You probably know that fueling your body with the right foods can increase energy and stamina, but did you realize making smart food choices can also boost brain power?
Your brain is a calorie burning organ that consumes approximately 350 calories a day. Just like the rest of your body, it requires fuel to function properly. Scientific studies have shown that by eating certain foods you can improve brain function and memory. Fortunately, the same foods can also boost your heart health.
Scientific trials are ongoing, but there is some evidence that eating a heart healthy diet might even reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s and slow cognitive decline. We do know that blood vessel damage due to plaque build-up can lead to memory loss. Chronic inflammation has also been linked to dementia, Alzheimer’s and other mental conditions. Highly processed foods and foods high in saturated fats can lead to inflammation. Therefore, many medical experts recommend reducing saturated and trans-fat intake. Foods high in saturated fats include butter, cheese and red meat. Fried foods, foods high in sugar and alcohol can also increase inflammation in the body and negatively impact brain health.
Diets That Promote Brain Health
Following a healthy eating plan has been shown to slow degeneration of the brain. Diets linked to better brain health include the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet. Both have been shown to reduce cognitive decline.
Based on traditional foods from countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, this healthy eating plan focuses on fresh, minimally processed foods such as:
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
Foods to avoid or limit on the Mediterranean diet include:
- Cheese and yogurt—low to moderate amounts
- Fish and poultry—a few times per week
- Red meat—small amounts, rarely
- Sugary treats—rarely
- Processed foods
Green Mediterranean (Green-Med) Diet
This newer version of the traditional Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based protein sources. A study published in 2020 in the journal Heart found that the diet boosts the cardio-metabolic effects of the Mediterranean diet. The diet recommends eating virtually no red meat. It also discourages processed foods and foods with added sugar, instead promoting high fiber foods and healthy fats.
A study published in May 2022 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the Green-Med diet potentially protects against age-related brain atrophy. Brain atrophy is the loss of brain cells (neurons) that occurs with aging. It can lead to memory loss and cognitive impairment.
Foods encouraged on the Green Mediterranean diet include:
- Green tea, 3 to 4 cups daily
- Walnuts, 1 ounce daily
- Plant-based, high-protein shake daily made with duckweed (a tiny high protein aquatic plant)
- Fruits and vegetables, unlimited amounts
- Whole grains
- Protein from eggs, poultry, seafood, beans, nuts, seeds and duckweed
- Dairy, in moderation
A combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, this eating plan is designed to target brain health. MIND is an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. While not a structured diet, the plan limits foods high in saturated fats and encourages participants to consume the following 10 brain healthy foods:
- Leafy green vegetables, six or more servings per week
- Other vegetables, preferably non-starchy vegetables, one serving daily
- Berries, at least twice weekly
- Nuts, five or more servings of a variety of nuts weekly
- Whole grains, three daily servings
- Fish, one serving weekly
- Beans, four times per week
- Poultry, twice a week (not fried)
- Wine, maximum of one glass daily, red or white
- Olive oil, in place of saturated and trans-fat
Foods That Improve Memory and Concentration
Scientists are still learning about brain health and the impact certain foods have on memory and cognition, but some foods have been shown to boost brain health. If following a specific diet feels too rigid, you can still benefit from upping your intake of certain foods associated with improved cognition and memory, including:
- Fish. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish can work to decrease brain degeneration and increase the brain’s gray matter. Several studies have even indicated that taking fish oil supplements can improve brain function.
- Berries. These super foods are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties. Flavonoids (plant chemicals) found in berries have also been shown to improve memory. Blueberries, strawberries and black berries are all excellent brain-boosting choices.
- Dark chocolate. Hard to believe, but chocolate is a health food. Dark chocolate, that is. Because dark chocolate has a much higher cocoa content, it offers health benefits you don’t get with the milder milk chocolate. Cocoa is bursting with flavonoids and antioxidants and has been linked to better cognition, attention span and memory. Look for dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cacao.
- Leafy green vegetables. Spinach, kale and collard greens may protect the brain and even improve brain function. These foods are packed with essential nutrients including Vitamins E and K, lutein, beta carotene and folate, which all play a role in promoting brain health.
- Coffee and tea. Although it hasn’t been completely proven, there is some evidence that caffeine may reduce the risk of developing dementia. Newer studies, including one published Nov. 15, 2021, in PLOS Medicine, found that drinking coffee and tea separately or in combination lowered the risk of stroke and dementia. Researchers followed over 365,000 adults in the UK for 11 years. The observational study revealed that drinking two to three cups of coffee with two to three cups of tea daily was associated with a 28% lower risk of dementia. One possible explanation is the polyphenols (plant chemicals) found in the drinks may reduce chronic inflammation, which is linked to dementia.
- Whole grains. Incorporating whole grains into your diet is an excellent way to provide energy boosting fuel for your brain. These high-quality carbohydrates are digested slowly and provide long-lasting energy for the brain and body. Whole grains are packed with B vitamins which aid in brain function. They also contain essential amino acid, magnesium and zinc.
- Walnuts. Loaded with antioxidants—almost double that found in other types of nuts—walnuts also contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Both antioxidants and ALA can fight inflammation and oxidative stress, making walnuts a great brain food. Experts suggest aiming for five, one-ounce servings a week.
- Avocados. Heart healthy avocados contain lutein, a carotenoid that may improve brain activity. This plant pigment gives fruits and vegetables their color and may improve memory and learning. Avocados are also packed with vitamin E, vitamin C, folate and omega-3 fatty acids.
Foods to Avoid for Better Brain Power
What you don’t eat may be almost as important to brain health as what you do eat. Foods that can sap brain power include:
- Sugary foods. While the brain needs glucose for energy, too much sugar can make you feel tired and sluggish. Excess glucose has been linked to memory and cognitive issues. Natural sugars found in foods like fruits can fuel the brain while added sugars have the opposite effect. Sugary drinks and foods can negatively impact brain health and may even contribute to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
- Alcohol. A single glass of wine may be fine, but too much alcohol can interfere with the brain’s communication pathways. Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to brain damage.
Changing your diet isn’t easy, but small steps can lead to better brain health. Slowly incorporating healthy foods or replacing processed foods with natural ones can make a big impact in the long run.
The content of this site is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical conditions or treatments.