The foods we eat can have a big impact on the structure and health of our brains. Eating a brain-boosting diet can support both short- and long-term brain function. The brain is an energy-intensive organ, using around 20 percent of the body’s calories, so it needs plenty of good fuel to maintain concentration throughout the day.
The brain also requires certain nutrients to stay healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, help build and repair brain cells, and antioxidants reduce cellular stress and inflammation, which are linked to brain aging and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
This article explores the scientific evidence behind 12 of the best brain foods.
People can also get omega-3s from soybeans, nuts, flaxseed, and other seeds.
1. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate contains cocoa, also known as cacao. Cacao contains flavonoids, a type of antioxidant.
Antioxidants are especially important for brain health, as the brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, which contributes to age-related cognitive decline and brain diseases.
Cacao flavonoids seem to be good for the brain. According to a 2013 review, they may encourage neuron and blood vessel growth in parts of the brain involved in memory and learning. They may also stimulate blood flow in the brain.
Some research also suggests that the flavonoid component of chocolate may reverse memory problems in snails. Scientists have yet to test this in humans.
However, a 2018 study in humans also supports the brain-boosting effects of dark chocolate. The researchers used imaging methods to look at activity in the brain after participants ate chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao.
The researchers concluded that eating this type of dark chocolate may improve brain plasticity, which is crucial for learning, and may also provide other brain-related benefits.
Like dark chocolate, many berries contain flavonoid antioxidants. Research suggests that these may make the berries good food for the brain.
Antioxidants help by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress. The antioxidants in berries include anthocyanin, caffeic acid, catechin, and quercetin.
A 2014 review notes that the antioxidant compounds in berries have many positive effects on the brain, including:
improving communication between brain cells
reducing inflammation throughout the body
increasing plasticity, which helps brain cells form new connections, boosting learning and memory
reducing or delaying age-related neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline
Antioxidant-rich berries that can boot brain health include:
3. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are a plant-based source of healthful fats and proteins.
Eating more nuts and seeds may be good for the brain, as these foods contain omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
A 2014 study found that a higher overall nut intake was linked to better brain function in older age.
Nuts and seeds are also rich sources of the antioxidant vitamin E, which protects cells from oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
As a person ages, their brain may be exposed to this form of oxidative stress, and vitamin E may therefore support brain health in older age.
A 2014 review found that vitamin E may also contribute to improved cognition and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The nuts and seeds with the highest amounts of vitamin E include:
Fully exploring vitamin E’s effects on the brain will require further research.
4. Whole grains
Eating whole grains is another way to benefit from the effects of vitamin E, with these grains being a good source of the vitamin.
Whole-grain foods include:
A source of healthful unsaturated fat, avocados may support the brain.
Eating monounsaturated fats may reduce blood pressure, and high blood pressure is linked with cognitive decline.
Thus, by reducing high blood pressure, the unsaturated fats in avocados may lower the risk of cognitive decline.
Other sources of healthful unsaturated fats include:
almonds, cashews, and peanuts
flaxseed and chia seeds
soybean, sunflower, and canola oils
walnuts and Brazil nuts
Peanuts are a legume with an excellent nutritional profile. They contain plenty of unsaturated fats and protein to keep a person’s energy levels up throughout the day.
Peanuts also provide key vitamins and minerals to keep the brain healthy, including high levels of vitamin E and resveratrol.
Resveratrol is a natural non-flavonoid antioxidant found in peanuts, mulberries, and rhubarb. Evidence from a review article suggests that resveratrol can have protective effects, such as helping to prevent cancers, inflammation, and neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are rich in fiber and nutrients.
As well as being a low-calorie source of dietary fiber, broccoli may be good for the brain.
Broccoli is rich in compounds called glucosinolates. When the body breaks these down, they produce isothiocyanates.
Isothiocyanates may reduce oxidative stress and lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
Broccoli also contains vitamin C and flavonoids, and these antioxidants can further boost a person’s brain health.
Other cruciferous vegetables that contain glucosinolates include:
Leafy greens, including kale, may support brain health.
Like broccoli, kale contains glucosinolates, and leafy greens also contain other key antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. This is why many consider kale to be a superfood.
The foods listed above may help improve a person’s memory and concentration. Some may also reduce the risk of stroke and age-related neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Some of the foods contain compounds such as healthful fatty acids, which can help improve the structure of brain cells called neurons. Other compounds, such as sugars and saturated fats, may damage brain cell structures.
Brain-boosting foods tend to contain one or more of the following:
antioxidants, such as flavonoids or vitamin E
omega fatty acids
Beyond adjusting the diet, a person can optimize their brain function by:
not eating too much or too little
getting enough sleep
reducing stress through yoga, mindfulness, or meditation
reducing alcohol intake
Eating a brain-boosting diet will also provide many benefits for the entire body.