The brain is, arguably, the most important organ in the human body. It is responsible for controlling and coordinating all of our bodily functions, as well as our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It is what makes us who we are. Therefore, it is crucial that we maintain good brain health in order to live our happiest and healthiest life. One way we can do this is by paying attention to the foods we eat, as certain foods have been shown to promote brain health, while others may negatively affect it. In this article, I will discuss some of the best and worst foods for brain health.
Best Foods for Brain Health
Coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world, and its potential health benefits have been extensively studied. The primary active ingredient in coffee is caffeine, which is a central nervous system stimulant. Caffeine has been shown to help cognitive performance by improving alertness, attention, and reaction time.1
In addition to the immediate benefits of coffee, several studies have suggested that coffee consumption may also have neuroprotective effects, particularly in reducing the risk of certain diseases. One meta-analysis found that higher coffee consumption was associated with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease while another study found that coffee consumption was associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.2,3
2. Green Tea
Green tea is another popular beverage that potentially can benefit overall brain health. In addition to containing the caffeine that gives your brain an immediate boost, regular green tea consumption has been associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease in older adults.4
The potential disease-preventing benefits of green tea have been attributed to its high content of polyphenols, particularly epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which is a potent antioxidant and has been shown to have neuroprotective effects.
3. Salmon & Sardines
Fatty fish—such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines—are a rich source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids are critical for optimal brain health and function, as they help to build brain cell membranes, reduce inflammation, and promote brain functioning.5 Eating fatty fish regularly as part of a healthy diet has also been linked to a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia.6
The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week, which can provide about 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA, the two most beneficial types of omega-3 fatty acids. A serving size is typically 3.5 ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards.
4. Almonds & Chia Seeds
Nuts and seeds are a great source of vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps to protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals. Vitamin E has been linked to help protect the brain from cognitive decline and dementia in aging adults. One study found that higher vitamin E intake from nuts and seeds was associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment in older adults.7
Some examples of nuts and seeds that are high in vitamin E include almonds, pistachios, chia seeds, flax seeds, peanuts, cashews, and sunflower seeds.
5. Spinach & Kale
Leafy greens—such as spinach, kale, and broccoli—are rich in nutrients that are essential for brain health, including vitamin K, folate, and beta-carotene. Vitamin K is important for cognitive function, and studies have found that higher dietary vitamin K intake is associated with better memory performance in older adults.8
Note: It is important to mention that vitamin K can interact with certain medications, such as warfarin, which is used to prevent blood clots. Therefore, individuals taking warfarin need to be mindful of their vitamin K intake, as too much or too little can affect the medication’s effectiveness. When in doubt, always ask your doctor.
6. Blueberries & Strawberries
Berries, such as blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries, are a rich source of antioxidants called flavonoids, which have been shown to improve memory and cognitive function. Flavonoids have been found to increase blood flow to the brain, improve brain cell signaling, and enhance brain plasticity.
A randomized controlled trial found that daily consumption of blueberry juice improved memory function in older adults with early memory decline.9
7. Oatmeal & Quinoa
Whole grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, and quinoa, are a great source of fiber and important vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins and zinc, which are essential for brain function. B vitamins, in particular, are important for cognitive functioning, as they are involved in the production of neurotransmitters that are critical for memory and learning.
A randomized controlled trial found that B vitamin supplementation improved cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.10
8. Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate is a delicious treat that can also benefit brain health. The flavonoids found in dark chocolate, specifically flavanols, have been associated with improved cognitive function and a reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.11
One study found that consuming a high-flavanol cocoa drink daily for eight weeks improved cognitive performance and increased blood flow to the brain in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.12 Another study showed that consuming flavanol-rich cocoa improved verbal fluency and cognitive function in healthy adults.13
With that said, it is important to note that not all chocolate is created equal. Dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa (70% or higher) contains the highest levels of flavonoids, while milk chocolate and white chocolate contain lower levels. Additionally, all chocolate is high in calories and should be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet.
When it comes to brain health and “brain foods,” no list is complete without the mention of water—the simplest but most fundamental brain fuel that exists. Simply put, staying hydrated is essential for proper brain function, in which dehydration can lead to fatigue, headaches, and impaired cognitive performance. Drinking water is the easiest way to stay hydrated, and it’s important to drink enough water throughout the day.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that on average, men should drink around 125 ounces (3.7 liters) of water per day, while women should drink around 91 ounces (2.7 liters) of water per day. This includes fluid content from all dietary sources, including coffee, soups, fruits, and vegetables. With that said, each individual’s water needs will vary depending on factors such as age, sex, physical activity, climate, and overall health. When in doubt, always ask your personal health care professional!
A Simple Test for Hydration
A quick and easy way to check your hydration status is to look at the color of your urine. If your urine is clear to light yellow, your body is adequately hydrated. If your urine is dark yellow or orange, this likely means that your body needs more water.
