The foods we eat have a powerful impact on our cognitive performance. Everyone has those moments where it takes a bit longer to recall someone’s name, the location of our cell phone or car keys, or that feeling of being scattered and unfocused. There are various reasons this can happen, but as we age these moments become concerning that it could turn into something more. The good news is that our diet can be a powerful tool in helping to preserve and improve our memory and concentration. Imbalances in dietary fat intake, intake of inflammatory foods, or not getting enough fruits and vegetables all can increase the level of oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, thus impeding cognitive performance(1).
Below are 7 brain boosting foods that have been clinically shown to improve cognitive health. See how your diet stacks up.
Fatty Fish: Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies are fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA. We know that omega-3s play a critical role in helping to reduce and resolve inflammation, stressing the importance of getting enough through the diet. Most of us don't get enough EPA and DHA. A recent study in the Journal Nutrients showed that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, may play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, especially in those who carry the ApoE4 gene (2). In the study, those who had the highest blood levels of DHA were 49% less likely than those with the least amount to develop Alzheimer’s Disease. If you think your intake of fish is falling short, it might be time to consider supplementation.
Berries: Berries are rich in polyphenols which are known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. The polyphenols in berries have been shown to help modulate signaling pathways involved in inflammation and cell survival. They offer protection to the brain by helping to prevent age-related neurodegenerative diseases while improving motor and cognitive functions (3).
Leafy Greens: Did you know just one serving of leafy greens per day has been shown to slow age-related cognitive decline? Consumption of green leafy vegetables and foods rich in phylloquinone, lutein, nitrate, folate, α-tocopherol, and kaempferol may be responsible for these benefits (4). It doesn’t take much to reach one serving. It could be 1 cup of raw arugula or mesclun greens of ½ cup cooked of collards, kale, or spinach.
Walnuts: Walnuts help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. They do this by reducing free radical formation and boosting antioxidant defenses, minimizing lipid and protein damage in the brain (5).
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: The Mediterranean Diet has long been praised for its health benefits especially when it comes to brain health. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a main component of this eating plan to which many of its benefits come from its phenolic compounds. One of the primary phenolic compounds in EVOO has been shown to have a positive impact on delaying cognitive decline in older adults (6). It’s important when consuming olive oil to make sure you choose one that is minimally processed and less refined like Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This ensures it retains the highest level of phenols.
Cocoa: Studies have shown that consumption of cocoa, especially cocoa flavanols, can help reduce insulin resistance, improve blood flow, cognition and reduce inflammation through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Shortly after consumption, studies have shown cocoa can help increase cerebral blood flow and oxygenation. In young adults, continuous consumption has been shown to improve cognitive performance and increase levels of neurotrophins (7).
Herbs and Spices: Herbs and spices have been used for centuries for their medicinal purposes. Since they are rich sources of polyphenols they are a great way to gain the most health benefits out of the foods you eat. There are numerous studies on the benefits of spices and brain health, but cinnamon in particular, which is a spice that is easy to incorporate into foods, has been shown to enhance memory and make poor learners into good learners (8).
High levels of free radicals and oxidative stress play a critical role in cognitive performance and the onset of many neurological conditions. This is where the intake of anti-inflammatory foods rich in omega-3s and polyphenols plays an essential role in brain health. These foods help to scavenge and neutralize free radicals and restore balance to our cells.
- Spencer, S.J., Korosi, A., Layé, S. et al. Food for thought: how nutrition impacts cognition and emotion. npj Sci Food 1, 7 (2017).
- Sala-Vila A, Satizabal CL, Tintle N, Melo van Lent D, Vasan RS, Beiser AS, Seshadri S, Harris WS. Red Blood Cell DHA Is Inversely Associated with Risk of Incident Alzheimer’s Disease and All-Cause Dementia: Framingham Offspring Study. Nutrients. 2022; 14(12):2408.
- Subash S, Essa MM, Al-Adawi S, Memon MA, Manivasagam T, Akbar M. Neuroprotective effects of berry fruits on neurodegenerative diseases. Neural Regen Res. 2014 Aug 15;9(16):1557-66.
- Morris MC, Wang Y, Barnes LL, Bennett DA, Dawson-Hughes B, Booth SL. Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study. Neurology. 2018 Jan 16;90(3):e214-e222.
- Chauhan A, Chauhan V. Beneficial Effects of Walnuts on Cognition and Brain Health. Nutrients. 2020 Feb 20;12(2):550.
- Klimova B, Novotný M, Kuca K, Valis M. Effect Of An Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Intake On The Delay Of Cognitive Decline: Role Of Secoiridoid Oleuropein? Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2019 Oct 29;15:3033-3040.
- Journal Martín MA, Goya L, de Pascual-Teresa S. Effect of Cocoa and Cocoa Products on Cognitive Performance in Young Adults. Nutrients. 2020;12(12):3691. Published 2020 Nov 30. doi:10.3390/nu12123691
- Modi KK, Rangasamy SB, Dasarathi S, Roy A, Pahan K. Cinnamon Converts Poor Learning Mice to Good Learners: Implications for Memory Improvement. J Neuroimmune Pharmacol. 2016 Dec;11(4):693-707.