“You are what you eat.” It’s a cliché for a reason: It’s true. The foods that we eat make a big impact on how we think, feel, heal and grow. In fact, studies show that the nutrients in food can literally become part of what makes up our brains. And as it turns out, those nutrients are not found in cake and chips.
Most doctors agree that there’s no such thing as a “superfood” and that the best brain health comes from a variety of healthy food choices. They also agree on two very important general rules of brain health, which we explain below.
If it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your brain
The first rule of brain health is: what’s good for your heart is good for your brain. The good news here is that you get double the bang for your healthy eating buck. The foods that your primary care doctor would encourage you to eat for your best heart health are the same as what maximizes your brain health. This applies to your activities as well: regular exercise is good for your heart and brain. When you make healthy choices, you can feel twice as good about yourself knowing your heart and mind feel good too.
Supplements aren’t the silver bullet
The second rule is that vitamins and supplements aren’t as effective as you might think. Research shows that getting the nutrients you need from food is much more effective than taking a supplement. When you eat whole foods, you get more than just the vitamins and minerals—you get all the complex micronutrients that come with it, including fiber and antioxidants. These nutrients are also easier for your body to absorb when they come from food than from a vitamin supplement. So, always do your best to get your nutrients from food and talk to your primary care doctor about when it’s appropriate to use supplements.
Top nutrients for brain health
While there really isn’t such a thing as a superfood, there are nutrients that certainly go above and beyond for brain health. Check out this list of boosters of cognitive function.
- Antioxidants: Your brain uses a lot of oxygen in its daily function. As a result, oxidative stress occurs, which creates free radicals – these are as chaotic as their name suggests. Free radicals damage healthy cells and cause aging, memory loss and disease. Vitamins C, E and A, along with beta carotene, are types of antioxidants.
- Anti-inflammatories: Lots of foods and habits can cause inflammation in your body and brain. Inflammation is uncomfortable and can do significant damage to your brain. Combatting it with foods containing anti-inflammatories and changing your diet is the best way to avoid it. Foods that are anti-inflammatory include berries, oats, leafy green veggies and olive oil.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: These brain boosters are like bouncers for your cells, building protective barriers around them and preventing the wrong types from getting in.
- B vitamins: This group of vitamins aid in energy production, make important neurochemicals and help repair brain cells.
- Amino acids: If you were wondering where “protein” is on this list, here it is, more or less. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. In your brain, they act as neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter watchdogs, keeping their levels right where they should be for your best brain health.
- Caffeine: Have your morning coffee or tea and know you’re doing your brain a favor. When taken in moderation, caffeine works in your brain by blocking a chemical called adenosine which makes you sleepy and causes “brain fog.”
Now that we’ve discussed what your brain needs to be healthy, let’s talk about the foods that contain these essential nutrients that are particularly good for improving memory, focus and mood. Keep in mind that while eating a few berries before a big exam won’t provide immediate focus, eating these foods regularly can help keep general brain fog and memory loss at bay.
- Leafy green vegetables and broccoli: Spinach and kale, plus their cousin broccoli, are chock full of antioxidants.
- Berries: In addition to antioxidants, berries also have anti-inflammatory properties that keep brains functioning at peak performance. A Harvard study found that people who ate two servings of strawberries and blueberries every week delayed their memory decline by as much as two-and-a-half years.
- Whole grains: Grains including oats, barley and quinoa pack tons of B vitamins and antioxidants.
- Fish: Reel in a diet with plenty of servings of fish; they’re one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon, cod and canned light tuna are some of your best options.
- Beans: Soybeans, chickpeas and kidney beans are some of the best sources of B vitamins and their memory-bolstering antioxidants.
- Olive oil: Olive oil is a healthy fat with lots of antioxidants and fights against autophagy, which has been linked to dementia.
- Berries: Berries again? Yes: any kind of berry like blueberries, strawberries and raspberries will help improve your focus thanks to their powerful makeup of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.
- Avocados: Pass the guacamole, but in moderation. Avocados are a good fat and rich in Vitamins K, B and C.
- Whole grains: In addition to the things that make whole grains great for memory is the fact that they’re rich in fiber which helps you feel fuller longer. When your stomach isn’t grumbling, it’s a lot easier to concentrate on the task at hand.
- Coffee and tea: Caffeine, but not too much caffeine, improves focus and concentration.
- Red bell peppers: High in vitamin C and other antioxidants, red bell peppers are great for brain health.
- Walnuts: Nuts in general are good brain food, but walnuts are the star of this group thanks to antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.
The nutrients that improve cognitive function (especially Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, magnesium, Vitamin C and zinc) may also improve your mood. So next time you need a boost, consider grabbing a morsel of dark chocolate, berry parfait or coffee.
Foods that are bad for the brain
We’ve talked about the good, but what foods should you avoid for optimal brain health? Regularly consuming anything that is too processed, fatty or high in added sugar can increase brain inflammation and may impair your memory, and they usually don’t contain any beneficial nutrients. These types of food include:
- Sugary drinks: Pop or soda. Whatever you call it, these sugary drinks are not good for your brain (or your teeth or stomach).
- Deep-fried food: Go easy when you’re at the fair, okay? Deep-fried foods can be a fun and indulgent treat, but eating them frequently is not good for your brain health. Knowing the difference between healthy and less healthy fats will help your brain stay sharp.
- Refined sugar: Make donuts a “do not.” While glucose is an important source of energy for your brain, the amount of sugar in these and other processed baked goods is unhealthy.
While it won’t hurt your brain to consume these types of foods every now and then, the health benefits of limiting processed and high-sugar foods extend beyond the brain. Your heart and colon will also thank you.
Brain health is a marathon, not a sprint
The bad news is that you can’t change your brain heath overnight. The good news is that you can start now by making changes in your diet and incorporating the best brain-friendly foods. Make that grocery list and start eating with your brain in mind today.
Talk to your doctor about how you can keep your brain in tip-top shape through your diet.