Worst Foods for Brain Health
1. Sugary Foods
A diet high in sugary foods, such as candy, soda, and baked goods, can lead to inflammation in the body, which can have negative impacts on brain health. Additionally, high sugar consumption has been linked to cognitive decline and dementia, as well as a decreased ability to learn and remember new information.14
2. Highly Processed Foods
Processed foods, such as frozen dinners and fast food, are often high in sodium, unhealthy fats, and preservatives, all of which can contribute to negative effects on brain function. For example, excessive sodium intake can lead to high blood pressure, which has been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline.15 Similarly, unhealthy fats such as trans fats can lead to inflammation in the body, which can negatively impact brain health.
While moderate alcohol consumption has been linked to some health benefits, excessive alcohol consumption can have a negative impact on brain health over time. Chronic heavy drinking can lead to memory loss, cognitive impairment, and a higher risk of developing dementia.16
4. High-Fat Meats
High-fat meats, such as bacon and sausage, are often high in saturated fats, which can contribute to inflammation in the body. This inflammation can negatively impact brain function and has been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline.17
Balance and Moderation Is Key
With that said, it is important to note that while the “bad” foods can potentially have a negative impact on brain health, they do not necessarily have to be avoided entirely. Moderation is key, and a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-rich foods is the best way to support overall health, including brain health.
In conclusion, the foods we eat can have a significant impact on our brain health. By incorporating more beneficial foods and limiting our intake of unhealthy foods, we can promote a healthy brain and reduce our risk of diseases that negatively affect the brain.
As always, when making significant changes to your diet, I encourage you to check with your doctor or a registered dietitian to make sure that it’s right for you.
Here’s to better eating for better brain health!
- Panza F, Solfrizzi V, Barulli MR, et al. Coffee, tea, and caffeine consumption and prevention of late-life cognitive decline and dementia: a systematic review. J Nutr Health Aging. 2015;19(3):313-328. doi:10.1007/s12603-014-0563-8
- Liu R, Guo X, Park Y, Huang X, Sinha R, Freedman ND, Hollenbeck AR, Blair A, Chen H. Caffeine intake, smoking, and risk of Parkinson disease in men and women. Am J Epidemiol. 2012;175(11):1200-1207. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwr451
- Wu L, Sun D. Consumption of coffee and reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients. 2017;9(10):1124. doi: 10.3390/nu9101124
- Mandel SA, Amit T, Weinreb O, Youdim MBH. Understanding the broad-spectrum neuroprotective action profile of green tea polyphenols in aging and neurodegenerative diseases. J Alzheimers Dis. 2011;25(2):187-208. doi:10.3233/JAD-2011-101695
- Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Adv Nutr. 2012;3(1):1-7. doi:10.3945/an.111.000893
- Gomez-Pinilla F. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008 Jul;9(7):568-78. doi: 10.1038/nrn2421. PMID: 18568016.
- Morris MC, Evans DA, Bienias JL, Tangney CC, Bennett DA, Wilson RS, et al. Consumption of nuts and seeds and cognitive decline. Arch Neurol. 2006;63(12):1689-93. doi: 10.1001/archneur.63.12.1689.
- Presse N, Belleville S, Gaudreau P, Greenwood CE, Kergoat MJ, Morais JA. Vitamin K status and cognitive function in healthy older adults. Neurobiol Aging. 2013;34(12):2777-83. doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2013.05.004.
- Krikorian R, Shidler MD, Nash TA, Kalt W, Vinqvist-Tymchuk MR, Shukitt-Hale B, Joseph JA. Blueberry supplementation improves memory in older adults. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Apr 14;58(7):3996-4000. doi: 10.1021/jf9029332. PMID: 20047325.
- Morris MC, Evans DA, Tangney CC, Bienias JL, Wilson RS. Associations of vegetable and fruit consumption with age-related cognitive change. Neurology. 2006 Oct 24;67(8):1370-6. doi: 10.1212/01.wnl.0000240224.38978.d8. PMID: 17060562.
- Mastroiacovo D, Kwik-Uribe C, Grassi 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. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015;101(3):538-548. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.092189
- Brickman AM, Khan UA, Provenzano FA, et al. Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults. Nat Neurosci. 2014;17(12):1798-1803. doi:10.1038/nn.3850
- Field DT, Williams CM, Butler LT. Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in an acute improvement in visual and cognitive functions. Physiol Behav. 2011;103(3-4):255-260. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.02.013
- Gómez-Pinilla F. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008;9(7):568-578. doi:10.1038/nrn2421
- Sánchez-Villegas A, Martínez-González MÁ. Diet, a new target to prevent depression?. BMC Med. 2013;11(1):3. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-3
- Anstey KJ, Mack HA, Cherbuin N. Alcohol consumption as a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline: meta-analysis of prospective studies. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2009;17(7):542-555. doi:10.1097/JGP.0b013e3181a2fd07
- Roberts RO, Geda YE, Knopman DS, et al. Association of duration and severity of diabetes mellitus with mild cognitive impairment. Arch Neurol. 2008;65(8):1066-1073. doi:10.1001/archneur.65.8.1066
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