Eating well to stay smart – Top Brain Foods
Everyone would like to think more clearly, forget less, and focus for longer — but what are the top brain foods if you want to keep your brain performing optimally throughout your lifetime?
While a balanced diet containing plenty of vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains, and low in unhealthy saturated fats is the foundation of good brain health, there are certain foods that have been particularly proven to benefit your brain.
Below, we give the low down on the top five brain foods based on the latest scientific evidence.
Oily fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for a healthy brain. In total, 60% of your brain is made of fat, with around half of that being omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 helps to improve communication between brain cells and boost learning and memory. In older adults, it can help to improve brain function and counter the effects of aging, such as cognitive decline (Martí Del Moral & Fortique, 2019).
Many fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, and herring.
For vegetarians and vegans, omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from a variety of sources, such as flaxseed, walnuts, edamame (soybeans), seaweed, and algal oil (the original source of the omega-3 found in fish).
Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts are an excellent source of healthy fats for the brain, in addition to containing antioxidants, including vitamin E.
In particular, nuts have been scientifically proven to help to improve memory and prevent dementia in older adults (Arslan et al., 2020).
Another key way in which nuts help with brain function is by improving heart health to ensure a rich supply of oxygenated blood to the brain. Consuming at least five 28 g portions of nuts a week reduces the risk of both cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease by around 15%–20% (Guasch-Ferré et al., 2017).
Walnuts in particular have been shown to benefit brain health in multiple ways, including reducing inflammation, countering depression, and fighting neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease (Chauhan & Chauhan, 2020).
Leafy green vegetables from the brassica family such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, bok choy, and brussel sprouts can also boost brain health.
These greens are rich in antioxidants and glucosinolates, which help to reduce inflammation in the brain and protect brain cells (Dinkova-Kostova & Kostov, 2012). These plant-derived chemicals are especially important in fighting neurodegenerative diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.
In addition, these vegetables contain high levels of vitamin K. This vitamin is involved in forming sphingolipids, special fats that are essential for brain cell function. Increased levels of vitamin K in the body have been linked to enhanced cognitive performance (Alisi et al., 2019).
Coffee and Tea
When it comes to sharpening your mind, it’s hard to beat a good cup of coffee or tea. Both coffee and (to a lesser extent) black and green teas contain caffeine, which helps to increase alertness, improve mood, and enhance concentration.
By blocking adenosine receptors on brain cells, caffeine prevents drowsiness and allows you to stay alert for longer (Fredholm, 1995). It also boosts levels of dopamine, a signaling chemical in the brain that promotes motivation and focus.
Amazingly, over the longer term, moderate coffee consumption (1–2 cups daily) has been shown to protect the brain from cognitive decline, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. This beneficial effect has been linked to the high level of antioxidants found in coffee (Nehlig, 2016).
Black and green teas are also a rich source of antioxidants, and additionally contain L-theanine. This compound balances the stimulating effects of caffeine by increasing levels of the calming brain chemical GABA, helping you to maintain a steady focus (Mancini et al., 2017).
Last but not least, berries such as blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries are packed with a range of powerful antioxidants known as flavonoids.
These compounds reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. They also enhance communication between brain cells and improve learning and memory (Rendeiro et al., 2012).
This is especially important for slowing cognitive decline and countering neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease (Kelly, Vyas, & Weber, 2018).
These brain foods contain a range of beneficial compounds that support your brain, including antioxidants, key vitamins, healthy unsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids.
By consuming more of each of these five types of food in your weekly diet, you can start to take care of your brain health now and help your brain to perform optimally well into later life.
Alisi, L., Cao, R., De Angelis, C., Cafolla, A., Caramia, F., Cartocci, G., … & Fiorelli, M. (2019). The relationships between vitamin K and cognition: a review of current evidence. Frontiers in Neurology, 10, 239. https://doi.org/10.3389/fneur.2019.00239
Arslan, J., Gilani, A. U. H., Jamshed, H., Khan, S. F., & Kamal, M. A. (2020). Edible Nuts for Memory. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 26(37), 4712-4720. https://doi.org/10.2174/1381612826666200806095649
Chauhan, A., & Chauhan, V. (2020). Beneficial effects of walnuts on cognition and brain health. Nutrients, 12(2), 550. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12020550
Dinkova-Kostova, A. T., & Kostov, R. V. (2012). Glucosinolates and isothiocyanates in health and disease. Trends in Molecular Medicine, 18(6), 337-347. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.molmed.2012.04.003
Fredholm, B. B. (1995). Adenosine, adenosine receptors and the actions of caffeine. Pharmacology & Toxicology, 76(2), 93-101. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0773.1995.tb00111.x
Guasch-Ferré, M., Liu, X., Malik, V. S., Sun, Q., Willett, W. C., Manson, J. E., … & Bhupathiraju, S. N. (2017). Nut consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 70(20), 2519-2532. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2017.09.035
Kelly, E., Vyas, P., & Weber, J. T. (2018). Biochemical properties and neuroprotective effects of compounds in various species of berries. Molecules, 23(1), 26. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules23010026
Mancini, E., Beglinger, C., Drewe, J., Zanchi, D., Lang, U. E., & Borgwardt, S. (2017). Green tea effects on cognition, mood and human brain function: A systematic review. Phytomedicine, 34, 26-37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phymed.2017.07.008
Martí Del Moral, A., & Fortique, F. (2019). Omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive decline: a systematic review. Nutricion Hospitalaria, 36(4), 939–949. https://doi.org/10.20960/nh.02496
Nehlig, A. (2016). Effects of coffee/caffeine on brain health and disease: What should I tell my patients?. Practical Neurology, 16(2), 89-95. https://doi.org/10.1136/practneurol-2015-001162
Rendeiro, C., Guerreiro, J. D., Williams, C. M., & Spencer, J. P. (2012). Flavonoids as modulators of memory and learning: molecular interactions resulting in behavioural effects. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 71(2), 246-262. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0029665112000146