Eating the right foods for your brain is a smart way to help improve your memory, focus, and mood, and prevent mental decline. Find out the 9 best brain foods.
Your brain is a hungry little organ.
Weighing in at only 3 pounds, it uses 20% of your daily calorie intake.
It needs a lot of nutrition to keep it humming along smoothly, but not the kind you can get from a bottle.
Getting your nutrition from “brain food” provides it with carbohydrates for energy, proteins to create brain chemicals, and fats to build healthy brain cells.
Brain power foods also provide the micronutrients needed — vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients — to create new brain cells and protect and repair existing ones.
Most people eat for taste, convenience, or their waistline.
But we think eating for your brain is a lot smarter!
After all, there are few things you can do to improve the overall quality of your life that are better than feeding your brain right.
It can keep you happy, mentally clear, motivated, and ready to handle the stress that life throws your way.
You’ll be happy to learn that the most powerful foods for the brain are actually everyday foods, not some hard to find superfoods.
And they’re all delicious!
Your Brain on Berries
Fruits of all kinds are a good source of fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytonutrients — compounds in plants known to promote health.
While it would be hard to find a fruit that isn’t good for your brain, berries of all kinds, especially blueberries, are widely considered to be the #1 brain food.
It’s the anthocyanins in berries that make them so colorful … and so beneficial for your brain.
These berry compounds have been linked to improved memory, learning, reasoning skills, decision making, verbal comprehension, and numerical ability. (1)
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Berries help maintain communication between brain cells. (2)
Blueberries activate the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that is so good at stimulating new brain cell production it’s been likened to “Miracle Gro for your brain.” (3)
By clearing toxic accumulation of proteins in the brain, blueberries protect against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. (4)
Fresh berries aren’t always available, but no worries.
Weirdly, frozen berries actually contain more available nutrients than fresh. (5)
Another standout food for the brain is the avocado.
This creamy fruit has been called “the most perfect food in the world.” (6)
It’s loaded with fiber and vitamins, but where it really shines as a brain food is as a source of healthy fats.
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Avocados also boost production of the neurotransmitter dopamine which keeps you focused.
If you don’t normally eat berries or avocados, red grapes, mangoes, citrus fruit, pomegranates, and cantaloupe are the top runners-up as brain boosting foods.
Eat Your Vegetables
Mom was right. You should eat your vegetables.
All vegetables come to the table with their unique set of nutrients.
But if I had to choose the best brain food category, it would be green leafy vegetables like kale, collards, spinach, chard, turnip greens, bok choy, and broccoli rabe.
Green leafy vegetables are one of the best sources of B vitamins.
Three B vitamins in particular, folic acid, B6 and B12, are essential brain vitamins.
An Oxford University study found that these three vitamins work synergistically to reduce brain atrophy, improve brain function, and dramatically reduce brain shrinkage in the part of the brain most affected by Alzheimer’s. (8)
Green veggies are also a good source of the amino acid l-tyrosine which can improve your mood and increase your ability to learn, solve problems, and remember.
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Tyrosine is needed to form the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine which are associated with alertness, drive, and motivation. (9)
Green leafies are an excellent source of the oft forgotten vitamin K, which holds some promise for treating Alzheimer’s. (10)
There are other excellent brain vegetables if greens aren’t your cup of tea.
Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli contain antioxidants, brain-protecting carotenoids, and sulforaphane, a sulphur-based phytonutrient that can heal brain inflammation. (11)
Peppers of all kinds, both hot and bell peppers, are high in vitamin C, antioxidants, and phytonutrients such as beta carotene and capsaicin which improves circulation to the brain.
Root vegetables such as potatoes, yams, carrots, and beets are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates that are good at supplying your brain with a steady stream of energy.
Your brain can’t store glucose.
White sugar and refined carbohydrates send your blood sugar levels on an up and down roller coaster ride.
But root vegetables help give your brain the steady supply of glucose it needs.
Spice It Up
Herbs and spices not only make food more delicious, they also provide their own unique health benefits.
While most have some brain boosting properties, we’ve narrowed the list down to the one best herb and the one best spice for your brain — rosemary and turmeric.
Ever since William Shakespeare wrote “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance” this fragrant herb has been associated with memory improvement.
Like many herbs, it has significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to fight free radical damage in the brain. (12)
Rosemary also stimulates nerve growth factor synthesis, thereby reversing nerve cell damage. (13)
Rosemary oil enhances both memory and concentration. (14)
Carnosic acid, a phytochemical found in this herb, is particularly good for protecting the brain from a stroke and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. (15)
Other good brain boosting herbs to have on hand in your kitchen include basil, chives, oregano, parsley, sage, and thyme.
Back in 1602, the Dutch East India Company became the first multinational corporation in the world.
Its business? Trading spices.
Spices were treasured for the unique flavors they brought to food.
Imagine how dull food without them must have been!
But even more important were their medicinal properties that made them an essential healing tool in pre-pharmacology days.
Most spices, like black pepper, cinnamon, curry, garlic, ginger, red peppers, saffron, turmeric, and vanilla, provide some brain benefits.
But one spice that stands above the rest is turmeric.
Turmeric is the spice that imparts the rich gold hue in curry mix.
