The Best Foods For Your Brain
What to eat for a sharper, healthier mind
You are what you eat
Can your diet make you smarter? You bet. Research shows that what you eat is one of the most powerful influences on everyday brain skills, says Cynthia Green, PhD, founder and director of the Memory Enhancement Program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and author of Brainpower Game Plan. Plus, the right foods may stave off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The key? Rounding out your meals with key nutrients that (along with exercise and daily brain games like these) keep brain cells healthy and prevent brain-damaging inflammation. “Your memory, attention span, and ability to learn will benefit from the healthful foods you choose,” says Green.
Check out the top foods and beverages that can help make you smarter.
Seafood like salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, and sardines are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, powerful and versatile nutrients that are essential for a healthy mind. About 40% of the fatty acids in brain cell membranes are DHA, one of the main omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil. Experts believe it’s probably necessary for transmitting signals between brain cells.
Researchers at Tufts University found that people who ate fish 3 times a week and had the highest levels of DHA in their blood slashed their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 39%.
Eat it: At least twice a week (limit albacore tuna to no more than 6 ounces a week to minimize mercury exposure).
Leafy Green and Cruciferous Veggies
Pile salads, stir-fries, and side dishes with broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, and brussels sprouts. They’re filled with antioxidants like vitamin C and plant compounds called carotenoids, which are particularly powerful brain protectors.
Antioxidants prevent damage from free radicals, which are waste products your body makes when cells use fuel to create energy. Your brain is especially vulnerable to damage from free radicals because it uses a lot of fuel (it’s only about 3% of your body weight but uses up to 17% of your energy). Since your mind makes a lot of these toxic by-products, ample antioxidants help to disarm and defuse them.
While all antioxidants (from a variety of plants) are good for your brain, these cruciferous veggies are especially effective. A Harvard Medical School study of more than 13,000 women found that those who ate the most lowered their brain age by 1 to 2 years.
Eat it: Daily, as part of a well-rounded mix of other colorful veggies.
Avocado, Oils, Nuts, and Seeds
They all contain another important antioxidant: vitamin E. In one study, researchers found that people who consumed moderate amounts vitamin E—from food, not supplements—lowered their risk of AD by 67%.
Eat it: Frequently; shoot for 15 mg of E a day, the equivalent of 2 ounces of almonds.
Sweeten your brain-boosting diet with the dark kind (at least 70% cocoa); it contains flavonoids, another class of antioxidants that some research links to brain health. Other flavonoid-rich foods include apples, red and purple grapes, red wine, onions, tea, and beer.
Eat it: Frequently, as part of a healthy total calorie intake. Up to half an ounce daily has also been shown to lower blood pressure.
Go for Thai or Indian takeout; these cuisines often use the potent spice known to fight inflammation. Animal studies have shown that curry’s active ingredient, curcumin, actually clears away Alzheimer’s-causing proteins in the brain called amyloid plaques.
Eat it: As an ingredient in pasta sauces, salad dressings, or meat marinades.
Research indicates these antioxidant powerhouses may protect your brain, although the mechanism isn’t fully understood. Some scientists think they help to build healthy connections between brain cells.
Eat them: Daily, added to yogurt, oatmeal, or cereal for breakfast or an afternoon snack.
Fiber-rich oatmeal, oat bran, brown rice, and so on help stabilize blood glucose (sugar) levels, compared with refined carbs like white bread and sugary foods. Your body digests these simple sugars quickly, so you have a sudden energy spike—and subsequent plummet. Since glucose is the brain’s main source of fuel, it’s important to keep levels steady; during a crash, you’ll feel tired and crabby and have trouble concentrating.
Eat them: Daily, aiming for 25 grams of fiber; fruits, vegetables, and beans are other good sources.
Every cell in your body needs water to thrive, and your brain cells are no exception; in fact, about three-quarters of your brain is water. A small Ohio University study found that people whose bodies were well hydrated scored significantly better on tests of brainpower, compared with those who weren’t drinking enough.
Drink it: Throughout the day; aim to sip 6 to 8 glasses total.
Alcohol (in moderation)
While chronic, heavy drinking can cause serious dementia, research shows that imbibing lightly may protect the brain. In one JAMA study, people who had one to six drinks a week were 54% less likely to develop dementia than teetotalers. Experts aren’t sure why, but some doctors point out that moderate drinkers have reduced rates of heart disease, too. Small amounts of alcohol may protect both the heart and brain by preventing blockages in blood vessels.
Drink it: Once a day or less—and have no more than one drink. If you have a family history of breast cancer, talk to your doctor.
Caffeine is another substance wherein the dose makes the poison: In excess, it can cause brain fog, but in moderate amounts, caffeine can improve attention span, reaction time, and other brain skills. One French study found that women over 65 who drank three or more cups of coffee a day were better able to recall words than women who consumed little or none. Another review showed that coffee drinkers may cut AD risk by up to 30%.
Drink it: Daily, limiting caffeine intake to 300 to 400 mg; an 8-ounce cup of coffee has around 100 mg.