The 7 Best Foods for Your Brain Health, Say Dietitians

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October 23, 2022
digging into a bowl of yogurt with blueberries and walnuts
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Your brain is, arguably, your most important organ. The gray matter inside your head not only controls all your other organs, it’s the source of your personality, memory, and intellect. Within your body, there’s nothing that doesn’t happen under its watch! Yet, in our pursuit of a healthy diet, we often focus on other goals besides a thriving noggin. But these best foods for brain health are equally as important!

Fortunately, many of the foods you might choose for purposes like heart health or weight loss are also great for your central command organ. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and folate all have a role to play in supporting a brain that stays sharp, even as you age.

Ready to eat your way to a stronger brain? We tapped dietitians for their seven top best foods for brain health to include in your diet.

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1. Wild blueberries

The blueberries you may enjoy in smoothies and pancakes have more to offer than a pop of color and flavor — though they certainly add those, too! The wild kind — which grows uncultivated in the northern U.S. and Canada — is an especially excellent choice for boosting brain health.

Because of their higher skin-to-flesh ratio, wild berries contain more antioxidants than the cultivated variety. Antioxidants may make all the difference for your brain. In younger people, research has found that blueberries’ flavonoids (aka antioxidant compounds) could benefit mood and decrease the risk of depression.

In a small 2017 study in Nutrients, for example, young adults who drank a flavonoid-rich blueberry drink subsequently had a more positive mood than those who drank a placebo. In another study, adolescents who ate wild blueberries had significantly fewer depressive symptoms after both a two- and four-week period.

It’s not just younger people who can get a boost from blueberries. “Eating wild blueberries benefits adults, too, as research shows that regular consumption of them can help improve memory and slow brain aging in older adults,” says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based dietitian and nutrition partner with Wild Blueberries of North America.

Some berry compelling evidence: a study in the European Journal of Nutrition found that older adults who added wild blueberries to their daily diet for three months made fewer mistakes on memory tests.

2. Pulses

What are pulses, you might ask? Beans and legumes like lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and pinto beans all fall under this botanical umbrella term. Though they usually get more press for their high fiber content and plant-based protein, pulses are a surprising friend to your brain.

“Pulses are one of my fave brain foods that aren’t talked about enough,” says Amanda Sauceda, MS, RD. “They’re an excellent source of folate, which is a B vitamin important for brain health.”

In fact, numerous studies have looked at the impact of folate and other B vitamins on cognition and aging. One such study found that when elderly people with mild cognitive impairment supplemented their diets with folate and vitamin B12 for six months, they had significantly improved cognitive performance. They also had reduced markers of inflammation in their blood.

Plus, believe it or not, nourishing your gut with fiber could indirectly nourish your brain. “Pulses are packed with fiber, which supports your gut microbiome and in turn may nourish the gut-brain axis,” Sauceda says.

3. Beets

The folate (aka vitamin B9) in beans is also abundant in beets, making it another one of the best foods for brain health!

“Beets offer lots of folate to support brain health,” says Gabrielle McPherson, MS, RDN, LDN. “Recent research suggests getting enough folate may help protect against Alzheimer’s.”

According to a large systematic review and meta-analysis, patients with Alzheimer’s disease had lower levels of folate than healthy subjects. Researchers concluded that folate deficiency could increase the risk of developing cognitive impairment.

4. Leafy greens

For your gray matter, you may want to go green. “Leafy greens are great for brains,” says Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, owner of Sound Bites Nutrition. “A recent study indicated that individuals that consume leafy greens have better cognitive functioning than individuals who consume less.”

Veronica Rouse, RD, known as The Heart Dietitian, concurs, pointing out that specific nutrients in green veggies may be responsible for their advantageous effects on your brain. “Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are rich in brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta-carotene,” she says.

Just one serving of green leaves per day may be all it takes to experience benefits, per a 2018 study. “One serving of spinach or kale can be easily sautéed in olive oil, salt, and pepper or added to soup,” Rouse suggests.

Or fortify brain wellness by tossing some kale or spinach into a morning smoothie — preferably a wild blueberry one!

Related: 8 Healthy Spinach Recipes That Use Up the Whole Bag

5. Fatty fish

Often touted as “good” fats, omega-3 fatty acids definitely deliver for brain health.

“Omega-3s help with brain development and keep the brain functioning optimally,” says Mary-Catherine LaBossiere, MPH, RD, LDN, owner of Defy Nutrition. “Low levels of DHA, one type of omega-3, have been linked to learning and memory deficits.”

Case in point: a 2022 study linked eating omega-3s with improved brain structure and cognition in midlife.

One of the best sources of edible omega-3s? High-fat seafood. “Fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, and tuna, are great sources,” LaBossiere points out.

6. Walnuts

Fancy some nuts for your noggin? Make ’em walnuts. Adding walnuts to your trail mix or workday salad could pay off for brain health. Like fatty fish, walnuts are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, specifically the alpha-linoleic (ALA) variety. These fats have potent anti-inflammatory effects. And because experts believe that inflammation is a major driver of Alzheimer’s disease, getting plenty of ALA in nutty vehicles could decrease the likelihood of cognitive decline.

One study (funded in part by the California Walnut Commission) put the walnuts-for-the-brain theory to the test, supplementing the diets of over 600 elderly people with the nuts for two years. While those who ate walnuts had no changes in cognition tests, fMRI scans revealed that added walnuts could delay cognitive decline in certain high-risk groups.

7. Chia seeds

“If you’re looking to boost your family’s brain health, it’s as simple as adding chia seeds to your meals,” says Dani Lebovitz, MS, RDN, CSSD, CDCES, founder of Kid Food Explorers. “Chia seeds are a triple threat to cognitive brain decline because they are packed with antioxidants, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids—three important nutrients for brain health.” Specifically, the antioxidants quercetin, chlorogenic acid, and caffeic acid in chia seeds may have neuroprotective effects, Lebovitz says.

Meanwhile, as with pulses, the fiber in the little round seeds supports a healthy gut, which may benefit your brain via the gut-brain axis. Just 1 tablespoon provides 5 grams — 20% of your recommended daily fiber intake!

Chia seeds’ mild taste and small size mean they’re an easy upgrade for all sorts of meals and snacks. “Try adding chia seeds as ‘sprinkles’ on yogurt and oatmeal, mixed with water for an easy egg replacement in baked dishes, or on its own in coconut chia pudding,” Levovitz suggests.

Read next: 8 Recipes That Contain Superfoods for Brain Health

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