6 Nutrient-Packed Foods to Eat for Better Brain Health

Add these staples to your diet to fuel and fortify your noggin.

It's normal and expected for your brain to change over time, but there are a lot of things you can do to keep your brain as healthy as possible throughout your life and reduce your risk of developing neurodegenerative conditions (like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease) as you age. Along with other basic healthy habits such as getting regular exercise, trying/learning new things, and prioritizing sleep, one of your best bets for lowering your risk of such conditions and keeping your brain sharp is to focus on nutrition. After all, like any well-oiled machine, the brain requires proper fuel (translation: nutrients) to work optimally, according to Jonathan Purtell, RD, a registered dietitian at Lenox Hill Hospital.

The brain works around the clock without taking a break, notes Purtell. In addition to regulating cognitive functions (like memory and learning), it's also in charge of essential processes like breathing, movement, and temperature control, just to name a few. Eating well will support these functions, and ultimately, overall health.

Brain Food Basics

But what does a brain-friendly diet look like, exactly? In general, it involves eating fresh, whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. These foods contain key nutrients for brain health, including omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins A, C, and K, according to Casey Kelley, MD, ABoIM, founder and medical director of Case Integrative Health.

Nutrition for brain health is as much about what you avoid, too. Your brain will thank you if you limit processed foods, which are high in saturated fats, trans fats, and added salt and sugar—i.e., nutrients that thwart brain health via inflammation and oxidative stress. Thankfully, to make things easier, these guidelines apply to both brain and body health as a whole.

Still, when it comes to brain wellness, there are some foods that deserve a call-out. Read on to learn about the best foods for brain health, along with how much to eat), according to medical professionals.

Best Foods for Brain Health

01 of 06

Leafy Greens

Grains and greens scramble recipe
Caitlin Bensel

"Leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, and broccoli, are essential for keeping your brain in tip-top shape," says Dr. Kelley. That's because these veggies are chock-full of nutrients required for optimal brain function. For example, leafy greens offer vitamin A, which helps neurons (nerve cells) regulate learning and memory. According to Dr. Kelley, they also provide vitamin C and vitamin K, which boast antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, respectively. This is key because oxidative stress and inflammation are two of your noggin's worst enemies. A quick refresher: Oxidative stress involves a buildup of harmful molecules, called free radicals, resulting in cell damage and inflammation. Long-term oxidative stress and inflammation can promote the development of various neurological conditions, including depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease, Purtell says.

For maximum brain benefits, Dr. Kelley suggests chowing down at least 2 to 3 cups of dark leafy greens a day. This doesn't have to be all about salads, though. "Add a cup of spinach into your eggs or blend some kale into a smoothie," recommends Dr. Kelley. Another option is to toss a cup of greens into a soup or stew while cooking. Eventually the greens will wilt, adding a generous (and effortless) dose of nutrients and flavor.

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Berries

Overnight Oats With Strawberries and Toasted Almonds
Jen Causey

Berries are teeming with flavonoids, a type of antioxidant that gives fruits and veggies their brilliant hues, says Dr. Kelley. "More than making your food beautiful, though, flavonoids help improve memory," she adds. According to a 2019 scientific article in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, flavonoids support communication between nerve cells (and thus, cognitive functions) by suppressing cellular reactions that would otherwise mess with them. Plus, as antioxidants, flavonoids protect nerve cells from oxidative stress, further protecting against neurodegenerative disorders.

"Try [eating] half a cup of berries, particularly blueberries or strawberries, at least three times a week," suggests Dr. Kelley. "Put them in your morning smoothies, add them to oatmeal or yogurt, or toss them in a salad for a sweet kick."

03 of 06

Nuts

Easy chicken recipes - Almond-Crusted Chicken With Arugula Salad
Caitlin Bensel

If you aren't already nuts about nuts, their impressive brain benefits will change your mind. According to Purtell, nuts offer omega-3 fatty acids, the "good" fats that help maintain the structural integrity of your brain. They're also required for proper blood flow, ensuring your brain receives enough oxygen to function. Moreover, nuts contain vitamin E, zinc, and selenium, which all have antioxidant properties. These nutrients "pick up" free radicals in the body, says Purtell, thereby keeping oxidative stress at bay.

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"The American Heart Association recommends 1.5 ounces of unsalted nuts at least four times per week," Purtell says. (A serving size of 1.5 ounces is equal to a small handful of nuts or two tablespoons of nut butter.) All types of nuts are fair game, so you'll have plenty to choose from. Walnuts, pecans, almonds, and cashews are just a few of the delicious choices out there. Eat them as is for a simple snack, or toss them into yogurt, oatmeal, or homemade granola. Craving something savory? Use crushed nuts instead of breadcrumbs to coat a protein, like tofu or fish.

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Fatty Fish

Coriander-Crusted Tilapia With Brown Rice and Vegetables
Jennifer Causey

Like nuts, fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, says Dr. Kelley. In addition to supporting your brain's structure, these fats help decrease levels of beta-amyloid (a type of protein) in your blood. High levels of beta-amyloid are associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease, notes Dr. Kelley, but eating plenty of omega-3s can help reduce the risk. In fact, according to a 2020 study, consuming fish may support cognitive processes, including memory and executive functioning.

Dr. Kelley recommends eating fatty fish at least twice a week. One serving is about 3 ounces, or ¾ cup, of cooked fish, according to the American Heart Association. While you're at it, choose options that are low in mercury, suggests Dr. Kelley, which includes varieties like salmon, tilapia, sardines, and pollock, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

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05 of 06

Dark Chocolate

Homemade Peanut Butter Cups
Grace Elkus

Good news, dark chocolate lovers! This sweet (but not too sweet) treat is high in antioxidant flavonoids, which help support brain health by boosting the function (and regeneration) of nerve cells, according to a 2017 scientific review in Frontiers in Nutrition. They're also involved in pathways, or cellular reactions, that protect said nerve cells from damage. What's more, flavonoids decrease the risk of heart disease, effectively supporting healthy blood flow to the brain, Purtell notes.

Thanks to these brain benefits, a daily dose of dark chocolate will do you well. According to Purtell, the recommended serving is one ounce (or one square) of dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa. "Make sure to check the nutrition label for added sugars," he adds. A high intake of processed sugar can lead to oxidative stress, but chocolate with higher percentages of cocoa tends to be lower in sugar, explains Purtell.

06 of 06

Tea

Iced Green Tea With Ginger and Mint
Charles Maraia

Thanks to their rich content of antioxidants, some teas—such as green, black, and lion's mane tea—are notably beneficial for brain health, Purtell says, adding that tea also contains L-theanine, "an amino acid that's been shown to increase concentration and alertness." Case in point: In a 2021 study involving middle-aged and older adults, L-theanine improved performance on attention and memory tasks. Additionally, lion's mane tea (a type of medicinal mushroom tea) can protect nerve cells in the memory-making part of the brain, notes Purtell. And no wonder: According to a 2020 scientific article, lion's mane tea is rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, making it an excellent brain-friendly beverage.

When it comes to tea, drinking a cup a day is a superb way to get your fill of brain-boosting nutrients. But for optimal benefits, you can drink up to two or three cups a day, according to Purtell. Keep in mind that green and black teas contain caffeine, so avoid drinking too much late in the day, especially if you're sensitive to caffeine. Lion's mane tea is naturally caffeine-free, but always check the label to ensure the product is free of caffeinated ingredients.

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