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Superfoods for the Brain

An overall healthy diet is best, but a few foods stand out for their brain-health benefits

woman cooking salmon with spinach and mushrooms in a pan on stove
Grace Cary/Getty Images

You are what you eat, the saying goes — and that holds true for the neck up. Just as diet plays an important role in the health of your heart, your skin and other organs in the body, what you put in your mouth can affect the health of your brain.

For one, healthy foods help to keep blood vessels healthy. These tiny tubes transport nutrients throughout the body, including to the brain. “Our brain is fed by blood vessels, and the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to our brain cells depends on the integrity of [these blood vessels],” says Irwin Rosenberg, M.D., professor emeritus of nutrition and medicine at Tufts University's USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

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Accumulating research also points to a powerful connection between the brain and the digestive system (commonly called the gut), which is happiest when fed nutrient-dense foods. “Like teens who love to text each other all the time, [the brain and the gut] are constantly sending chemical messages back and forth,” says Uma Naidoo, M.D., director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and author of This Is Your Brain on Food. “And the health of one is reflective of the health of the other.”

It's also possible that certain diets trigger inflammation, cell and tissue damage, and other biological processes linked to worsening brain health, the National Institute on Aging says.

The good news: Eating to support your brain is “actually really simple,” says Shelly Wegman, a clinical dietitian with UNC REX Nutrition Services in Raleigh, North Carolina. “It’s choosing minimally processed or unprocessed foods,” Wegman adds, and minimizing the consumption of salty, sugary, ultra-processed options, which have been associated with higher dementia risks and depression.

And while there is no one silver-bullet food that gives the brain a boost (“It’s really the diet,” Rosenberg emphasizes), there are a few food groups that stand out.

Fish  

Plenty of fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, an essential type of fat that, over decades of research, has been connected to better cognitive health.

What Is Cognitive Health?

The mental processes that are collectively known as cognition include:

  • Ability to learn new things
  • Intuition
  • Judgment
  • Language
  • Remembering  

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Most recently, a study published in the journal Neurology found that middle-aged adults who ate a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids had larger hippocampal volumes (the hippocampus is the part of the brain that plays an important role in learning and memory) and were better able to understand complex concepts.

“Studies have looked at this association in older populations. The new contribution here is that, even at younger ages, if you have a diet that includes some omega-3 fatty acids, you are already protecting your brain for most of the indicators of brain aging that we see at middle age,” said Claudia Satizabal, lead study author and assistant professor of population health sciences with the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio, in a newsletter report about the study.

Cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines are great sources of omega-3s, according to the National Institutes of Health. Don’t eat fish? You can find omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts, seaweed, flax and chia seeds, Naidoo says.

What’s more, fish can be a good source of B12, a vitamin that has several important functions in the brain. B12 helps keep brain cells, nerve cells and blood cells healthy, according to a report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). It also supports the breakdown of homocysteine, Naidoo points out, a protein that in high amounts can increase risks for dementia, heart disease and stroke.

You can find vitamin B12 in clams, tuna and salmon. Eggs and fortified nutritional yeast are also great sources. Older adults are at higher risk for a B12 deficiency; a routine blood test at the doctor’s office can tell you if your levels are low.

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Berries

Never underestimate the power of a berry: These tiny fruits pack a mighty punch. Researchers have linked eating berries to lower risk of type 2 diabetes and heart attack. And a collection of studies suggest they also have some brain-protecting qualities. 

In fact, berries are the only fruit specifically recommended in the MIND diet, which was designed by researchers at Rush University to study food’s impact on the brain. It’s a blend of the popular Mediterranean diet and the blood pressure-lowering DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.

What’s in the MIND Diet?

The MIND diet encourages eating from 10 healthy food groups:

Leafy green vegetables: at least six servings per week

Other vegetables: at least one serving per day

Berries: at least two servings per week

Whole grains: at least three servings per day

Fish: one serving per week

Poultry: two servings per week

Beans: three servings per week

Nuts: five servings per week

Wine: one glass a day

Olive oil: two tablespoons a day, use as primary oil

The MIND diet limits servings of red meat, sweets, cheese, butter/margarine and fast/fried food.

Source: National Institute on Aging

study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that people who followed the MIND diet, which calls for two half-cup servings of berries per week, maintained better thinking and memory skills. Another study found that adults who closely followed the MIND diet had a 53 percent reduced rate of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who strayed from the diet.

“Adding a handful of berries to the diet each day is one of the first and easiest changes I recommend to those looking to improve their brain health,” says Naidoo, who points out that berries can help tame symptoms of anxiety, as well.

In addition to being chock-full of antioxidants, which can help prevent or delay cell damage, the fiber in berries “also shows our gut some love, supporting a healthy microbiome, reduced inflammation and good moods,” Naidoo adds.

Leafy greens

Filling up the fridge to feed your brain? Don’t forget the leafy greens.

2018 study published in Neurology found a significant link between the consumption of green leafy vegetables and slower decline in thinking and memory skills. A team of researchers followed 960 dementia-free older adults for an average of nearly five years and focused on how frequently they ate leafy-green vegetables such as spinach, kale and collards. They found that participants who consumed at least one serving of leafy greens per day were about 11 years younger, cognitively speaking, compared with those who rarely or never consumed green leafy vegetables.

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Another study, also published in Neurology, found that older adults with high intakes of flavanols — chemicals responsible for the bright colors in fruits and vegetables — experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline than peers with low intakes. What’s more, people who ate higher amounts of a specific type of flavanol, known as kaempferol, which is found in kale, spinach and broccoli, saw the greatest benefits.

It's important to note that green leafy vegetables have also been linked to lower heart disease risk, and many conditions that affect the heart, such as high blood pressure, impact the brain. “When it comes to a brain-healthy diet, remember that what is good for the heart is also good for your head," says Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP's senior vice president for policy and brain health, and director of the GCBH.

A few other noteworthy foods

If you’re a fan of dark chocolate, go ahead and indulge every now and then. The antioxidants and cocoa flavanols found in the bittersweet treat may help preserve the health of brain cells, Naidoo says. Studies have also uncovered a connection between dark chocolate and lower depression risks.

Just be careful not to go overboard, the GCBH warns. Chocolate is often high in sugar and fat, and the group says excess weight gain may “counterbalance, or even exceed,” any of the health benefits of cocoa.

Fermented foods — think sauerkraut and yogurt — can help to keep your gut healthy and, in turn, may be a boon for the brain, research suggests. (Remember: The gut and the brain are in constant communication.)

Adding a dash of turmeric to your meals may also be beneficial. The spice gets superfood status for its anti-inflammatory properties, and research has linked turmeric to improved mood and memory. Hot tip: When you cook with turmeric, add a pinch of black pepper, Naidoo says. There’s a compound in black pepper that activates the all-important curcumin compound in turmeric (curcumin is responsible for the spice’s yellow hue), making it easier for the body to absorb. 

Supplements vs. Food

More than half of U.S. adults (57.6 percent) report taking vitamins, minerals and other supplements, federal data shows. Among older adults, the share is even higher.

And while supplements can help treat a nutrient deficiency, health experts stress that the pills and powders aren’t intended to replace food. In fact, research shows that nutrition benefits obtained from food are far greater than those obtained from supplements.

If you’re concerned about a vitamin deficiency or are considering taking a supplement, talk to your doctor. Supplements can have side effects and may interact with other medications you’re taking.