It’s the compound curcumin in turmeric that makes this spice golden for your brain as well.
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Curcumin is a potent antioxidant that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier. (16)
It can improve memory and maybe even make you smarter. (17)
Curcumin increases levels of BDNF, which stimulates brain cell production. (18)
It reduces brain inflammation and can break up the brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. (19)
What’s the difference between herbs and spices?
Herbs come from the green leafy parts of plants and are usually from temperate climates.
Spices come from other parts of plants such as roots, bark or seeds and are usually from the tropics.
Nuts, Seeds, and a Sweet Surprise
Nuts and seeds, like walnuts, chocolate, almonds, cashews, sesame seeds, and chia seeds, are compact nutritional powerhouses.
They are rich in brain-essential omega-3 fatty acids, B complex vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
Weirdly, a walnut happens to look a lot like a little brain.
You may be surprised to see chocolate here.
What we call a “cocoa bean” is actually a seed.
And some of us think it should be its own food group. 😉
Chocolate is always high on any brain food list.
It’s also one of the world’s most delicious and beloved foods.
A win-win situation!
Chocolate contains a number of compounds that increase pleasure-giving substances called endorphins.
It elicits similar feelings to being in love.
Dr David Lewis, the “father of neuromarketing,” goes so far as to state, “Chocolate beats kissing hands down when it comes to providing a long-lasting body and brain buzz.” (24)
Chocolate’s health benefits are largely attributed to compounds called flavonoids.
But it also contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine, which almost certainly contribute to the improved memory, focus, and attention that chocolate lovers experience. (25)
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One tongue-in-cheek study reports that the more chocolate a population consumes, the more Nobel prize winners it has! (31)
In general, darker chocolate contains the most flavonoids. (32)
The jury’s still out on whether the dairy in milk chocolate interferes with flavonoid absorption. (33)
When buying chocolate, aim for the highest percentage of dark chocolate that you like — preferably 70% or higher.
Get Wild with Salmon
Proteins are made from building blocks called amino acids.
Amino acids are a major component in the hundreds of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.
These compounds enable brain cells to communicate with each other.
Examples of neurotransmitters you may be familiar with include dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.
Inadequate protein intake leads to reduced neurotransmitter formation.
This can lead to brain fog, poor concentration, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and memory loss.
You undoubtedly have heard that fish, especially salmon, is a top notch brain food.
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But there’s a catch.
This is true only if it’s wild-caught!
Wild salmon get their omega-3 from their natural food sources — wild plankton and small crustaceans.
Farmed salmon are fed low-quality fish feed and so are low in omega-3, the main health reason you are eating it.
Over 60% of the fish eaten in the US is farm-raised. (34)
Farm-raised seafood is frequently mislabeled in stores and at restaurants, so you really need to know your source. (35)
Stick with eating Alaskan wild salmon, either fresh or canned.
It’s the only salmon that reliably contains high levels of omega-3. (36)
Other recommended protein sources are grass-fed beef, grass-fed bison, pasture-raised pork, and free-range poultry and eggs — all good sources of brain-essential omega-3 fats. (37)
Go Nuts for Coconut
Coconut oil is a brain-healthy oil that’s finally overcoming its bad reputation as an unhealthy source of saturated fat.
Coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which enable it to supply energy directly to the brain with no insulin spike.
It’s this property that makes it a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders.
Some people have had great success with stabilizing and even reversing Alzheimer’s symptoms by taking it in therapeutic doses.
Dr. Mary Newport wrote of her husband’s positive experience with coconut oil for his severe early-onset Alzheimer’s in her book Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure?
Dr. Newport and other experts in the field believe that MCTs could be used to treat numerous diseases besides Alzheimer’s including dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke, and traumatic brain injury.
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So, soon the proof may exist for this protocol to become more widely accepted.
There is already a prescription-only “medical food” called Axona that utilizes MCTs like those found in coconut oil. (39)
In our house, we use coconut oil for baking, frying, sauteing, in smoothies — basically anywhere we used to use vegetable oils like canola.
(Since it’s solid at room temperature, don’t use it on salads.
Here we recommend extra virgin olive oil.)
There is no need to stick with using only the oil of coconut.
Coconut-based products have become insanely popular and there are plenty to choose from — coconut water, milk, cream, and even non-dairy ice cream.
A word of caution.
Most brands of coconut oil (but not this one) taste and smell distinctly like coconut.
And don’t worry that coconut oil contains saturated fat.
Eating coconut oil on a regular basis actually reduces your chance of having a heart attack. (40)
Brain Food: The Bottom Line
Incorporating foods for brain health into your diet isn’t hard.
Just keep these 5 simple principles in mind:
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. In general, the more colorful the better.
- Use a wide variety of herbs and spices to make your meals delicious and brain healthy.
- Buy wild salmon and grass-fed meat when available.
- Use coconut oil wherever you normally use vegetable oil.
- Eat nuts and seeds as brain food snacks. But most of all, eat chocolate!
The next time you go grocery shopping, be sure to add these 9 “best of the best” brain healthy foods to your list:
Brain Food Shopping List
- blueberries (fresh or frozen)
- green leafy vegetables
- salmon (wild-caught)
- coconut oil
One more tip: Get much more nutritional value from your food by buying locally grown. Become a locavore.