12 Healthy Foods for Good Brain Health

Looking to boost your brain health? Add these foods to your diet to prevent cognitive decline and keep your brain sharp long into life.

woman-slicing-food-on-a-kitchen-table-while-using-her-computer
by
Alicia Buchter
— Signos
Health writer
Green checkmark surrounded by green circle.

Reviewed by

Alicia Buchter
Green checkmark surrounded by green circle.

Updated by

Green checkmark surrounded by green circle.

Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
March 15, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

When we think about eating for health, we often think about the heart, immune system, microbiome, weight, or metabolism. The brain might not always come to mind, but it’s one of the most important organs in our body. Just as our bodies require proper fuel for optimal performance, our brains thrive on specific nutrients that enhance cognitive function and protect against age-related decline. The good news is that many foods that nourish your brain are on the list for many other components of overall health. 

In this article, we’ll explain what makes a food good for brain health and list brain-boosting foods you can add to your diet. Read on to learn about foods you can add to your diet to stay sharp long into life.

Why Is It Important to Feed Your Brain?

The brain is an astoundingly complex object. It holds the key to everything from our memories and personalities to emotional responses and critical thinking. To function optimally, the brain requires a variety of nutrients sourced from food. These nutrients are essential for maintaining the integrity of cell membranes, promoting neuroplasticity, and supporting neurotransmitter synthesis. The brain also uses about 20 percent of your body’s glucose consumption per day, which is more than any other organ.

Unfortunately, the National Institute of Health estimates that 1 in 7 people will develop a neurodegenerative disease, and this statistic will continue increasing as the average lifespan does. Research shows that diet and other lifestyle factors have significant impacts on the development and progression of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.1 Feeding your brain what it needs is important for supporting its functioning late into life.

{{mid-cta}}

Nutrients for the Brain

fish fillet resting on ice

Certain nutrients are especially important for brain health. The following nutrients are found in many of the foods on this list. 

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These fatty acids are essential for neuron structure and function. Research has shown that consuming omega-3 fatty acids improves learning, memory, cognitive well-being, and blood flow in the brain and can inhibit the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.2, 3
  • Antioxidants: These powerful compounds prevent oxidative stress from free radicals. Antioxidants can be especially important for the brain because it is particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage, and after childhood, the brain stops replacing dead or damaged neurons almost completely. 
  • Polyphenols: These compounds are thought to prevent neurodegenerative diseases because they protect neurons against injury induced by neurotoxins, suppress neuroinflammation, and promote memory, learning, and cognitive function.4
  • Fiber: Some research has shown that people who eat more fiber are less likely to develop disabling dementia.5 Fiber is crucial for a healthy microbiome, and an emerging body of research reveals the importance of the gut-brain axis, tying brain health to microbiome health. 

Foods to Avoid

Some foods are known to have detrimental effects on brain health. High intake of added sugars has been linked to inflammation, insulin resistance, and impaired cognitive function. Foods high in added sugar, like sugary beverages and desserts, are best replaced with choices lower in sugar. Eating high amounts of simple carbohydrates like white bread and pasta can have similar effects, so consider eating these in moderation and filling your plate with plenty of other food groups. Diets high in processed foods, trans fats, and sodium have also been associated with poor cognitive function and an increased risk of conditions of cognitive decline.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="period-brain-fog">Period Brain Fog: Your Menstrual Cycles and Cognitive Function</a>.</p>

