The brain is our central control panel, playing a crucial role in just about every system in the body. So it’s no surprise that it needs a lot of fuel to perform at its best. In fact, the brain consumes a huge amount of energy compared to the rest of the body. (1) But it’s not just calories that keep the brain humming. Research into brain science and nutrition tells us that specific foods and nutrients have direct effects on brain function. Considering that millions of Americans will eventually develop brain-related problems like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, or anxiety, brain health should be a top priority for each of us.
The good news though is that understanding what foods are best for brain health can help you protect this precious organ.
Best brain foods
In this article, we’ll explore the research behind five easy-to-find power foods you can start feeding your brain today.
1. Fatty fish
When it comes to brain-boosting foods, omega-3–rich fatty fish is the star of the show—and with good reason.
It turns out omega-3 fatty acids are so closely linked to brain health that scientists think fish consumption may be part of the reason early humans were able to develop such big brains. (2)
From an evolutionary perspective, fish was the original brain food.
Now, in modern times, omega 3s are no less important for brain health. Researchers have found that different omega 3s protect the brain and may be able to treat a variety of different brain conditions. (3)
Here are just a few ways omega 3s boost brain health:
- They may improve brain function in people with age-related cognitive decline (4)(5)
- They can improve depression as much as pharmaceutical antidepressants (6)
- When taken during pregnancy, they have lasting effects on fetal brain development (7)
Adding more fatty fish to your diet is a great way to increase your omega 3 intake—and bolster your brain health.
Of course, not all fish are created equal. For the biggest helping of omega 3s, try:
- mackerel (5,134 mg of omega 3s per 3.5-ounce serving) (8)
- salmon (2,260 mg per serving) (9)
- herring (1,729 mg per serving) (10)
If you need a memory boost—whether it’s for an exam or because you’ve forgotten where you put those keys again—try starting your day with an omelet.
Eggs are making a name for themselves as possible brain food because of one key nutrient they contain: choline.
Choline is involved in a number of essential brain functions, including memory. Plus, it helps the brain create and release acetylcholine, which is crucial to memory. Acetylcholine tends to be lower in people with Alzheimer’s disease. (11)
In one large study, researchers found that eating more choline was associated with better memory and less likelihood of brain changes linked to Alzheimer’s disease. (12)
In another study, older adults with lower levels of choline in the blood had slower sensorimotor function and perception, as well as worse executive function and cognition. (13)
Good news is that it’s easy to get the recommended daily allowance of memory-enhancing choline. Men need 550 mg per day, and women need 425 mg, and one large egg contains 147 mg. (14)
While it’s too soon to say that an apple a day keeps dementia away, research is starting to find that this fruit aisle staple may provide crucial benefits for brain health.
One reason is that, like eggs, apples increase the amount of acetylcholine in the brain. In one animal study, researchers found that apple juice concentrate increased acetylcholine levels and improved cognitive decline. (15)
Another reason apples are on the list of must-have brain foods is that they pack a hefty amount of quercetin—an antioxidant that protects brain cells. (16)
One important note: Much of the quercetin apples contain is in their skins, so don’t peel your apples before eating them.
Chocolate lovers rejoice! Cacao, the key ingredient is chocolate, may make for a stronger brain.
Maybe that explains why Nobel laureates are such fans of chocolate! (17)
In one study, researchers found that the flavonoids in cacao help with neuron and blood vessel formation in the parts of the brain that govern memory and learning. (18) And another study found that dark chocolate boosts brain plasticity—a key ingredient in brain health and behavior.
Just be sure to pick a bar of chocolate with lots of cacao (and less sugar)—70 percent is a good benchmark, but more may be better.
You’ve probably heard about the microbiome—the collection of millions of microorganisms that live in your body—and its importance in digestive health. But did you know that the microbiome may be the key to unlocking the secrets of brain health as well? Research has found associations between the microorganisms in the digestive tract and a number of brain-related illnesses—Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and more. (19) In fact, the brain and the microbiome are so closely linked that researchers recently dubbed the intertwined systems “the microbiota-gut-brain axis.” (20) One of the best ways to keep your microbiome—and therefore your brain—healthy is to feed it beneficial bacteria like those in yogurt. Researchers at UCLA found that consuming yogurt can actually change the way your brain functions. (21) When choosing yogurt, take the time to check the label. You want to pick one with live and active cultures. The label should also tell you which specific bacteria strains are in the yogurt. Since variety is key when it comes to the microbiome, you can augment your probiotic intake with other foods that provide different strains. Kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi are good choices.
The bottom line
The simple truth is that—as with all aspects of health—proper nutrition is essential for a healthy brain. Keep your memory sharp, your spirits high, and your processing speeds racing with these foods.