Fuel Your Brain With These 10 Brain Healthy Foods
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Cyrus Khambatta, PhD
Table of Contents
The Brain: Probably The Most Powerful Organ In The Human Body
Keeping your brain healthy is probably one of the most important parts of human health. It is your body’s control center after all, and has a massive effect on your coordination, mental health, intelligence, and even physical abilities.
Which is why it’s interesting that while there are hundreds of different diets to lose weight, few diets actually focus on improving the health and function of the most important organ in your body.
The research is clear: healthy eating and a nutrient-dense diet is one of the most powerful ways to ensure that your brain is in top shape, and can also significantly reduce cognitive decline related to degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
So in this article, we’ll take a look at how your diet affects your brain, and also explore some of the best (and worst) foods that you can use to fuel the most important organ in your body.
The Influence Of Diet On Mental Function
There are two major ways that your diet can impact healthy brain function.
The first is by helping ensure healthy, clean blood flow. Your brain takes up almost 25% of the oxygen and energy in your body, and it needs blood to flow freely and uninterrupted for that to happen.
High cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood glucose, obesity, and other cardiovascular problems can significantly hinder that blood flow, which in turn can hinder cognitive function.
The second way that your diet affects brain power is by providing the key nutrients that your brain cells need. There are a number of vitamins and minerals like polyphenols, vitamin-D, B vitamins, folates, and others that all support cognition and help prevent cognitive impairment.
There’s no one food that will make or break your body’s cardiovascular health or provide all of the nutrients you’ll need permanently, which is why understanding your diet (and how it affects your brain) is so important.
What Are The Best Foods For Brain Health?
There are three major types of foods that keep your brain as healthy and high functioning as possible, while also preventing cognitive decline: whole carbohydrates, key vitamins, and natural antioxidants.
The Three Key Food Types
Whole carbohydrates are the purest form of brain food. Though your body can synthesize emergency fuel if needed from healthy fats, your brain generally demands carbohydrate as its sole source of energy.
Even though the blogosphere will make you believe that since your brain is composed mainly of fat and cholesterol, it’s important to eat a high quantity of fat and cholesterol to promote brain function. The problem is that this argument is not only wrong, it’s overly simplistic.
Your brain is composed fat and cholesterol (amidst trillions of neurons), and despite this it’s preferred fuel is glucose. Glucose powers the overwhelming majority of cognitive function.
Whole carbohydrates are better than simple/processed carbohydrates as the perfect brain foods for two reasons.
First, whole carbs take longer to break down, meaning they offer a good source of steady energy, rather than a quick spike. And second, many whole carbohydrates — like whole grains, fruits, and most veggies — tend to be packed with vitamins and natural antioxidants as well.
Key Vitamins are specific vitamins and minerals that your brain needs to perform its various functions. Your brain is very versatile and can often synthesize these compounds in a pinch, but by providing these compounds to your brain in your diet, you’ll notice the difference.
This list of key compounds includes omega-3 fatty acids (flaxseeds, walnuts, edamame, seaweed), B vitamins (legumes and most vegetables), folate (broccoli, brussels sprouts, most leafy greens)
Natural Antioxidants serve a crucial role in your brain by helping protect it from disease, inflammation, and oxidative stress. In your body, antioxidants scavenge harmful particles called free radicals, allowing your immune system (and the rest of your body) to function better.
This anti-inflammatory and protective effect is even more prominent in your fine-tuned brain, which is why antioxidants like vitamin E, flavonoids, carotenoids, and many more are crucial to brain health.
You can find these compounds in almost all vegetables and fruits, and especially in the world’s most powerful antioxidant: amla!
So in essence, you have three areas of brain health — providing it power, giving it the specific nutrients it needs, and protecting it from disease and oxidative stress. In the next section, we’ll touch on the diet that we believe provides these key pillars of brain nutrition.
Top 10 Brain Healthy Foods
In general, we tend to recommend a low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet for your overall health, and you can accent this with some small amounts of fish and other seafood (like sardines, or whitefish).
We recommend low-fat diets, because they are high in whole carbohydrates, which provides your brain with the fuel that it needs (and helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular brain problems).
We recommend primarily eating plant based meals because most fruits and vegetables are great sources of the key vitamins and antioxidants that your brain needs, without the health risks associated with eating meats.
And finally, we recommend a whole food diet because whole foods tend to be higher in the whole carbohydrates, key vitamins, and antioxidants that your brain needs, without the health risks of processed foods.
The list below is by no means an exhausting list, and it’s hard to go wrong with low-fat, plant-based, whole-food, so experiment with some of your favorites, which can all benefit your brain (and your palette) in different ways.
1. Leafy Greens (Collards, Spinach, Kale)
As it turns out, there’s a reason your mom was always telling you to eat leafy greens.
These vegetables are one of the best plant sources of omega-3, packed with antioxidants, vitamins A, C, E and K, and are a low source of fat and calories so you and eat them pretty much all day.
2. Nuts and Seeds (Flaxseed, Walnuts, Pumpkin Seeds…)
Nuts and seeds are an often overlooked source of nutrition, but the research shows that these vegetables can be one of the best foods for your brain. Between their high levels of omega-3s and vitamin E, these tasty additions to any salad or snack can keep your cognition in top shape.
