One of the scariest prospects of aging is brain decline. But research shows that in many cases, healthy lifestyle choices, such as a healthy diet, can help you keep your mind sharp well into your senior years. Brain foods like eggs, oily fish, and even dark chocolate can supply your noggin with the nutrients it needs for optimal health. And the boost isn’t limited to cognitive function. It may also extend to your mood and sensory and motor abilities.
So, are you eating for a healthy brain? Check out our list of 10 brain-healthy foods to include in your diet.
The Top 10 Foods for a Healthy Brain
It may be no surprise that an overall healthy diet—with fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats, and nuts and seeds—is also beneficial for your brain.
However, the following foods are richer in omega-3s, B vitamins, antioxidants, and more that can specifically target the amazing organ.
First up on our list is eggs. The perennial breakfast favorite is a good source of multiple nutrients linked to brain health, including:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin B6
- Folate (vitamin B9)
Research published in PLoS One journal suggests B12, B6, and folate can slow brain atrophy, or shrinkage, often seen in patients with mild cognitive impairment.
This was tied to the vitamins’ ability to lower homocysteine. Having high levels of this amino acid is a risk factor for brain shrinkage, along with cognitive decline and dementia.
Choline, on the other hand, is necessary to produce acetylcholine, a chemical messenger involved in memory formation. Studies have also shown associations between higher choline intake and better cognitive performance.
Note that all of the choline is in the egg yolk. This means you’ll have to eat more than just the egg white to reap these benefits.
The most intensely colored berries are rich in antioxidant flavonoids. These plant chemicals could make the fruits a feast for your brain as well as your eyes.
Women who ate at least two servings of blueberries and strawberries weekly saw a delay in cognitive decline of up to 2.5 years in one 2012 study.
Another study showed that consuming blueberries could potentially improve memory in older adults at risk of dementia.
Both studies pointed to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of berry flavonoids like anthocyanins and anthocyanidins. They help fight against oxidant stress and inflammation, both thought to contribute to brain decline.
Anthocyanins in particular also appear to boost communication in areas of the brain responsible for regulating memory.
3. Oily Fish
Turns out your mother was right about fish—it can be “brain food.” And in this case, the fattier, the better.
Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring are chockful of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). These essential fats give structure to the membranes of your brain cells, and are involved in:
- Spatial memory: How the brain stores and retrieves information to recall where things are and how to navigate a route.
- Neurotransmission: The relay of messages between nerve cells, or neurons.
Omega-3s may also help protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Clinical studies have shown that people with higher intakes of omegas DHA and EPA were less likely to develop dementia. At the same time, patients with dementia show significantly lower blood levels of the fats.
Preliminary research further suggests that a lack of PUFAs in the diet may contribute to mood disorders like depression.
When you consider that your brain is about 60% fat, it’s easy to see the importance of omega-3s in your diet. Experts recommend eating two servings of high-fat, low-mercury fish per week.
Walnuts deliver a triple dose of brain-healthy nutrients with their omega-3, B vitamin, and vitamin E content.
Just one ounce (28 grams) of the nuts offers:
- Eight percent of the recommended daily value (DV) of vitamin B6
- Seven percent DV of folate
- Six percent DV of thiamine
Also known as vitamin B1, thiamine plays a critical role in converting the glucose (sugar) from foods into energy. Glucose supplies nearly all of your brain’s energy.
Your body also uses thiamine to produce certain neurotransmitters that facilitate brain-body communication.
Meanwhile, vitamin E acts as an antioxidant, which can help shield your brain cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
A comparative study of 4,809 elderly adults may illustrate this potential. Researchers found consistent associations between low vitamin E and poor memory performance back in 1999.
More recently, in 2015, the results of a cross-sectional study showed that, among adults 60 years and older, walnut consumers performed much better on cognitive function tests.
5. Dark Chocolate
Derived from the nutrient-rich beans of the Theobroma cacao tree, dark chocolate has lots of brain-boosting potential.
Cacao beans contain flavanols, a group of antioxidant flavonoids long shown to have benefits for the heart. And a growing body of evidence reveals the compounds may stimulate regions of the brain connected to memory and learning.
Not only do they promote the growth of neurons and blood vessels in these areas, per a British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology review. They may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
What’s more, an Italian study of healthy older adults (aged 61 to 85) found that those who consumed 520 milligrams or more of cacao flavanols daily for eight weeks saw improvements in tests measuring memory, attention, and executive function.
It also doesn’t hurt that dark chocolate encourages the release of “feel good” brain chemicals. This can help elevate the darkest of moods.
