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by Nissa Simon
Updated September 19, 2022
A well-stocked pantry makes cooking and planning meals easier. With proper handling, the foods listed here will still be good a year from now, and they could last even longer if you have space in your fridge or freezer. An added bonus: They are good for you. “Each food listed here benefits your brain — but don’t think about them in isolation,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at the Pennsylvania State University. “Incorporate them into a generally healthy eating pattern that will benefit both your brain and your body.” Having a well-stocked pantry doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also make sure to include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet — and these days the stores seem to have plenty of produce, even when some items are in low supply.
“Food comforts the soul as well as nurtures the body,” says Rosemary H. Balsam, associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. “We can help ourselves during these trying times by remembering that.”
1. Canned Pumpkin
This vibrant vegetable contains two naturally occurring compounds — lutein and zeaxanthin (L/Z) — that filter damaging blue wavelengths of light and may help protect the eyes, research has found. But they could even do more than that. In recent years, researchers at the University of Georgia wanted to know if they also protected the brain. The researchers studied both younger and older adults to judge the effect of L/Z supplements on the brain. At the end of a year, members of both groups who took the supplements had better memory and better problem-solving skills.
How long do they last?
In your pantry: Unopened cans last 1 to 2 years.
In your fridge: In a sealed container, 7 days.
In your freezer: In a sealed container, 3 to 5 months.
Walnuts, almonds, cashews, pecans. These popular nuts add flavor to cakes, salads, breads and sauces — and more. Some research suggests that they may enhance memory, concentration and thinking. A large-scale study from UCLA, for example, concluded that less than a handful of flavorful walnuts each day was linked to such benefits, regardless of age, gender or ethnic background. They’re crunchy, they taste good, and they’re filling.
How long do they last?
In your pantry: Unopened packages of both shelled or unshelled nuts last for 6 months past printed date; opened packages will last that long if stored in airtight containers to keep out moisture.
In your fridge: A year past printed date in an airtight container.
In your freezer: Up to 2 years past printed date in an airtight container.
3. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
No wonder extra-virgin olive oil has stood the test of time and remains a staple in Mediterranean kitchens. In one study, men and women who added this liquid gold to their everyday meals were better able to organize their thoughts and had better memory. The researchers suspect that specific compounds in olive oil may stimulate the growth of new brain cells. Other researchers note that the omega fatty acids found in olive oil may increase mental focus and slow the decline in thinking skills that come with age. Splash some olive oil on a piece of grilled fish or use it in a simple salad dressing. Then relax and enjoy.
How long does it last?
In your pantry: Either unopened or opened, a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil (the highest grade of olive oil) will last for 2 to 3 years past its “best by” date.
In your fridge: Don’t refrigerate olive oil.
In your freezer: Don’t freeze olive oil.
4. Peas and Beans
Peas and beans, members of the legume family, are a rich source of folate, a vitamin that may potentially help prevent dementia later in life, according to some studies. Although an outright deficiency is rare, getting too little is linked to fatigue and trouble concentrating. Legumes also provide a healthy serving of thiamine (vitamin B1) that helps turn food into energy. A shortfall has been linked to irritability and fatigue. Including enough peas and beans in your diet is easy. You can use this versatile group of foods in practically everything from soup and stews to salads.
How long do they last?
In your pantry: Unopened cans last for a year past their “best by” date. Opened cans should be used immediately. Transfer the contents of an open package to an airtight container.
In your fridge: 5 to 6 days in an airtight container.
Oats and their cousins rice, cornmeal, barley and wheat are all members of the grain family. Quinoa, although not a full-fledged relative, is prepared like a grain. It’s gluten-free, high in protein and higher than most other grains in fiber. It’s also one of the few plant foods that is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own. Your body breaks down the complex carbs in these whole grains into glucose for energy. Whole grains are also rich in B vitamins that work to reduce inflammation in the brain, potentially helping to preserve memory. This group of eight vitamins may also reduce anxiety and improve mood, according to some research.
How long do they last?
In your pantry: Containers of 1-minute and 5-minute oatmeal will last for 2 to 3 years beyond its “best by” date.
Store whole grains that you use at least once a month at room temperature. If you use them less frequently, pop them in the freezer. Store dried beans at room temperature.
Pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are among the most popular seeds in the United States, and both of them add pizzazz to even the simplest food. Lightly toasted pumpkin seeds are rich in tryptophan, a compound the body converts to serotonin, a substance that has been found to calm the mind and lower anxiety, according to some research. Sunflower seeds provide magnesium, a mineral that seems to lift the fog of depression in some people and may help relieve anxiety. Keep a dish of either (or both) of these brain-healthy seeds ready for those times your thoughts turn to a candy bar.
How long do they last?
In your pantry: In an airtight container or bag, pumpkin seeds last 1 to 2 months and sunflower seeds last 2 to 5 months past their “best by” date.
In your fridge: Both last a year past their “best by” date in an airtight container or bag.
In your freezer: Both last a year past their “best by” date in an airtight container or bag.
What better way to start the day than with a mug of coffee or a good, strong cuppa? The aroma is delicious, the warmth is comforting — and your energy level perks right up. Plus, there’s a big bonus: Some research suggests that drinking a moderate amount of coffee or tea each day may help protect against memory disorders and impaired reasoning. Some studies have found this is the case with coffee and with black, oolong and green tea brewed from tea leaves. What about decaf? The answer’s not in yet, but researchers are working on it. So stay tuned.
