Brain Healthy Foods and Ingredients

You have probably heard about many foods that people claim are "brain healthy." Here are the ones that have the most research to back them up, with explanations of their proven benefits. If you click on the food, you will find recipes including that ingredient.

Eggs are rich in choline, a nutrient that has been associated with long-term memory development. Choline is also a key ingredient in the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh), which is necessary for healthy neurotransmission. Studies have shown that choline intake promotes recovery from learning memory disorders in the aging brain, and may even improve psychic function in those with senile dementia or Alzheimer’s. Egg yolks are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, yielding additional brain benefits at a relatively low caloric cost.

Flaxseeds are full of ALA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid that the body may be able to convert to the brain-benefitting DHA. They’re also one of the best sources of lignans—an estrogen-like chemical. Studies on lignan intake and ground flaxseed consumption suggest that they have potential for improving cognitive performance, especially among postmenopausal women. One study showed that 40 grams of flaxseed a day cut hot flashes (caused when the brain’s hypothalamus gets confused) by 50%, though a later study refutes that.

Garlic has been shown improve memory and cognitive performance in healthy and impaired subjects, and may help to stave off Alzheimer’s. It also has strong antioxidant properties.

Kiwis pack a significant vitamin C punch—nearly 100% of the recommended daily value in just one fruit. Vitamin C is essential for healthy cognition and may influence mood and stress. Kiwifruits are also an excellent source of multiple types of antioxidants, and as such may prevent oxidative stress in brain and body cells.

Lamb is a rich source of niacin, which has been identified as one of the most important nutrients for optimal cognition and neuroprotection. A 9-year study of over 6,000 people aged 65 and over showed that regular intake of niacin-rich foods, such as lamb, may protect against Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline. Lamb is also rich in vitamin B12, which is key for nerve cell development.

Legumes like garbanzo beans, lentils, and split peas are a rich source of folic acid. Studies have shown that folic acid can improve verbal and memory performance, and may delay onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Getting enough folic acid while pregnant is important for fetal brain development too—especially in early pregnancy. It can help prevent neural tube defects—a leading cause of infant mortality in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Many people think that eating nuts is good for your brain. This is true, but not all nuts are created equally. There is great variation in the health benefits to be found in different types of nuts, especially from a brain health perspective.

Walnuts are the top nut for brain health. They have a significantly high concentration of DHA, a type of Omega-3 fatty acid. Among other things, DHA has been shown to protect brain health in newborns, improve cognitive performance in adults, and prevent or ameliorate age-related cognitive decline. Just a quarter cup of walnuts provides nearly 100% of the recommended daily intake of DHA.

Almonds, pecans, and hazelnuts contain some of the most concentrated sources of vitamin E available, and vitamin E intake is generally associated with less age-related cognitive decline. In one study, participants who received vitamin E improved statistically and clinically in some memory and verbal measures, while participants who received a placebo did not. These 3 nuts also contain beneficial antioxidants

Peanuts have not been extensively studied as a brain healthy food, but there is good reason to believe that they offer brain benefits. Peanuts are high in niacin (1/2 cup of peanuts offers about 50% of the RDA for niacin.) Studies have correlated niacin deficiencies with a higher incidence of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. There has also been preliminary research that suggests that eating peanuts may help stave off Parkinson’s.

Recent research on pistachios has found that they contain several types of antioxidant compounds that can be beneficial to the brain and body. Interestingly, from a nutrient perspective, pistachios have more in common with fruits and vegetables than with other types of nuts. You have probably noticed that as compared to other nuts, pistachios are a lot more colorful, with green, yellow, and purple shading. Those colors correlate with the beneficial antioxidants found in the pistachios. The purple color comes from anthocyanins, which are those powerful brain-boosting nutrients found in blueberries. The yellow color can be attributed to beta carotene, lutein, and polyphenols, which are found in olive oil, grapes, and many other healthy fruits and seeds.

Oats are rich in selenium, an antioxidant that has been shown to have protective effects in a variety of brain disorders and age-related cognitive problems. They also supply a sustained energy source to the brain, which may help people learn better. A study of school children showed that those who ate oatmeal before school performed significantly better on spatial memory and auditory learning tasks than those who ate a sugar cereal.

Olive oil is rich in polyphenols, a group of easily-absorbed chemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. A diet rich in polyphenols may suppress the onset of Alzheimer’s by preventing oxidative damage, and because they chelate metals, their routine use may also be protective against the onset of Alzheimer’s. Olive oil is also a good source of vitamin E, which has been shown to delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and which is generally associated with less age-related cognitive decline. Several observational studies on the brain benefits of the Mediterranean diet position olive oil consumption as one of the most important factors.

Unfortunately not all olive oils are created equally. There are many pitfalls to avoid when choosing, storing, and cooking with olive oil. Check out this in-depth article, 5 Rules for Olive Oil and Brain Health, to learn more.

Onions are rich in the antioxidant quercetin, which has been shown to protect against ischemic brain damage (a type of stroke) and may improve impaired memory. Quercetin has also been implicated as a potential anti-depressant.