How to Eat For Brain Health
By Registered Dietitian Mia Syn, MS, RDN
Though food is generally perceived as a means to provide energy and building material for the body, research is constantly unraveling its power to protect and prevent against diseases, and influence everything from skin and gut health, to brain function and more. Here is everything you need to know about eating to support brain health, mood, memory and cognition.
Focus on these brain nutrients for memory, mood and cognitive health
The food you eat plays an important role in brain health. The abundance of specific nutrients that we get from food or supplements can affect cognitive processes and emotions. The following nutrients in particular, help keep the brain in tip-top shape.
Choline: Choline is an essential brain nutrient and recent studies suggest that nearly 92% of Americans don’t get enough. Choline is needed for early brain development during pregnancy and infancy. Eggs are the single best dietary source. (1)
Lutein: While typically associated with eye health, emerging research shows that lutein, a carotenoid antioxidant found in eggs and some fruits and vegetables, may also play a role in cognition. Observations studies suggest that higher lutein intake, may be linked to reduced risk of cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in aging adults. (2)
Omega-3 fats: About 60% of the brain is made of fat and half of that fat is comprised of omega-3 fatty acids – particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) fatty acids. (3) In fact, low levels of DHA may hinder the brain's ability to function optimally. While plant-based foods like flaxseeds and walnuts are considered good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) omega-3 fatty acids, the body still needs to convert them to the DHA form for brain health benefits -- and the conversion rate is low. (4) Animal-based foods such as eggs and fatty fish, provide the more bioavailable form of omega-3 fats used by the brain – DHA.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and antioxidant that helps protect cells in the body against free radical damage. The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress which increases during aging and considered a major contributor to development of neurogenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s. High plasma vitamin E levels are associated with better cognitive performance. (5) Vitamin E-rich foods include nuts and seeds, olive oil and avocados.
Top 10 foods for brain health
Now that we know the nutrients that support brain function, here is a list of foods that serve as the best sources.
If you’ve avoided egg yolks because of their cholesterol concerns – there is good news – studies suggest that dietary cholesterol like that found in eggs, typically has no effect on cholesterol levels in healthy adults. (7)
Enjoy them in a veggie-packed omelet or breakfast burrito, or simply boil or scramble. For an on-the-go snack, consider Ovation Foods Chicken Sticks made with lightly seasoned 100% chicken breast and 1 whole egg.
A study conducted on adults who ate blueberries, showed an increase of blood flow to key areas of the brain, improvements in memory and attention to required tasks. (8)
- Avocado: In addition to being a good source of important brain nutrient, vitamin E, avocados are high in fat –the good kind. Monounsaturated fats may help lower blood pressure and increase blood flow – two factors that reduce a person’s risk for cognitive decline.
- Olive Oil: Olive oil is the star ingredient of the Mediterranean diet which has been linked to better visual memory, verbal fluency and decreased risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. (9) Use it in moderate- to high- heat cooking or in no-cook recipes like marinades and salad dressings.
- Turmeric: Rethink how you season your next stir-fry or curry by considering this bright yellow spice. Turmeric contains a powerful compound called curcumin which has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may help new brain cells grow, benefit memory and ease depression. (10)
- Oranges: Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruit, are rich in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that may help delay cognitive decline in elderly. (11) Enjoy oranges on their own, squeezed into juice or added to smoothies.
While black coffee offers virtually no calories, be mindful of what you add to it such as high fat creamers and sugar, which may actually be detrimental to brain health in excess.
Regularly incorporating brain foods helps supply the body with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that may help aid memory, concentration and mood in addition to reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression and other mental health conditions.
Mia Syn, MS, RDN Bio:
Mia Syn is nationally recognized registered dietitian and nutrition expert, Health Advisory Board Member at Forbes and founder of Nutrition By Mia, a popular online wellness destination. She has a master’s in human nutrition from Columbia University and has been featured by dozens of major media outlets including Cosmopolitan and SHAPE and was named one of the top registered dietitians to follow on Instagram by Women’s Health Magazine.