12 Foods for Brain Health

a plastic bag filled with blueberries
  1. Fatty Fish: Fatty fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids and might be one of the best foods for brain health. They also contain DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a vital component of brain cell membranes that aids in improved cognitive function and reduces the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Fatty fish include salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines.
  2. Leafy, Green Vegetables: Vegetables that are leafy and dark green include spinach, kale, chard, and collard greens. These veggies contain neuroprotective nutrients like lutein, folate, β-carotene, antioxidants, and phylloquinone.6
  3. Cruciferous Vegetables: Crunchy vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts are also nutrient-dense with vitamin K and a precursor to sulforaphane. One study showed that those with higher concentrations of vitamin K in the brain were 17 to 20 percent less likely to experience cognitive decline or develop dementia.5 Sulphoraphane, on the other hand, has been shown by some studies to enhance the body’s defense mechanisms and improve a whole host of important aspects of health, like circulation, nerve cell development, immunity, and gut health, while decreasing inflammation. Research on sulforaphane’s effect on brain health is in its preliminary stages. While there are few large-scale human studies, evidence indicates that the compound could have a preventative effect against neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, or autism.7, 8, 9 
  4. Berries: Packed with antioxidants, berries help combat oxidative stress and inflammation, which are known to contribute to brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases. Blueberries have been linked to improved memory and cognitive performance. Blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, and cranberries are other members of this vibrant food group.
  5. Green Tea: L-theanine, an amino acid, has anti-anxiety effects and, when combined with caffeine, promotes alertness and cognitive performance without the jittery feeling associated with excessive caffeine intake. That said, because green tea does contain caffeine, drinking it in high amounts can have detrimental effects like increasing stress hormones, affecting sleep quality, and amplifying glucose fluctuations.
  6. Nuts: This diverse array of nature's nutrient-packed brain snacks offers plenty of options to choose from. While walnuts boast the most impressive omega-3 fatty acid content, you can’t go wrong with other nuts like almonds, pistachios, pecans, macadamias, or hazelnuts. Nuts are abundant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamin E. Regular consumption of nuts has been linked to improved mental alertness and a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline. Nuts tend to be higher in fat, so consume them in moderation if you regulate your calorie intake. In particular, brazil nuts, cashews, and macadamia nuts are higher in saturated fat, which can have a negative effect on heart health.
  7. Tumeric: This bright golden-orange spice comes from a root in the ginger family and has been used for centuries in Asian cuisines. Turmeric contains curcumin, a compound celebrated for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Studies suggest that curcumin may positively affect brain health, with potential benefits in crossing the blood-brain barrier. 
  8. Pumpkin Seeds: Rich in magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, and copper, pumpkin seeds are chock full of minerals crucial to brain health. Magnesium helps regulate neurotransmitter function, while iron and zinc support cognitive function and stave off cognitive decline.
  9. Oranges: Oranges and other citrus fruits are rich reservoirs of vitamin C—a potent antioxidant that shields the brain from oxidative stress. Beyond its immune-boosting reputation, vitamin C has been linked to a reduced risk of cognitive decline. Other good sources of vitamin C include cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, bell peppers, and tomatoes and fruits like grapefruits and kiwis.
  10. Eggs: Eggs are a good source of nutrients tied to brain health, including vitamins B6 and B12, folate, lutein, and choline. Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter important for mood and memory regulation.10
  11. Avocado: The creamy goodness of avocados offers more than just texture alone. Avocados are full of healthy monosaturated fats, contributing to improved blood flow and supporting optimal brain function. Avocados also have potassium, a mineral known for regulating blood pressure, a crucial factor in maintaining cognitive vitality.
  12. Dark Chocolate: Good news for chocolate lovers: indulging in this treat might benefit your brain. Dark chocolate, with at least 70% cocoa content, is a rich source of flavonoids, caffeine, and antioxidants. Studies suggest that the consumption of dark chocolate is associated with improved memory, mood, and overall cognitive function.11 Chocolate often comes with lots of sugar, so just eat it in moderation and select chocolate with low sugar content for the most benefit.

Incorporating these brain-boosting foods into your diet can positively impact cognitive function and long-term brain health. A well-balanced diet, regular exercise, and overall healthy lifestyle choices are key factors in maintaining a sharp mind and preventing cognitive decline. By adding these foods to your diet you’ll be investing in a healthy future for both your mind and body.

Linking Nutrition Insights to How Your Body Feels and Functions

Nutrition is central to maintaining good health, but everyone responds to food differently, and it can be hard to know what strategies are best for you. With Signos, continuous glucose monitoring is paired with expert advice to give personalized strategies for better metabolic health. Discover more about how Signos works and learn about the link between nutrition, blood glucose, and overall health on Signos’ blog. Not sure if Signos is right for you? Find out by taking a quick quiz.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="healthy-ingredients">20 Healthy Ingredients for Quick, Nutrient-Packed Meals</a>.</p>

Get more information about weight loss, glucose monitors, and living a healthier life
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
  • Item 1
  • Item 2
  • item 3
Get more information about weight loss, glucose monitors, and living a healthier life
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Topics discussed in this article:

