A diet filled with nutrient-rich foods can be a game-changer for your brain, improving your decision-making and problem-solving skills, as well as sharpening your focus and boosting your memory, explains Matthew Kuchan, Ph.D., lead scientist and resident nutrition and brain health expert at Abbott, a global healthcare company located in North Chicago.
That means what you pack your kids for lunch can help their developing minds absorb more at school. And, with a little fine-tuning, your family’s dinners can be packed with foods that have anti-aging properties that can help protect the brain from Alzheimer’s.
We asked experts to dish on the best foods for our brains. Here are their nine top recommendations.
1. Leafy green vegetables
To be more precise, zone in on dark green veggies like broccoli, cabbage and kale, according to Registered Dietitians Kerry Clifford and Meghan Daw, who work with Fresh Thyme Farmers Market. These foods contain carotenoids and flavonoids, antioxidants that help promote brain function, memory and attentiveness, they explain. You can make a cabbage or broccoli slaw as a side dish to sneak more of these leafy greens into your family’s diet, suggests Clifford, also the 2017 vice president for the Chicago Food and Nutrition Network.
Two nutrients that combine and act as a superhero duo? Lutein and zeaxanthin. These nutrients can help improve your memory at any age, according to Kuchan’s research, which he conducts through the Center for Nutrition, Learning and Memory, a partnership between Abbott and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Among the studies that have come out of the partnership is one that shows seniors who consume more lutein are better able to retain and use information they’ve acquired throughout life. Lutein and zeaxanthin are especially prevalent in those leafy green veggies that we already touched on (yet, another reason to get another serving of those collards or spinach), but you can also find them in eggs.
Maybe you do a #MeatlessMonday. How about preceding it with a #SeafoodSunday? Specifically, anchovies, herring, mackerel, Pacific oysters, sablefish, salmon, sardines, swordfish and trout are the best types of seafood for your brain because they’re especially rich in omega-3s.
Vannice says a significant body of evidence shows omega-3 can be a boon for memory, fighting depression and even reducing headaches. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are healthy, essential fats that naturally occur in seafood. DHA, Vannice explains, is essential in infant development. She points to a study that found toddlers whose mothers had higher DHA blood levels at delivery were able to maintain better focus when compared to their peers whose mothers had lower DHA levels. Another study shows that teenagers who consume omega-3s have less anxiety before tests, Vannice says. “People who eat fish over their lifetime have better cognitive function as they age,” she says.
Seafood is a fan favorite among dietitians. Rima Kleiner, R.D. and blogger at Dish on Fish, says we should be eating seafood two to three times per week, a recommendation backed up by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Megan Casper, a registered dietitian nutritionist and writer for Nourished Bite, says salmon is one of the best sources for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. “These fats are considered essential, since your body can’t make them, and they’re linked to all sorts of amazing health benefits,” she says. “Diets high in EPA and DHA can decrease inflammation and oxidation in the brain, which helps reduce memory loss as well as anxiety and depression.”
4. Nuts and seeds
Both nuts and seeds are great sources of vitamin E, says Rene Ficek, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the lead nutrition expert for Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating. Research has found that higher levels of vitamin E correspond with less cognitive decline as you age, Ficek says. But an important reminder: Nuts and seeds are high in calories, so portion control should be exercised, she says. She recommends an ounce a day of walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, filberts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seed or un-hydrogenated nut butters — all of which will give you enough vitamin E (We love Niloofar Persian Trail Mix, which is packed with cashews, almonds and walnuts). As an added bonus, nuts are a natural mood booster, Ficek says.
Evidence suggests lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes, could help protect against the kind of free radical damage to cells that occurs in the development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s, says Ficek.
“Keep in mind that the lycopene found in tomatoes is only available to our bodies if tomatoes are cooked,” she says.
6. Citrus fruits
These fruits are high in vitamin C, explains Caroline Apovian, M.D., and the director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical
Center. We know that vitamin C is great for the immune system, but Apovian says it can also defend the brain against oxidative stress.
“Some studies also suggest that vitamin C deficiency may contribute to cognitive decline in the elderly,” she says. “Your body cannot produce vitamin C on its own; it must be consumed through food.”
Research suggests that the flavonoids found in blueberries may improve memory, learning, reasoning skills, decision-making and verbal comprehension, says
Jennifer Markowitz, R.D., and clinical dietitian at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
“The fresher the food, the more powerful its functional nutrients,” she says.
8. Dark chocolate
Eating 1/2 to one ounce of dark chocolate a day can deliver a beneficial dose of antioxidants that may slow down the aging process of the brain, says Markowitz.
“For the short-term, dark chocolate contains natural stimulants that can enhance focus and concentration,” she says.
9. The MIND Diet
While the Alzheimer’s Association doesn’t recommend a “specific food” for boosting brain power, there are different clinical studies being conducted on nutrition and the effects of cognitive decline, explains Terrianne Reynolds, director of medical research and activities at the Alzheimer’s Association, Greater Illinois Chapter. Among them is research surrounding the MIND Diet at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. The diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, developed by Rush nutritional epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris, Ph.D., and her colleagues.
The diet has 10 brain-healthy food groups:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Other veggies
- Whole grains
- Olive oil
The unhealthy groups are:
- Red meats
- Butter and stick margarine
- Pastries and sweets
- Fried or fast food
A recent study showed the MIND diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 53 percent in those who followed it closely and by about 35 percent in those who followed it moderately.
But when it comes to fighting off Alzheimer’s and other dementias, make sure you don’t stop at healthy eating. Regular exercise is another critical component.
“Research suggests that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cognitive decline,” says Melissa Tucker, director of the helpline and support services at the Alzheimer’s Association Illinois Chapter. “Exercise appears to play a role in protecting the brain from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and also in living better with the disease if you have it.”
Brittany Anas is a freelance writer who specializes in health, fitness and travel writing. She also contributes to Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Trip Savvy, Simplemost, Orbitz, and Eat This, Not That! She spent a decade working at daily newspapers, including The Denver Post and the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and she is a former federal background investigator. In her free time, Brittany enjoys hiking with her gremlin-pot belly pig mix that the rescue described as a “Boston Terrier” and coaching youth basketball. She also works with domestic abuse survivors, helping them regain financial stability through career coaching. Follower her on Twitter and Instagram.