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by Nissa Simon
Updated August 19, 2022
What you eat influences how you think. It's that simple. Your food choices affect your brain and may even make a difference between clear thinking and forgetfulness. Meals and snacks may also determine your mood — whether you feel upbeat or blue, energetic or sluggish.
"There is no single magic dietary bullet for brain health, in part because a healthy brain depends on having the rest of your body healthy as well," says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Instead, a wide variety of nourishing foods is best for maintaining a healthy brain, Willett notes. "Good blood circulation is important, so healthy fats and healthy carbohydrates are a good beginning," he continues. Here are 10 foods research suggests may help support brain health — and some terrific substitutes to try as well, along with recipes to help you make these superfoods part of your super diet.
This leafy green is rich in naturally occurring plant pigments that the body can't produce itself. Studies suggest that these substances, called carotenoids, help slow the loss of memory and thinking skills that typically comes with age. Kale also contains abundant amounts of folate, also called vitamin B9. Folate is necessary for the production of dopamine, a brain chemical that seems to soothe nerves and improve mood and alertness. Note: Kale retains nutrients if you make your own kale chips. If you're considering a bag of commercial kale chips, check to see that it's not loaded with salt, sugar or cane syrup, another name for sugar.
Not a fan of kale?
Broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy or collards can take its place.
Need some inspiration? Try Kale Salad With Preserved Lemon & Walnuts.
Soft-boiled, hard-boiled, scrambled or coddled, eggs benefit your brain and nervous system. The yolks are packed with choline, a nutrient related to B vitamins that is involved in producing chemicals that affect mood and memory. Several studies conclude that people who eat foods rich in choline do better on memory tests and are less likely to show signs of impaired thinking over time than those who ate foods with the least amount of choline. An added bonus: The yolks are also a stellar source of natural vitamin D, which some studies have linked to protection against memory loss and forgetfulness.
Not a fan of eggs?
Help yourself to roasted soybeans, baked red potatoes (leave the skin on), chickpeas, snow peas or kidney beans.
This green fruit is a good source of a family of B vitamins that play a role in producing brain chemicals that may improve mood and protect memory and even help prevent anxiety and relieve irritability. Avocados also provide lutein, a nutrient that's important for brain health as well as eye health. Some studies have found that lutein may improve memory as well as problem-solving ability. Although avocados contain fat, it's unsaturated fat, the kind usually called "good fat" because it can improve blood cholesterol and stabilize hearth rhythms.
Not a fan of avocados?
Try broccoli, corn, kale, peas, pistachios or spinach instead.
4. Lemons and limes
Lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruit and their lesser-known citrus fruit cousins — including pomelos, kumquats, bergamot and finger limes — do more than add a tart spark of flavor to food. They contain naturally occurring compounds called polyphenols that safeguard the brain's nerve cells. Several studies that explored the impact of food on mental abilities concluded that citrus fruits may be linked with protecting long-term memory and mental skills such as thinking, planning ahead and following directions.
Not a fan of citrus fruits?
Apples, berries, cherries, grapes, pears or plums are effective stand-ins.
For a change of pace, serve this Persian Cucumber and Tomato Salad With Preserved Lemon for lunch.
Walnuts offer more than a mild, satisfying taste. These small, gnarled nuts are good for your brain as well as your body. Research suggests munching on walnuts helps guard against memory loss and may help delay a decline in thinking skills that generally comes with age. Research has found that walnuts also seem to enhance mental abilities such as thinking, reasoning, learning and remembering. In addition, some intriguing research has found that including walnuts in your meals or as a snack may prepare the body to deal better with stress. Rich in protein and fiber, a handful of walnuts can be a satisfying snack.
Not a fan of walnuts?
In their place, pour a handful of other tree nuts, such as almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews and pecans.
This hearty salad gets dressed up with glazed walnuts.
6. Black beans
These unassuming beans contain a significant amount of folate, aka vitamin B9. A deficit of this vital nutrient may contribute to memory loss, forgetfulness and impaired thinking. Folate is water-soluble and is not stored in the body in large amounts, so you have to top up your stores through the foods you eat. Black-eyed peas, green beans, kidney beans, lentils and white beans — all members of the bean family — provide a good amounts of folate. Canned beans? They're fine if you rinse them before using, in order to take away excess sodium and starchy water.
