which are necessary for neurotransmitter synthesis. Unfortunately, most people don’t include enough fish in their diets. It is important to note that not all fish contain the nutrients needed for cognitive health. The best choices are oily fish found in cold water, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines.
Nuts and Seeds (Nutrients 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14)
In addition to nutrients essential to brain health, these are also rich in protein and fiber. The combination of these and complex carbohydrates provide a nutritious snack that won’t cause you to crash later. If you’re on a restricted salt diet, you can still enjoy the benefits of these foods by choosing only those that are unsalted. You can eat them either raw or roasted. These are the healthiest choices:
- Sunflower Seeds
- Flax Seeds
- Ginkgo Nuts
Dark Chocolate (Nutrients 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15)
It seems strange to include such a well-loved treat in a list of brain healthy foods. However, the cacao tree, from which cocoa beans come, is full of healthy nutrients. It is important to note that only dark chocolate, not milk chocolate, is on this list. That is because dark can be as much as 70% cacao, but milk includes many other ingredients that reduce its nutrient content. In addition to its cognitive benefits, dark chocolate also contains chemicals that can enhance mood.
Beans (Nutrients 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14)
In addition to being a good source of brain healthy nutrients, they’re loaded with protein and carbohydrates and can stabilize glucose levels body wide. Unlike simple carbs, the complex carbs in beans release a slow, steady supply of glucose throughout the day. This is essential because the brain can’t store glucose for later use. Keep in mind, however, that beans can be hard on the digestive system so it’s best not to eat more than a half cup a day.
Citrus Fruits (Nutrients 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14)
These fruits, which include any foods that have a leathery rind and juicy segments encased in white, spongy tissue. They’re a useful source of brain-healthy nutrients and also soluble fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol. They tend to have a high-water content but are low in calories. It’s better to eat whole fruit rather than relying on juices because they tend to have more sugar and less fiber.
Turmeric (Nutrients 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)
This spice has been part of Indian cuisine for thousands of years. It is a unique antioxidant because, while most work by activating the body’s own reducing agents, it also reduces free radicals directly. Because it has been around so long, this is easily the most studied brain food on this list. There are more than 10,000 peer-reviewed research articles exploring its body wide health benefits, many of which are specific to the brain.
Whole Grains (Nutrients 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13)
These are fiber-rich complex carbohydrates that digest slowly to provide the brain with a steady stream of glucose for energy. Although it’s not technically a whole grain, wheat germ is in this category because it provides the same nutrients. Unless you have a diagnosed gluten intolerance issue, you should try to include whole grains in your diet in the amount of ½ cup cereal, 2 tablespoons wheat germ, or 2-3 slices of bread per day.
Eggs (Nutrients 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14)
Many people discount eggs as part of a healthy diet because they contain cholesterol. However, the brain is 60% fat. Individual neurons communicate with each other through neurotransmitters released by one and taken up by another in response to an electrical signal. Because they’re packed so closely together, neurons require insulation to control the speed and direction of that signal. This insulation, called myelin, consists of proteins and fats, including cholesterol.
Freshly Brewed Tea (Nutrients 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 15)
The most important thing to remember about this item on the list is that it needs to be freshly brewed to contain the desired nutrients. Powdered or bottled teas won’t give you the same benefits. The benefit of tea, as opposed to other sources of caffeine, is that it also contains theanine, which exerts a calming effect on the brain. Take care, however, not to drink too much of any caffeinated beverage. Any more than a few cups a day can cause unpleasant side effects such as jitters, nausea, and heart palpitations.
The brain is the most valuable organ in the body, and it requires the right kind of nutrition to keep it running smoothly. Low-fat diets cause more harm than good, as far as the brain is concerned. In addition to nutrients that enhance cognitive function, it requires healthy fats to maintain neural vitality. The key to a healthy life is making sound food choices that give your brain its best shot at continuing to function properly with advancing age.