If you’re ready to make the switch to dark chocolate, remember: The higher the percentage of cacao, the higher the amount of flavanols.
Broccoli is yet another superfood with specific benefits for your brain. Science supports the effects of two broccoli nutrients in particular: glucosinolates and vitamin K.
Your body turns the abundant glucosinolates in the vegetable into isothiocyanates. Research shows these molecules can limit oxidative damage to brain cells in lab settings.
Glucosinolates also seem to significantly cut the risk of developing a brain degenerative disease.
You need the vitamin K in broccoli to create fats called sphingolipids, which are highly concentrated in your brain cells. Recent in vitro and animal studies have shown vitamin K’s anti-inflammatory role in brain cell growth and survival as well.
Moreover, several human studies show evidence of a direct link between higher vitamin K intake and better cognitive function in elderly individuals.
Researchers recommended larger and more thorough studies to corroborate these findings. But we know that broccoli is a nutritional goldmine that has its place in any healthy diet.
7. Pumpkin Seeds
The seeds of Cucurbita pepo, also known as pumpkin, are exceptionally high in vitamin K plus three minerals known to enhance brainpower.
Here’s how much of each you’ll find in a one-ounce (28-gram) serving:
|Nutrient||Amount||% Daily Value|
|Vitamin K||13.2 micrograms (mcg)||17%|
|Iron||4.2 milligrams (mg)||23%|
Iron is essential to many processes in the brain, including transporting oxygen and producing and breaking down neurotransmitters. A deficiency can cause problems with sensory perception, attention span, and intelligence.
Magnesium helps protect against excitotoxicity (nerve cell death due to overstimulation), and is a key factor in muscular nerve control and nerve communication. Some research links low magnesium with depression, migraines, and dementia.
Zinc is similarly important to a healthy central nervous system. Increasing studies suggest that getting too little zinc can trigger brain cell death and impact cell growth. This can negatively affect memory and learning.
So, in conclusion, don’t toss out those pumpkin seeds in your trail mix!
The humble red tomato holds a powerhouse molecule known as lycopene. As a fat-soluble antioxidant, it may neutralize the free radical-inflammation cycle linked to Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
High-fat areas of the body, like your brain, are especially vulnerable to this free radical damage.
A 2019 review published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy reports lycopene has preventive effects against brain conditions including:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Huntington’s disease
- Cerebral ischemia (blood flow blockage to the brain)
In addition, studies indicate it “improves cognition and memory ability” in rodents with various health issues.
Experts recommend slow-cooking or juicing your tomatoes to get the most lycopene. You can also pair them with a fat (e.g. olive oil) for maximum absorption.
9. Whole Grains
With glucose being your brain’s preferred source of energy, you can’t go wrong with complex carbs. And whole grains are some of your healthiest options.
Whole grains such as oats, barley, brown rice, and bulgur can supply your brain with a slow, steady source of energy. (Unlike simple, refined carbs that give you a quick surge, followed by a crash.) The measured release will help you sustain your mental focus and concentration.
Early studies have also found that whole grains may reduce the risk of stroke. Scientists suspect the fiber content helps manage risk factors like obesity and high cholesterol.
Memory-boosting vitamins E and B9 round out the brain benefits of these healthy grains.
You may be thinking, How do I know if the whole grains at my supermarket are, well, whole? First, look for the “Whole Grain Stamp,” a label guarantee created by the Whole Grains Council in 2005.
Otherwise, check the packaging for terms like “brown rice,” “whole wheat,” or “whole grain barley [spelt, rye, etc.].”
10. Coffee Beans
The last (but not least) of our foods for brain health are coffee beans. These are, of course, the base of the notorious pick-me-up drink, coffee.
Yet it’s the stimulating caffeine that makes it good for your brain.
Caffeine keeps you mentally alert by disrupting adenosine. This chemical prepares you for sleep by slowing down your brain’s nerve activity.
Conversely, caffeine enhances the “pleasure chemical” dopamine, temporarily boosting your mood.
Besides that, one study showed caffeine may increase brain entropy, a marker of high-information-processing capacity.
Not to mention the research linking long-term coffee drinking with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and strokes, as well as stroke prevention.
The key, however, is moderation. Drinking too much coffee (more than four cups a day) can be harmful, and will only negate caffeine’s positive effects.
Brain Foods for an Active and Healthy Mind
Cognitive decline doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of aging. Studies suggest there are some things you can do to protect against it. And changing your diet may be one of the easiest steps to take.