Not a fan of beans?
Asparagus, broccoli, beets or spinach offer similar benefits.
Combine the best of both worlds in a nacho-pizza combination.
Blueberries, as well as blackberries, raspberries and other berry fruits, may help protect against thinking problems that sometime come with the passing of time. These bright and colorful fruits contain naturally occurring plant chemicals (phytonutrients) that play a role in improving communication between brain cells. A long-term study of older adults revealed those who consumed the most berries, particularly blueberries and strawberries, delayed the loss in thinking skills by up to two and a half years, compared with those who ate the least. Other research has found that berries may also enhance mood and decrease the risk of developing depression.
Not a fan of berries?
Try fresh, frozen or dried red grapes, kiwi, figs or rhubarb in their place.
Start your day with this delicious blueberry pecan oatmeal.
8. Rolled oats
Your brain, along with the rest of your body, cannot work without energy, and certain foods work better than others to stoke that energy. Diets high in processed, fatty foods and refined sugar (think sugar-glazed doughnuts dipped in sprinkles) shortchange your body of healthy complex carbs and don't do your mind or mood any favors. They may, in fact, lead to brain fog and memory problems. Foods rich in complex carbs, on the other hand, provide a steady supply of glucose that slowly releases energy to fuel the brain and support mental alertness. To help keep your brain in good working order, choose rolled oats, whole-grain breads and pastas or barley.
Not a fan of oats?
Look for starchy vegetables like fresh corn, potatoes, squash and quinoa (although classified as a whole grain, it's technically a seed).
Stow a batch of these blueberry-oatmeal cakes in the freezer to microwave for a healthy grab-and-go breakfast.
9. Extra-virgin olive oil
No wonder you'll find a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil in most Mediterranean kitchens. Extra virgin olive oil does more than flavor food. 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 compounds found in olive oil may help increase mental focus and slow the decline in thinking skills that come with age.
Not a fan of olive oil?
If you don't like the robust taste of olive oil, reach for a bottle of almond, avocado, flaxseed or grapeseed oil instead. Although they haven’t been studied as much for brain health benefits as olive oil, they do have healthy unsaturated fat and omega fatty acids.
Mix this basil pesto in tomato or potato salad, or spread it on bread as a flavorful sandwich base.
10. Coffee and tea
Jump-start your day with a warm cuppa tea or mug of coffee. In addition to the comforting aroma, there's a great bonus: Some research suggests that these familiar drinks may slow down brain aging, improve mood and help protect against memory disorders. Pass up ready-made bottles of tea or coffee drinks — you'll reap these benefits only from freshly brewed coffee and from black, oolong or green tea brewed from tea leaves.
Not a fan of coffee or tea?
Pour yourself a cup of hot water and add a squeeze of lemon juice for an age-old way to greet the day. (Though you won’t get the health benefits mentioned above for coffee or tea.)
Bake a batch of banana bread with coffee for a new twist on an old favorite.
• "The Role of Retinal Carotenoids and Age on Neuroelectric Indices of Attentional Control Among Early to Middle-Aged Adults," Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, June 2017. In this study, 60 adults between the ages of 25 and 45 had their carotenoid levels measured and completed tests to assess their cognitive function. The research showed a relationship between higher carotenoid levels and better cognitive performance. Limitations of the research include the small sample size, limited age range of the participants and the fact that, as a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• "Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline," Neurology, January 2018. This study looked at 960 adults between the ages of 58 and 99 who were part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project. Participants filled out questionnaires about what they ate and had at least two cognitive tests done over the course of about four years. The researchers found that eating one serving of leafy green vegetables per day was associated with slower cognitive decline. 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 a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• "Associations of dietary choline intake with risk of incident dementia and with cognitive performance: The Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study," The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, July 2019. In this population-based cohort study, researchers reviewed the data of more than 2,000 middle-aged men in Finland, focusing on those who had filled out questionnaires about what they ate and had participated in cognitive testing over the course of several years. The researchers found an association between higher intake of a form of choline called phosphatidylcholine and a lower risk of dementia. 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.