Soybeans are a great brain food due to something called soybean peptide, which boosts both the immunity and your neuroprotective effects you’ll get from other foods.
Add in the fact that soybeans are a great source of carbohydrates and protein, and there’s very little missing in these fantastic foods. We do recommend them as minimally processed as possible, so choose raw soybeans over tofu and other products whenever possible.
4. Green Tea
First off, green tea has both a natural level of caffeine and l-theanine, which boost brain function (especially when taken in moderate doses).
Green tea has also been proven to support fat burning and reduce your risk of heart disease, which can help make sure that your brain is consistently supplied with a steady flow of healthy blood.
Pumpkin is one of the most diverse sources of key brain nutrients, boasting a wide variety of antioxidants, key nutrients like omega 3s, and natural carbohydrates that make it an incredible brain food across the board.
6. Berries (Blueberries, Strawberries, Raspberries)
Berries in almost all of their forms are a fantastic source of antioxidants, and range from tasty treats that pack a powerful punch for your health all the way to the most powerful antioxidant on the planet (which we’ll explain at the end).
When it comes to providing your brain with the fuel it needs to stay powerful and poised throughout the day, it’s hard to beat bananas. These sweet, tasty fruit are absolutely packed with natural carbohydrates, and are also proven to help with concentration and learning.
8. Black Coffee
One study showed that black coffee was the most prominent source of antioxidants in the American diet, so you might have been enjoying this brain food without even realizing what you were doing.
A healthy amount of caffeine (if consumed in moderation) and black coffee’s zero calories also help with intermittent fasting and weight loss, which provide a number of cardiovascular benefits to your brain.
9. Dark Chocolate
And before you think it’s all fruits and vegetables, it turns out that dark chocolate can be a brilliant food for both your heart health and your brain, a fact that’s been supported by a number of clinical and epidemiological studies.
10. Amla Berries
Remember above when we said we’d touch on the planet’s most powerful antioxidant? Well it turns out, that impressive berry — amla — isn’t just for improving your immunity and fighting oxidative stress.
Lowering your blood glucose, helping you lose weight, protecting what feels like every organ in your body… amla does all of this and more.
Foods To Avoid
There are three main categories of foods that we definitely recommend avoiding, or at the very least reducing in terms of their overall presence in your diet.
Meats, especially red meat and processed meats, have a number of different health risks associated with them, ranging from an increased risk of cardiovascular disease due to their high salt and fat content all of the way to acting as known carcinogens.
There is some research that shows that moderate amounts of seafood, like those that feature in some eastern and Mediterranean diets, may have benefits for your brain, but the research is varied enough that we can’t make an official recommendation on these specific meats..
Another place we can make a clear recommendation is with processed foods and added sugars.
Processed foods are another food that range from bad (as a known obesity and health risk) to worse (as known carcinogens and increases in all-cause mortality), which is why most experts recommend removing these from your diet whenever possible.
Added and processed sugars are another easy-remove recommendation. Added sugars are one of the leading causes of cardiovascular and heart disease, which can directly affect your brain.
Vitamins For Brain Health
As we discussed above, there are a number of different vitamins and minerals that are important to your brain health, like beta carotene, vitamin C, B vitamins, vitamin K, magnesium, omega-3s, and many more.
These provide the building blocks for neurons, help your brain cells function, and serve many vital functions to your brain’s health.
With a diverse and varied diet that is rich in many different types of plants, you’ll get many of these nutrients naturally, but in some cases it may be either necessary or beneficial to take additional supplements and nutrients.
However, for cases like this, it’s always worth asking your doctor about which vitamins or supplements. Everyone is different, so working with an expert health care provider or trusted dietitian is usually the best way to ensure that you’re making the right decision for you.
The Final Word on Foods for Brain Health
If you’re looking to set yourself up for long term success for brain health (and overall health), it’s hard to go wrong with a low-fat, plant-based, whole-food diet that’s rich in a wide variety of vegetables, nuts and seeds, fruits, and legumes.
Apart from the fact that these foods provide a satisfying, diverse treat for your palette, they also provide the wide range of vitamins and minerals that your brain needs to function.
From there, you can fine tune your dietary approach with a dietitian or other health experts. They can help you decide whether you could benefit from antioxidants like Amla Green cardiovascular supplements (like Amla Green too!), or other key nutrients.
For most people though, eating a colorful, diverse, plant based diet can be the easy key to improving your brain health and wellness.
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Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by
Cyrus Khambatta, PhD
Cyrus Khambatta, PhD, is a cofounder of Mastering Diabetes and Amla Green is an internationally recognized nutrition and fitness coach who has been living with type 1 diabetes since 2002. Using an evidence-based approach to nutrition and fitness, he first reduced his own insulin usage by more than 40%, and has educated thousands of people with all forms of diabetes how to reverse insulin resistance using food as medicine. Cyrus earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University in 2003, then earned a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley in 2012. He is the co-host of the annual Mastering Diabetes Online Summit, a featured speaker at the Plant-Based Nutrition and Healthcare Conference (PBNHC), the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) Conference, Plant Stock, and has been featured on Forks Over Knives, NPR, PBS, KQED, Fast Company, and is the author of the upcoming book Mastering Diabetes.
- Cyrus Khambatta