The Top 8 Foods for Brain Health

by Robert Siabanis, MSNutrition
pomegranates

It is well known that a healthy diet does our body good. When we consume a variety of nutritious whole foods, we reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases and allow our bodies to thrive throughout our lives. But did you know that the food we eat strongly influences our brain health? One of the most striking scientific discoveries in recent years is the gut-brain axis, which outlines how our gut can affect our brain, and vice versa. 

Studies have repeatedly shown that shifting from the Standard American Diet (SAD, an apt acronym), high in refined grains, processed sugar, and saturated fat, to a balanced whole-foods diet can significantly improve mood and cognition within weeks! (1,2) Moreover, scientists have also found that specific foods are especially potent in improving our brain health. Better yet, they can be easily implemented into one’s diet without any radical lifestyle changes. This article will explore the top 8 foods for brain health and ways you can include them in your current diet.

1. Beets

Beets are a nutritional powerhouse. They are chock-full of antioxidants, folate (vitamin B9), potassium, iron, copper, and manganese. But what has researchers most excited about beets is their high nitrate content, not to be confused with the harmful nitrates artificially added to processed meats. Drinking raw beetroot juice increases nitric oxide production and improves blood flow in the brain and body. (3) In one study, beet juice-drinking participants performed significantly better in a cognitive performance test compared to the control group. This benefit is likely due to the improved oxygen supply and waste removal in brain regions involved in executive function. (4,5)

One easy way to gain the benefits of beets is by adding raw beetroot pieces to your smoothies. Including the beet greens, rich in vitamins A and K, is even better! Boiling or dehydrating the beetroot significantly reduces the nitrate content, but other nutrients are mostly unaffected. (5)

2. Blueberries

Plant foods are the primary source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds in our diet, and blueberries are rich in both. Not surprisingly, multiple studies have found that blueberries are beneficial for our brains. One study found that eating just one cup of blueberries per day for 12 weeks significantly improved cognitive function in older adults. (6) This improvement might be due to increased blood flow to brain areas responsible for cognitive processes. (7) In another experiment, researchers found that consuming two cups of frozen blueberries per day for six weeks significantly improved mobility and balance. Therefore, berries might offer a double-whammy effect by countering inflammation and improving functional mobility, both important for brain health. (8) You can include more blueberries into your diet by adding a cup into your oatmeal and smoothies, or by blending two cups of frozen berries with one pitted date for an easy-peasy sorbet. 

3. Fatty Fish

Fatty fish, such as salmon and herring, is widely touted as a brain-boosting food, primarily due to their high omega-3 content. Omega-3 fatty acids are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that the body cannot make on its own. Our brains are made of 60% fat, and the fat we eat directly impacts our brain’s structure and function. This might explain why a higher intake of omega 3’s has been linked with a slower progression of Alzheimer’s disease (9) and cognitive decline (10, 11), and improved mood. (12) Fatty fish is also a great source of other nutrients, such as vitamins B12 and D, zinc, copper, and selenium.

When choosing among the various kinds of fish, it is suggested that you pick ones from the SMASH acronym (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring), which tend to be lower in contaminants compared to other fish, such as tuna. Similarly, it is usually recommended to select wild-caught fish instead of farm-raised, which can accumulate harmful compounds due to feed and sediment contamination, antibiotic use, and processing practices. (13) Fatty fish is versatile in the kitchen due to the choice of fish and cooking methods available. Feel free to try the smokey spiced salmon recipe.

4. Walnuts

Walnuts are rich in several beneficial nutrients, such as vitamin E, folate, copper, and manganese. Furthermore, they are rich in powerful antioxidant polyphenols and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fat. Studies have shown that frequent consumption of walnuts improves memory and executive function in older (14) and young adults. (15) My human physiology professor shared a funny way to remember that walnuts are good for our brains: they kind of look like them! There is a plethora of ways to consume more walnuts, such as adding a handful of pieces into a bowl of coconut yogurt, blending them up in a smoothie, or even having them raw with a piece of fruit as a snack. The possibilities are endless!

5. Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate is especially rich in various minerals, such as iron, zinc, copper, and manganese. When it comes to health, bitter is better due to the naturally occurring flavanols in dark chocolate. It is crucial to select chocolate that is dark, high in cocoa (80-90%), and has no added sugar or milk. Several studies have shown that consuming flavanol-rich chocolate is beneficial for both the heart and brain. In one such study, older adults with mild cognitive impairment performed significantly better in three tests when consuming cocoa flavanols for eight weeks. (16) In another study, researchers used functional MRI and found that cocoa flavanols improve blood flow to the brain, explaining why cocoa improves cognitive performance in young and older adults. (17) It is easy to include cocoa in your diet. Try adding a teaspoon of unprocessed cocoa powder to your oatmeal or smoothie. You can also dip strawberries and other berries into melted dark chocolate for a delightfully healthy dessert! 

6. Pomegranates

Pomegranates have long been celebrated for their medicinal properties, playing a significant role in ancient Indian and Greek medicine. Advanced scientific investigation has begun to reveal how pomegranates can benefit our wellbeing. First, pomegranates contain more than 100 phytochemicals, such as ellagitanins, which feed the microbiome and improve health by lowering inflammation and improving gut function. (18) Second, compounds in pomegranates significantly improve blood flow in the body and brain, and those who drink pomegranate juice have better verbal memory. (19)

Furthermore, in a study on adults who had recently had a stroke, supplementation with isolated pomegranate polyphenols improved recovery speed and decreased the length of hospital stay. (20) You can include pomegranate into your diet by adding half a cup of arils into your smoothies or salad. You can also combine the brain-boosting benefits of chocolate and pomegranate by making a pomegranate dark chocolate bark (yum!)

7. Dark-green vegetables

There are many vegetables in this category, including kale, spinach, arugula, and broccoli. When it comes to nutrition, all these veggies are top tier, being rich in vitamins A, C, and K, as well as magnesium, iron, potassium, and calcium. The phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, found in these vegetables, have been the topic of much research by scientists. They are two of the most abundant phytonutrients present in the brain, and we can easily estimate one’s levels by examining their eyes. (21) While we still don’t understand why the brain has a preference for these two compounds, the research is consistent. Individuals who have higher lutein and zeaxanthin deposits in their eyes appear to be less likely to experience cognitive decline while aging and have improved cognitive function. (22, 23) It is possible that these two phytonutrients protect the brain from oxidative stress and chronic low-grade inflammation, which are the drivers of age-related cognitive impairment. (24)

Researchers gave a lutein and zeaxanthin supplement to older adults with mild cognitive impairment. The amount of lutein found in a cup of cooked spinach significantly improved cognitive performance in older adults! (25) The great news is that most dark-green vegetables are high in lutein and zeaxanthin, so you can include more of your favorites or experiment with different veggies. One way to ensure you are getting your greens is to add them to existing meals such as soups, stews, and sandwiches.

8. Olive oil

Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, and is included in nearly all recipes, whether it drizzled on top of salads or used to sofrito onions and garlic. There are several reasons why olive oil is beneficial for your brain health. First, it’s a potent source of antioxidants that can mix with fat. A good example is vitamin E, which is found abundantly in olive oil. If an antioxidant does not mix with fat, it will simply not work its radical-hunting magic in fatty areas of the body, no matter how powerful it is. For example, vitamin C mixes well with water but not in fat. 

Therefore, consuming fat-soluble antioxidants is vital for health, and olive oil is an excellent source of them. In addition to vitamin E, olive oil is also rich in phenols, powerful antioxidants that are protective against chronic inflammation and atherosclerosis. (26) One study found that adding 50 ml/day of high-phenolic content olive oil led to significantly improved cognitive function in adults with mild cognitive impairment. (27) Finally, olive oil also indirectly benefits brain health by improving our ability to absorb other health-promoting phytochemicals, such as the lutein and zeaxanthin found in dark-green leafy vegetables! (28)

You can enjoy the benefits of olive oil by drizzling a tablespoon on top of a salad or some freshly cooked vegetables. Because extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point, please do not use it for high-temperature cooking, such as frying. 

Conclusion

Numerous scientific studies have shown that food does have a powerful effect on not only our body, but also our mind in a variety of ways: by improving blood flow to the brain, reducing oxidative stress, and quenching chronic neuroinflammation. Even small changes toward including these healthful foods appear to improve our health, so you do not have to wait to reap the benefits! Feel free to try some of the ideas described above or find your own creative ways to include these brain-boosting foods into your favorite recipes. 


References

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