• "The relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort," The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2011. In this study of 1,391 women and men between the ages of 36 and 83, participants filled out questionnaires about what they ate for at least three years and also received neuropsychological evaluations and brain MRIs. Researchers found that higher choline intake was associated with better cognitive performance. 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.
• "Low Vitamin D and Its Association With Cognitive Impairment and Dementia." Journal of Aging Research, April 2020. This review of research analyzed cross-sectional studies, longitudinal studies and meta-analyses that have found that people with Alzheimer's disease and cognitive impairment tend to have low levels of vitamin D. The authors note that additional research in the form of large double-blind randomized control trials is needed. Read the full study.
• "Low macular pigment optical density is associated with lower cognitive performance in a large, population-based sample of older adults," Neurobiology of Aging, November 2013. In this study, 4,453 adults age 50 or older, who were part of The Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging, performed cognitive tests and had their levels of macular pigments such as lutein measured. Researchers found an association between lower levels of macular pigments and poorer memory and cognitive function. This is a population study, so it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• "Avocado Consumption Increases Macular Pigment Density in Older Adults: A Randomized, Controlled Trial," Nutrients, August 2017. This six-month randomized, controlled trial of 48 adults found that those who ate one avocado per day had better problem-solving abilities and attention compared with those who ate potatoes or chickpeas, which do not contain lutein. The Hass Avocado Board funded the research. Read the full study.
• "Flavonoid-rich orange juice is associated with acute improvements in cognitive function in healthy middle-aged males," European Journal of Nutrition, August 2015. In this study of 24 males ages 30 to 65, those who drank orange juice performed better over the next six hours on cognitive tests that measured for factors such as alertness and executive function. Read the full study.
• "A cross-sectional study of the association between walnut consumption and cognitive function among adult U.S. 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.
• "Beneficial Effects of Walnuts on Cognition and Brain Health," Nutrients, February 2020. This review of research summarizes the findings of laboratory and animal studies that have looked at how compounds in walnuts can help reduce oxidative stress that contributes to aging and cognitive impairment. It also discusses a small human study conducted with 13 participants that found that those who ate walnuts had elevated levels of polyphenols, a type of antioxidant, in their blood. Read the full study.
• "Dietary intakes of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline," Annals of Neurology, April 2012. In this study of more than 16,000 adults who were part of the Nurses' Health Study, participants filled out questionnaires about what they ate and participated in cognitive testing over the course of more than five years. Researchers found that eating more blueberries (and strawberries) was associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline. 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 a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• "Effect of 4 weeks daily wild blueberry supplementation on symptoms of depression in adolescents," British Journal of Nutrition, March 2020. In this randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial of 64 adolescents ages 12 to 17, those who drank blueberry juice reported fewer depression symptoms. Read the full study.
• "Effect of an Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Intake on the Delay of Cognitive Decline: Role of Secoiridoid Oleuropein?," Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, October 2019. This review of research looked at in vitro and in vivo studies in order to examine the neuroprotective effects of compounds found in olive oil. Read the full study.
• "Effect of the replacement of dietary vegetable oils with a low dose of extra-virgin olive oil in the Mediterranean diet on cognitive functions in the elderly," Journal of Translational Medicine, January 2018. In this yearlong study of 180 elderly white adults, those who were assigned to follow a diet in which all vegetable oils were substituted with extra-virgin olive oil performed better on cognitive tests that measured for factors such as attention and recall. Limitations of the study include the lack of diversity among the participants. Read the full study.
• "Caffeine and Alcohol Intakes and Overall Nutrient Adequacy Are Associated with Longitudinal Cognitive Performance Among U.S. Adults,” The Journal of Nutrition, April 2014. In this study of thousands of adults who were part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, participants filled out questionnaires about what they ate and drank and participated in cognitive testing over the course of many years. Researchers found that higher caffeine intake was associated with better cognitive function. Limitations of the study include the fact that it relied on participants' own reporting of their caffeine consumption and that, as a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• "Green Tea, Coffee, and Caffeine Consumption Are Inversely Associated With Self-Report Lifetime Depression in the Korean Population," Nutrients, September 2018. In this study of 9,576 adults, those who consumed the most coffee and tea had the lowest prevalence of depression. Limitations of the study include the fact that it relied on participants' own reporting of their caffeine consumption and moods and that, as a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.