Who wouldn’t like to be quicker, wiser, or smarter? Brain foods are specific foods shown to improve cognitive function, memory and decision-making efficiency – qualities highly valued and beneficial in nearly every profession.
Research has illuminated the cognitive benefits of “brain foods” due to their concentrations of specific nutrients such as B12, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, vitamins E & K, and phytochemicals. These nutrients work synergistically in whole foods to protect nerve and brain function while preserving brain volume, reducing inflammation, improving neural plasticity, and stimulating neuron growth.
You’ve heard it before: you are what you eat. Stock up on the foods below to maximize your brain power and minimize mental fatigue and fog.
- Blueberries. You can think of these little blue spheres as “brain berries.” They are rich in polyphenols, especially anthocyanins, that reduce stress and inflammation in brain tissue and actually improve neuronal communication and memory. Enjoy these fresh or frozen, and pair them with one of the nuts or seeds below for even more benefit.
- Fatty Fish. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are two of the richest low-mercury seafood sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats play a dynamic role in lowering inflammation, vascular disease, and brain health. Low omega-3 intake is even associated with learning deficits and depression. Other seafood such as oysters, clams, and mussels are also helpful due to their magnesium and zinc content – both essential for brain health. Include at least 3 servings of fatty fish per week.
- Eggs. egg yolks contain very high amounts of memory-improving and DNA-protecting choline, as well as zinc, omega-3 fats, and more. Choose pastured eggs which are typically richer in omega-3 fats. Enjoy whole eggs boiled, scrambled, or fried, and paired with leafy greens, avocado, and legumes for a brain-healthy meal.
- Dark-leafy greens. These vegetables are some of the most potent health-promoting and disease-preventing vegetables available. They are rich in vitamin E, folate, zinc, fiber, beta-carotene, kaempferol, and lutein – nutrients and phytochemicals associated with improved cognitive function and brain health. Enjoy at least 1-½ servings of kale, spinach, collard greens, Swiss chard, and/or turnip greens regularly for improved memory and reduced cognitive decline.
- Lion’s Main Mushroom. These white shaggy mushrooms have been used in East Asian countries for both culinary and medicinal purposes and are now more readily available as whole food, tea, powder, and supplement extracts. These mushrooms contain two bioactive substances - hericenones and erinacines – that research shows boost cognitive performance and brain health by lowering inflammation, stimulating neuron growth, and reducing memory loss. Most studies that find benefits use a daily dose of 2.7mg per pound, up to a max of 3.0g.
- Dark Chocolate. This food is loved by many and for good reason! High cocoa content from the cacao bean is rich in flavonoids, a type of phytochemical, that helps to improve mood and reduce inflammation, memory loss, and stroke risk. It’s also rich in blood-building iron and nerve-calming magnesium. Enjoy 1 oz. very dark chocolate a few times a week, keeping the added sugars as low as possible.
- Hemp seeds. These little seeds are nutritional powerhouses for the brain – rich in magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, potassium, zinc, and more. A common seed portion of 30g (2 tablespoons), provides 55% of your daily magnesium goal. Add hemp seeds to your smoothies, salads, soups, stir-fries, and homemade baked goods.
- Walnuts & Almonds. Walnuts and almonds are some of the best nuts to include in your diet thanks to their omega-3 fats, zinc, magnesium, fiber, and neuron-protecting vitamin E content. Eat almonds and walnuts whole, chopped, or as nut butter, and added to smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal, toast, or serve with vegetables or fruit.
- Legumes. Beans, peas, and lentils are amazing sources of fiber, plant protein, and slow-digesting carbohydrates to fuel brain function and physical activity. Legumes also contain phytochemicals such as isoflavones that are associated with improved memory and mood. Enjoy your legumes soaked, sprouted, stewed, or roasted and added to soups, salads, dips like hummus, or as a side.
- Coffee & Green Tea. You can thank caffeine in your coffee and L-theanine in your green tea for your improved focus and cognition. Research shows consistent caffeine intake, max of about 300mg or 2-4 cups/day, from foods and beverages, not supplements, is ideal. L-theanine in green tea is a unique amino acid that crosses the blood-brain barrier and elicits a calming focus. Like caffeine, L-theanine also helps to sustain and preserve cognitive function and reduce age-related decline as well as the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and stroke. Caffeine’s peak effect is typically felt 30-60 minutes after ingestion, but you’ll feel effects for hours, so avoid drinking it 6 hours before bedtime.
BONUS: Water. Your brain and body are roughly 60% water. Even the mildest dehydration can contribute to brain fog, and mental fatigue, not to mention headaches. Fluid needs may be increased in those who exercise, sweat heavily, eat a high salt diet, are pregnant, or during hot temperatures. Hydration can be in the form of water, sparkling water, unsweetened tea, and even water-rich foods like fruits and vegetables. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends men obtain 125 ounces of fluid a day, and women, 91 ounces. Or, an easy rule of thumb is half of your pound body weight in ounces. If you’re rarely thirsty and your urine is pale yellow, you’re likely well-hydrated.
The foods listed above are commonly consumed in a Mediterranean diet which exhibits anti-inflammatory properties. This dietary pattern, in addition to other documented healthy lifestyle practices such as daily exercise, sleep quality and quantity, stress management, and smoking avoidance, are often linked to protection from cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Enjoy these and other nutrient-rich foods daily to protect your health and vitality.