How long does it last?
In your pantry: Unopened ground coffee lasts 3 to 5 months past its “best by” date.
In your freezer: Unopened ground coffee lasts 1 to 2 years past its “best by” date.
• “Effects of a Lutein and Zeaxanthin Intervention on Cognitive Function: A Randomized, Double-Masked, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Younger Healthy Adults,” Nutrients, November 2017. This research looked at 51 young adults (ages 18-30) to learn if supplements of lutein and zeaxanthin — yellow or red pigments found in vegetables — eaten daily over a year, helped improve brain function. Compared with a control group, those who supplemented showed better spatial memory (locating an item or planning a route to get somewhere), reasoning ability (problem solving) and complex attention (focusing on more than one thing at a time). Read the full study.
• “Effects of Lutein/Zeaxanthin Supplementation on the Cognitive Function of Community Dwelling Older Adults: A Randomized, Double-Masked, Placebo-Controlled Trial,” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, August 2017. An additional study on lutein and zeaxanthin by the same researchers found similar results in a group of 51 adults (median age 73.7 years). Those who took a year of lutein and zeaxanthin supplements showed improvements in complex attention, cognitive flexibility (the ability to handle different tasks and responses at once) and executive function (a set of skills related to planning, attention and fulfilling tasks and goals). Read the full study.
• "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, December 2014. This study looked at more than 10,000 adults who were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Participants filled out questionnaires about what they ate and completed tests meant to measure their cognitive function. The researchers found an association between greater walnut intake and better performance on the cognitive tests. Limitations of the study include the fact that it relied on participants' own reporting of what they ate and that, as a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• “Effect of the replacement of dietary vegetable oils with a low dose of extravirgin olive oil in the Mediterranean Diet on cognitive functions in the elderly,” Journal of Translational Medicine, January 2018. This research followed 110 healthy people 65 or older; half followed a Mediterranean diet while the other half replaced all vegetable oil intake with a smaller amount of extra virgin olive oil. After a year, the group who ate extra virgin olive oil showed higher scores in cognitive function compared with the control group who did not focus on extra virgin olive oil. Study authors noted that additional research on this topic is needed. Read the full study.
• “Mediterranean Diet and Age-Related Cognitive Decline: A Randomized Clinical Trial,” JAMA Internal Medicine, July 2015. This small study of 447 people with healthy brains but at higher risk for heart disease looked at brain function for three groups: those eating a Mediterranean diet (MD), those eating an MD with 30 grams of extra mixed nuts weekly and those eating an MD with an extra 1 liter of olive oil weekly. The olive oil group showed improved frontal function of the brain (responsible for voluntary movement, expressive language and higher-level executive function) and better scores in global cognition composites, which are linked to Alzheimer’s disease prevention. Researchers note that the MD with olive oil or nuts may help prevent brain deterioration due to age, but further research in this area is needed. Read the full study.
• "Folic acid, ageing, depression, and dementia," The BMJ, June 2002. This is an older review of research on folic acid and folate, both of which are different forms of the vitamin B9. Folate is found naturally in foods such as legumes (beans/peas) and leafy green vegetables, while folic acid is a supplement and found in fortified processed foods such as breakfast cereals. The review finds that low levels of folate as measured in the blood can be associated with depression and dementia. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Serum folate deficiency and the risks of dementia and all-cause mortality: a national study of old age,” Evidence-Based Mental Health, March 2022. This large-scale study of 27,188 people ages 60-75 looked at people’s folate levels in their blood, then followed them for 58 months. Those with initially low folate levels were associated with higher rates of developing dementia or dying during the research. Researchers noted that testing for folate levels in blood may indicate when folate supplementation is necessary for possible prevention. Read the full study.
• “Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans," Nature Neuroscience, January 2014. This study looked at 160 adults ages 18-30 and tested them on whether they could recall pictures of different items they had seen a day before, after taking different amounts of caffeine. Researchers found that 200 mg of caffeine “enhanced consolidation of long-term memories in humans. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Relationships Between Caffeine Intake and Risk for Probable Dementia or Global Cognitive Impairment: The Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study,” The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, September 2016. This study followed more than 6,400 older women, ages 65-80 at the beginning of the study, for 10 years, and noted who developed dementia, as well as daily caffeine consumption via coffee, tea or cola. There were 388 women who developed dementia. Researchers found that women who had higher than median levels of caffeine (measured as 261 mg as the mean level) were less likely to develop dementia or cognitive impairment compared with those who consumed lower amounts of caffeine. Read the full study.
• “High Blood Caffeine Levels in MCI Linked to Lack of Progression to Dementia,” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, June 2012. This study observed 124 people ages 65-88, split into two groups. Their cognitive function was measured, and all had a blood test that established how much caffeine was in their blood at the beginning of the study. The groups were followed for a period of two to four years. Among participants with mild cognitive impairment, those who began the study with more than 1,200 ng/dl of caffeine in their blood did not progress to having dementia, while those who had about 50 percent less caffeine in their blood were more likely to report having dementia as the study progressed. Researchers noted that coffee was likely the only or the major form of caffeine for these subjects. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)