14 Foods That Build Better Brain Health
Help protect your brain against cognitive decline, memory loss, cell damage, and more with these 14 foods.
Here’s a cool fact: Even though your brain is only about 2% of your overall body weight, it burns about 20% of the calories your body uses in a day. So, food is literally fuel for your brain.
Certain foods also provide many key nutrients that your brain needs to work its magic. These 14 tasty choices are some of the best brain boosters you can add to your diet. Research shows that they may help improve cognitive function. That’s an umbrella term for all the amazing things your brain does, such as learning, remembering, problem-solving, decision-making, and more.
Who knew that this summer treat had such power? Watermelon is packed with antioxidants, including lycopene and beta carotene, which may help prevent cognitive decline. These nutrients also give watermelon its red color. So, the redder the melon, the more nutritious it is!
Eggs have plenty of brain-boosting nutrients, including B vitamins and antioxidants. The yolks are also an excellent source of choline. This lesser-known nutrient is key for memory and cognition. It’s a building block of acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter that sends messages throughout the brain and nervous system. Studies have linked higher choline intake to better cognitive function in older adults.
Worried about the cholesterol in those yolks? The American Heart Association says an egg a day can be part of a healthy diet, and it doesn’t increase heart disease risk in most healthy people.
Is roast chicken one of your go-to dinners? You’ll be happy to know that chicken has brain health benefits. It’s rich in vitamins B6 and B12 as well as choline. All these nutrients play an important role in brain health and protecting your brain cells from damage.
Add fish to your brain health grocery list — fatty fish, that is. This includes:
They’re all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. There are actually three types of omega-3s: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA is an important building block of brain cells. Several studies have found that people who eat more omega-3s from fish have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other cognitive issues.
What if you don’t eat fish? You can also get one type of omega-3 fatty acid — ALA — from plant-based sources such as nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils. And walnuts are one of the top nut sources.
Research shows that eating 1 to 2 ounces of walnuts a day can improve cognitive function. Walnuts also contain antioxidants that can help fight brain-damaging inflammation. Grab a handful for a snack, sprinkle them over yogurt, or add them to a salad.
A growing body of evidence suggests that eating seaweed may have brain health benefits. It’s a plant-based source of the brain-boosting DHA omega-3 fatty acid. It’s also rich in magnesium, a key nutrient for protecting the brain from the negative effects of stress.
And seaweed is a good source of folate, which is important for brain development from conception to old age. You can buy edible seaweed at the supermarket.
Protein-rich quinoa is high in the amino acid lysine, which may help regulate stress and anxiety. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, needed by your brain and every other part of your body.
Your body can make some of them, but others you have to get from eating food, which makes them “essential.” Quinoa is one of the few plant-based “complete proteins,” meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids. That’s why it’s a great choice for vegetarians. It’s also a super delicious add-on to a salad or as a stand-alone side plate if you’re a meat eater too!
You may drink milk to keep your bones strong, but it might just keep your brain sharp too. One study found that people who ate dairy products every day scored higher on cognitive tests than those who rarely ate dairy. Another study found that older adults who drank three cups of milk a day had higher levels of glutathione in their brains. That’s a powerful antioxidant that helps protect your brain from damage as you age.
If you’re a spiritualist, you may not want to burn all of your sage at once. Sage has been used for its medicinal qualities for thousands of years, and recent research backs that up. Studies have shown that sage may improve memory recall and help delay cognitive decline. This benefit may be due to plant nutrients called terpenes that are found in sage and other herbs in the same family, including rosemary and peppermint.
Sesame seeds contain plant nutrients called lignans, which may help prevent age-related cognitive decline. Try adding sesame seeds and other small but high-impact foods (such as flaxseed) to your dishes. It’s a simple, tasty way to put a little brain boost in every bite.
Another small but mighty seasoning? Za’atar. This Middle Eastern spice blend combines sesame seeds with sumac and dried oregano, thyme, and marjoram. It’s been around since biblical times, and it has long been thought to have medicinal and brain-boosting powers. Recent research may back that up. Both thyme and oregano contain carvacrol. This compound has been shown to boost levels of dopamine and serotonin (mood-regulating hormones) in mice.
Beans and lentils are high in the B vitamin folate, which helps form DNA in the body. This nutrient is essential for fetal brain development during early pregnancy. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges all women who are pregnant or trying to conceive to take folic acid supplements. This can prevent birth defects of the baby’s brain and spine.
Studies suggest that folate and folic acid (a synthetic form of folate found in supplements) may be important for maintaining good brain function in older adults too. It’s needed to break down homocysteine, an amino acid. High blood levels of homocysteine have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Winter squashes such as butternut squash, acorn squash, and pumpkin are full of beta carotene, a type of carotenoid. Recent research shows that carotenoid supplements help improve memory and verbal skills. Butternut squash also serves up a healthy dose of:
- Niacin (a B vitamin needed to convert food into energy)
- Vitamin C
If you’re a lover of international fare such as Greek, German, Korean, or Chinese food, you’ll love these brain-healthy options. Fermented foods support healthy bacteria in your gut. Some examples:
What’s the gut-brain connection? Your gut and brain are actually closely linked. They “talk” to each other through your nervous system. And many brain chemicals, including serotonin, are made in your gut with the help of the bacteria in there.
Scientists are still learning about the many ways that our gut bacteria influence our overall health, including brain health. But we do know that fermented foods can change the makeup of the bacteria in your gut in positive ways.
Bottom line: Do you need to eat all these foods at every meal to maximize your brain health? Absolutely not. Think of this list as inspiring your next trip to the grocery store and delicious, home-cooked meals. Pick an ingredient (or three) that grabs your attention and start cooking your next brain-healthy treat. Bon appétit!