Best & Worst Foods for Brain Health, According to Dietitians
What you eat (or don't) can make a big difference in your brain health throughout your life. Learn which foods to add to your diet—and which ones you should limit—to improve memory and learning and reduce risk of age-related cognitive decline.
When it comes to what to eat to keep your thinker in tip-top shape, it's actually a bit of a no-brainer (no pun intended). What's good for the rest of your body is also good for your brain. Filling your plate with whole foods, more plants than animal foods, and lots of colorful produce goes a long way. In fact, overall dietary patterns that prioritize plant-based foods and contain less meat and processed foods are linked to both better brain function and reduced risk of brain-related diseases. Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds are full of vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants and (in some cases) healthy fats that support your brain throughout your lifespan.
While your overall diet matters most, there are some foods that can give your brain an extra boost—and a few that should be limited.
The Best Foods for Brain Health
"Beets are high in nitrates that help increase blood flow to the brain, which means our brain gets what it needs faster." says Nicole Stefanow, M.S., RDN, Greater NYC Area. It's thought that dietary nitrates (from plant foods) may even slow age-related cognitive decline and dementia. "Beets also contain rich pigments called betalains, which give beets their signature ruby red color, decrease oxidative stress and inflammation, and help prevent premature brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease," adds Stefanow.
2. Pumpkin seeds
While other nuts and seeds tend to get all the love, humble pumpkin seeds are like little powerhouse plants for our brain. They're packed with zinc (the best plant-based source of this mineral, with 20 percent of the daily value per ounce), which plays an important role in brain health. Low levels of zinc have been linked to both neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and mental health conditions like schizophrenia. Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of B-vitamins and magnesium, which may play a role in cognition and mood.
While all nuts offer a variety of health benefits, walnuts—which coincidentally look a bit like a brain—are some of the best for your brain. Studies have shown a connection between regular walnut consumption (about half an ounce per day) and better brain health as we age—from improved mental performance to reduced cognitive decline. "What makes walnuts special is they contain one of the highest amounts of a potent antioxidant, called gamma tocopherol, and also have a high composition of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including alpha linoleic acid. Studies suggest that the high antioxidant content in walnuts may help counteract age-related cognitive decline and reduce the incidence of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease" says Cheryl Mussatto M.S., RD, LD, author of The Nourished Brain.
"Eggs are one of the best food sources of choline—a nutrient that plays a positive role in better cognitive function. Along with choline, egg yolks also contain a carotenoid called lutein. Although lutein has long been associated with eye health, research has discovered lutein may play an important role in cognition as well," says Lauren Manaker, M.S., RDN, LDN, CLEC, CPT, Registered Dietitian and Women's Health Expert.
Choline plays an important role in brain health and cognitive performance from as early as conception and continues throughout life, yet it's estimated that up to 90 percent of Americans don't consume enough choline. Most of the beneficial nutrients—including choline—are found in the egg yolk, so be sure to eat the whole egg!
5. Olive oil
An important component of both the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to better brain health, and the MIND diet (a diet specifically designed to ward off Alzheimer's Disease and dementia), olive oil is one of the best fats to keep your brain healthy. Research has linked olive oil consumption to the prevention of both acute and chronic neurological disorders including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and stroke. "It's rich in monounsaturated fats, which can reduce inflammation and plaque buildup (including in the brain). Even more importantly it has a high antioxidant and phenol content that has been proposed to reduce oxidative stress in the brain—thought to be a major contributor to cognitive decline," says Laura M. Ali, M.S., RDN, LDN, Culinary Nutritionist.
Another star of both the Mediterranean and MIND diets, fish is regularly found in the research to be linked to reduced risk of cognitive decline. While many experts attribute these benefits to the omega-3 fatty acid content of fatty fish like salmon, one analysis suggests that there are benefits to eating fish for reasons other than the fat content.
Similar to eggs, these benefits are seen across our entire lifespan. "Pregnant women who ate up to 12-ounces of seafood a week had children with improved cognition, including higher IQ scores," says Ali. Research has also shown that "healthy elderly people who eat just one meal of any type of seafood a week, as long as it is baked or broiled, had an increase in the volume of the area of the brain that is responsible for memory and cognition, which is important for reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease," she adds.
When it comes to eating seafood, choose the varieties you enjoy the most and aim to eat 12-ounces per week.
The Worst Foods for Brain Health
1. Red meat
It probably doesn't come as a surprise that red meat should be limited for better brain health. Like other health concerns, both risk of stroke and neurodegenerative diseases, like dementia and Alzheimer's, can be influenced by inflammation as well as saturated fat intake. "Red meat is high in saturated fat which can lead to plaque buildup in the brain. Research has shown that people who swap poultry, fish and beans into their diet in place of red meat have improved cognitive performance," notes Ali.
That doesn't mean you have to completely give up all red meat, but keep consumption to under 12-ounces per week and consider swapping red meat for fish, beans or tofu at some meals.
2. Sugar sweetened beverages
Need another reason to cut back on the sweet stuff? High-sugar diets have been linked to Alzheimer's Disease, dementia and lower cognitive scores. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, sugar sweetened beverages account for the largest portion (about 25 percent) of added sugar intake in Americans' diets.
It's recommended that women limit their added sugar intake to less than 24g per day and men less than 36g per day. For context, one 12-ounce can of soda contains around 39g of sugar—more than the recommended limit for both men and women. Lemonades, sweetened iced teas, energy drinks, fruit juice drinks and any other sweetened drinks can add up quickly too.
So, skip the sugar and grab a flavored (but unsweetened) seltzer or infuse water with fresh fruit, citrus or herbs, for a refreshing, slightly sweet beverage without all the sugar.
Though you may feel like an alcoholic drink can improve your mood and help you relax, regular alcohol consumption is likely doing more harm than good. "Research shows that alcohol consumption can have a detrimental effect on brain health and memory function. This is especially true with chronic, over consumption of alcoholic beverages. Further, booze that's high in sugar and sweetened additives tends to be more harmful long-term on memory and brain health," says Caroline Thomason, RD, CDCES, dietitian and diabetes educator. One study showed that even moderate alcohol consumption led to a decrease in grey matter, which may lead to cognitive decline.
That said, the research on red wine specifically is more mixed. Some studies show no benefit (but no harm either) in moderate (up to one 5-ounce glass per day) amounts of red wine, whereas others suggest a potential benefit to raising the occasional glass.
But the research is clear: more than one drink per day is detrimental to your brain (and no you can't save up a week's worth for the weekend).
4. Processed foods
Diets high in processed foods are linked to a slew of negative health outcomes, and the health of your brain is no exception. Several studies have linked Western diets, which tend to contain a lot of processed, fried and fast foods, to cognitive impairment and worse memory and learning scores. On the flip side, both MIND and Mediterranean Diets, which contain few (if any) processed and fried foods are known to be protective. In addition, greater consumption of processed foods have been linked to increased risk of stroke.
The good news? The food industry has caught onto our desire for both convenience and health and there are plenty of packaged foods available today that are less processed and contain nutrients to support your brain—you just have to seek them out!
What you eat plays an important role in the health of your brain, from memory and learning to risk of cognitive-related diseases. Fill your plate with brain-boosting foods and limit or avoid those that may wreak havoc. But most importantly focus on an overall diet full of more plants and less meat, added sugars, and processed foods.