References

  1. Popa-Wagner, A.; Dumitrascu, D. I.; Capitanescu, B.; Petcu, E. B.; Surugiu, R.; Fang, W.-H.; Dumbrava, D.-A. Dietary Habits, Lifestyle Factors and Neurodegenerative Diseases. Neural Regen. Res. 2019, 15 (3), 394–400. https://doi.org/10.4103/1673-5374.266045.
  2. Witte, A. V.; Kerti, L.; Hermannstädter, H. M.; Fiebach, J. B.; Schreiber, S. J.; Schuchardt, J. P.; Hahn, A.; Flöel, A. Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Brain Function and Structure in Older Adults. Cereb. Cortex 2014, 24 (11), 3059–3068. https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bht163.
  3. Dighriri, I. M.; Alsubaie, A. M.; Hakami, F. M.; Hamithi, D. M.; Alshekh, M. M.; Khobrani, F. A.; Dalak, F. E.; Hakami, A. A.; Alsueaadi, E. H.; Alsaawi, L. S.; Alshammari, S. F.; Alqahtani, A. S.; Alawi, I. A.; Aljuaid, A. A.; Tawhari, M. Q. Effects of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Brain Functions: A Systematic Review. Cureus 14 (10), e30091. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.30091.
  4. Vauzour, D. Dietary Polyphenols as Modulators of Brain Functions: Biological Actions and Molecular Mechanisms Underpinning Their Beneficial Effects. Oxid. Med. Cell. Longev. 2012, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/914273.
  5. amagishi, K.; Maruyama, K.; Ikeda, A.; Nagao, M.; Noda, H.; Umesawa, M.; Hayama-Terada, M.; Muraki, I.; Okada, C.; Tanaka, M.; Kishida, R.; Kihara, T.; Ohira, T.; Imano, H.; Brunner, E. J.; Sankai, T.; Okada, T.; Tanigawa, T.; Kitamura, A.; Kiyama, M.; Iso, H. Dietary Fiber Intake and Risk of Incident Disabling Dementia: The Circulatory Risk in Communities Study. Nutr. Neurosci. 2023, 26 (2), 148–155. https://doi.org/10.1080/1028415X.2022.2027592.
  6. Morris, M. C.; Wang, Y.; Barnes, L. L.; Bennett, D. A.; Dawson-Hughes, B.; Booth, S. L. Nutrients and Bioactives in Green Leafy Vegetables and Cognitive Decline. Neurology 2018, 90 (3), e214–e222. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815.
  7. Booth, S. L.; Shea, M. K.; Barger, K.; Leurgans, S. E.; James, B. D.; Holland, T. M.; Agarwal, P.; Fu, X.; Wang, J.; Matuszek, G.; Schneider, J. A. Association of Vitamin K with Cognitive Decline and Neuropathology in Community-Dwelling Older Persons. Alzheimers Dement. Transl. Res. Clin. Interv. 2022, 8 (1), e12255. https://doi.org/10.1002/trc2.12255.
  8. Kim, J. Pre-Clinical Neuroprotective Evidences and Plausible Mechanisms of Sulforaphane in Alzheimer’s Disease. Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2021, 22 (6), 2929. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms22062929.
  9. Zheng, W.; Li, X.; Zhang, T.; Wang, J. Biological Mechanisms and Clinical Efficacy of Sulforaphane for Mental Disorders. Gen. Psychiatry 2022, 35 (2), e100700. https://doi.org/10.1136/gpsych-2021-100700.
  10. Wallace, T. C. A Comprehensive Review of Eggs, Choline, and Lutein on Cognition Across the Life-Span. J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 2018, 37 (4), 269–285. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2017.1423248.
  11. Your brain on chocolate. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/your-brain-on-chocolate-2017081612179 (accessed 2024-03-13).
  12. 11 Best Foods to Boost Your Brain and Memory. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-brain-foods (accessed 2024-03-12).
  13. Foods linked to better brainpower. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/foods-linked-to-better-brainpower (accessed 2024-03-12).

About the author

Alicia Buchter is a content writer for Signos and earned her degree in Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Molecular Biology from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA.

View Author Bio

Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

Interested in learning more about metabolic health and weight management?

Try Signos.