If you had to dream up a brain superfood, you might imagine something with magical powers, perhaps from a faraway exotic land. How can regular old food—the kind sitting in your refrigerator—help you think faster, perform better, preserve your memory and even improve your mood? The truth is, you probably have some of the top brain superfoods within arm’s reach right now.
No single food is a magic nutritional bullet, but by incorporating all of these choices into your healthy eating plan, and by making smart lifestyle choices, you’ll be on the right path toward brain health.
Rethink these common foods with not-so-common benefits, and nourish your brain to stay sharp today and for many tomorrows.
“Getting older doesn’t necessarily have to mean declining cognitive function,” says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D.N., director of nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “Good nutrition can help keep your brain healthy for your entire life.”
Brain Superfood: Berries
Berries—blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and others—pack a brain-benefiting punch that far exceeds their diminutive size. Experts believe that stress and inflammation contribute to brain impairment. These super fruits fight back with strong antioxidants and flavonoids, plant compounds that scavenge and help destroy the free radicals that contribute to the inflammation process.
A study in the Annals of Neurology of more than 121,000 people found that flavonoid-rich foods, like berries, may help delay cognitive decline in older adults by as much as two and a half years if they consume at least two servings a week (one serving is about a cup). Frozen berries deliver similar nutritional benefits as fresh ones, but are cheaper, although nothing beats the taste of a sun-ripened pick. Toss them in smoothies, fold them into pancake batter or add them to your salad.
Brain Superfood: Fatty Fish
A specific type of omega-3 fatty acid, called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is found in cell membranes and at your brain’s nerve endings. These compounds keep your cells healthy, allowing messages to travel efficiently.
A study in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia found that people who supplemented their diets with DHA had the learning and memory skills of someone up to three years younger. And a study in the Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging found that a group of people in their seventies who regularly consumed fish (especially fatty fish, like salmon, trout, and mackerel) scored higher on cognitive tests, on average, than a group that didn’t eat fish. Other research suggests that fatty fish can also improve your mood: High DHA levels are linked to increased dopamine and serotonin, the same brain chemicals that antidepressants activate.
To make DHA, your body needs alpha-linolenic acid [ALA], which is found in flax, hemp, chia, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, soy and leafy greens. “We can convert ALA into DHA, but the process is inefficient,” Powell says. “It’s this inefficiency that makes it important to either eat fatty fish or supplement your diet with a combined EPA/DHA product.”
Aim for 16 ounces (four servings) of fish per week, which could include up to 12 ounces of fatty fish, such as halibut, mackerel, salmon, and trout. Canned light tuna is another good source of omega-3s, but it’s wise to be extra mindful of your servings, due to its higher mercury level. If you don’t eat much fatty fish, talk to your nutritionist or physician about whether a supplement might be right for you.
Brain Superfood: Green Tea
A cup of green tea may help you get closer to remembering everything on your mental to-do list. Green tea may help protect against Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases, such as dementia, according to researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. How it works: Antioxidants called polyphenols in green tea bind to toxic compounds, protecting brain cells from harm. Aim to drink freshly brewed tea when possible, because as tea stands after brewing it begins to lose its polyphenol content.
If you prefer a morning cup of coffee, good news: Caffeine has been shown to increase neuronal activity and improve short-term memory, as well as decrease the incidence of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. (Just keep your intake in check as drinking too much caffeine, or consuming it too late in the day, can negatively impact your quality of sleep at night.)
Brain Superfood: Nuts
Almonds, pecans, and walnuts are all good sources of the powerful antioxidant vitamin E, which quenches free radicals that can damage brain cells and cause disease. Brazil nuts, cashews, dried coconut and flax seeds are also brain superfoods because, like almonds, they’re such good sources of magnesium—a nutrient that may help improve memory and protect against age-related memory loss, according to a study in the journal Neuron.
Researchers suspect that magnesium enhances the brain’s plasticity—its ability to change and grow with experience—and increases the number of brain synapses that can be activated. Consider snacking on a handful of nuts, or adding them to salads for crunch. (Just keep portion sizes in check, so you’re not overdoing it on calories.) You can also try swapping your peanut butter for almond or cashew butter.
Brain Superfood: Dark Chocolate
Eating dark chocolate could help sharpen your performance and provide a temporary attention boost, say experts at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. Cocoa is rich in plant flavonols, compounds that boost blood flow to the brain for two to three hours after they are consumed.
Researchers say the flavonols found in cocoa, used to make chocolate, could be useful in enhancing brain function in people fighting fatigue, sleep deprivation and even the effects of aging.
Have an ounce of dark chocolate per day. Melt and drizzle it over fruit, or add it to your morning oatmeal. And skip white and milk chocolate—although they’re far sweeter than dark chocolate, they don’t contain the brain-benefitting flavonols you seek.
Brain Superfood: Turmeric
Research from Duke University suggests that eating curry once or twice a week can lower your dementia risk by 50 percent. Experts say curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric that gives the powder its flavor and color, may bind to and dissolve plaque in the brain, preventing harmful build-up. (Tumeric is used in all sorts of Indian recipes, especially curry dishes.)
Another study done at Michigan State University found that curcumin helps prevent the formation of destructive proteins that show up in the brains of people with neurodegenerative diseases. Stir turmeric into scrambled eggs, add it to chicken and tuna salads, blend it into sauces or whisk it into dips and vinaigrettes.