Add some (or all) of these foods to your health regimen, and rest assured that your brain is getting the right tools for an actively healthy future.
“Cognitive Health and Older Adults,” National Institute on Aging, reviewed October 1, 2020; https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults, last accessed April 21, 2021.
“Egg, whole, raw, fresh,” SELF Nutrition Data; https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/dairy-and-egg-products/111/2, last accessed April 21, 2021.
Smith, A.D., et al., “Homocysteine-Lowering by B Vitamins Slows the Rate of Accelerated Brain Atrophy in Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” PLoS One, 2010; 5(9): e12244; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2935890.
Zeisel, S. and da Costa, K., “Choline: An Essential Nutrient for Public Health,” Nutrition Reviews, Nov. 2009; 67(11): 615-623; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2782876/.
Devore, E., et al., “Dietary intake of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline,” Annals of Neurology, July 2012; 72(1): 135–143; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3582325/.
Krikorian, R., et al., “Blueberry Supplementation Improves Memory in Older Adults,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2010; 58(7): 3996–4000; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2850944/.
Dyall, S., “Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA,” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 2015; 7: 52; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4404917/.
Deacon, G., et al., “Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and the treatment of depression,” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, Jan. 2017; 57(1):212-223; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25830700/.
“Nuts, walnuts, english,” SELF Nutrition Data; https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3138/2, last accessed April 23, 2021.
Kennedy, D., “B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review,” Nutrients, Feb. 2016; 8(2): 68; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4772032/.
Perkins, A., et al., “Association of antioxidants with memory in a multiethnic elderly sample using the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey,” American Journal of Epidemiology, July 1999; 150(1):37-44; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10400551/.
Arab, L. and Ang, A., “A cross sectional study of the association between walnut consumption and cognitive function among adult us populations represented in NHANES,” The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, Mar. 2015; 19(3):284-90; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25732213/.
Nehlig, A., “The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance,” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, Mar. 2013; 75(3): 716–727; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575938/.
Mastroiacovo, D., et al., “Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study—a randomized controlled trial,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Mar. 2015; 101(3):538-548; https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/101/3/538/4569408.
Jaafaru, M., et al., “Protective Effect of Glucosinolates Hydrolytic Products in Neurodegenerative Diseases (NDDs),” Nutrients, May 2018; 10(5): 580; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5986460/.
Alisi, L., et al., “The Relationships Between Vitamin K and Cognition: A Review of Current Evidence,” Frontiers in Neurology, 2019; 10: 239; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6436180/.
“Seeds, pumpkin and squash seed kernels, roasted, without salt [pepitas],” SELF NutritionData; https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3067/2, last accessed April 30, 2021.
Jáuregui-Lobera, I., “Iron deficiency and cognitive functions,” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 2014;10:2087-2095; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4235202/.
Kirkland, A., et al., “The Role of Magnesium in Neurological Disorders,” Nutrients, June 2018; 10(6): 730; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6024559/.
Szewczyk, B., “Zinc homeostasis and neurodegenerative disorders,” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 2013; 5: 33; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3715721/.
Ramsey, D., “Fat Brains Need… Tomatoes.” Psychology Today, April 11, 2012; https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-farmacy/201204/fat-brains-need-tomatoes.
Chen, D., et al., “A review for the pharmacological effect of lycopene in central nervous system disorders,” Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, Mar. 2019; 111:791-801; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30616078/.
Foroughi, M., et al., “Stroke and Nutrition: A Review of Studies,” International Journal of Preventive Medicine, May 2013; 4(Suppl 2): S165–S179; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3678213/.
Brain, M., et al., “How Caffeine Works,” HowStuffWorks; https://science.howstuffworks.com/caffeine4.htm, last accessed May 6, 2021.
Da Chang, et al., “Caffeine Caused a Widespread Increase of Resting Brain Entropy,” Scientific Reports, 2018; 8: 2700; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5807546/.
Nehlig, A., “Effects of coffee/caffeine on brain health and disease: What should I tell my patients?” Practical Neurology, Apr. 2016; 16(2):89-95; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26677204/.
Lewin, J., “10 foods to boost your brainpower,” BBC Good Food, reviewed January 21, 2020; https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/10-foods-boost-your-brainpower, last accessed April 21, 2021.
“Foods linked to better brainpower,” Harvard Health Publishing, last updated December 11, 2019; https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/foods-linked-to-better-brainpower, last accessed April 21, 2021.
Jenning, K., “11 Best Foods to Boost Your Brain and Memory,” Healthline, May 9, 2017; https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-brain-foods.