As the old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” Turns out, it’s very true, especially when it comes to your brain health. In fact, the MIND diet, which focuses on foods that have been shown to keep your brain sharp and help to prevent Alzheimer's disease, is one of the few diets that actually works when it comes to achieving your healthiest self.
So why does what we eat matter so much when it comes to your brain’s functions, such as memory and focus? “Stress, the everyday perils of the modern world, aging, environmental factors, and everything we eat can contribute to inflammation,” explains Monica Auslander, MS, RDN, and founder of Essence Nutrition. “Inflammation releases a cascade of compounds called cytokines and other chemicals throughout the body that can slowly damage brain tissue,” she says. This process is known as oxidative stress or damage.
“There's also the concept of the gut/brain axis—that the things we eat can cross the blood/brain barrier and promote disease or fight it in our brains,” she adds. In other words, science shows that your lifestyle choices and what you eat have a direct impact on your brain and how well it works.
Ahead, we spoke with Auslander and two more experts who explain which foods you should load up on if you’re looking to boost your memory and overall brain health, plus why they work.
Cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts, are known to be nutritional powerhouses. But when it comes to enhancing your brain health and, specifically, your memory, broccoli is an all-star because it contains higher levels of choline and vitamin K, says Nada Milosavljevic, MD, JD, founder of Sage Tonic, and a board-certified, Harvard-trained physician. “These are both important aids to optimize cognition and memory.”
Blueberries, cranberries, and strawberries are all memory food musts, according to Kimberly Snyder, nutritionist and multi-time New York Times best-selling author of the Beauty Detox series and Radical Beauty. “Berries have been shown to shield the brain from memory loss and contribute to enhanced memories in various studies,” she says. “Diets rich in blueberries will actually improve learning capacity and lower stress. In fact, blueberries are among the best source of antioxidants that you can easily purchase and incorporate into your diet.” Plus, berries are chock-full of flavonoids, which are plant compounds with majorly beneficial anti-inflammatory properties.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are implicated in inflammation reduction not only in your brain but your body in general,” explains Auslander. That means eating them is good for all parts of you. “They perform crucial roles in brain function, and the typical American diet does not intake adequate amounts and goes overboard on omega-6 fatty acids, a different type of fat, that tends to be more pro-inflammatory,” she says. The sources of omega-3s that are most bioavailable, or easy for the body to absorb, according to Auslander, are wild salmon, wild tuna, sardines, and herring.
Most seafood contains omega-3s, but it’s important to be careful of mercury content and other toxins when eating a lot of fish, she advises.
For those who are vegetarian or don’t eat fish because of toxicity concerns, there are other options. “Studies show that foods rich in omega-3s lower the cell inflammation that causes loss of memory,” explains Snyder, so it’s definitely important to incorporate them into your diet if you want to boost your memory. “If you don’t eat fish, I recommend obtaining your omega-3s from other foods such as chia and flax seeds.” For those who are not into seeds, Snyder also recommends pumpkin, walnuts (also a great source of vitamin E, which has been shown to promote brain health), and dark leafy greens as options.
“An algae-based DHA/EPA supplement is great for extra insurance, as are edible weeds, such as purslane, that you can find at the farmers market,” Snyder adds.
Looks like your grain bowl habit has some amazing health benefits. “Rich in folic acid, quinoa has been shown to quicken information dispensation and improve our memory,” Snyder notes. Plus, “quinoa is one of the best whole grains you can put into your body because it is a natural source of iron, zinc, and protein,” she says. What’s more, it will keep you feeling satiated so you can focus on your to-do list. “Quinoa is a complex carbohydrate that will give you energy that lasts when your brain needs fuel to perform at its best,” Snyder says.
Onions are seriously good for your brain, and luckily, you can easily sneak them into almost any dish. “Red onions have been used for centuries in India to improve memory,” says Snyder. “The key is in a naturally occurring flavonoid, fisetin, which facilitates long-term memory by stimulating certain pathways in the brain.” Ideally, you need to eat them raw to get the most benefits, since “when you cook food above 118 degrees, you kill the natural enzymes that contribute to these miraculous body benefits,” she explains.
If you’re not sure where to start, Snyder suggests salads and guacamole as safe bets.
Yes, it’s technically a drink, but if you needed an excuse to not cut java out of your diet, here it is. “Coffee has been implicated in preventing neurological decline and improving mental acuity,” says Auslander. But to get the biggest perks, you need to be careful about how you consume it. “It's the junk with which we adulterate our coffee that is harmful to our health—sugars, creamers, syrups, etc. Black coffee with a dash of cinnamon is completely plant-based and therefore has powerful nutrition,” she adds.
Grass-Fed Bone Broth
Though this food is totally trendy, there’s actually some science to back up the benefits, according to Auslander. “Grass-fed bone broth can help heal the intestinal epithelial cell lining and prevent dysfunction of the gut/brain axis,” she explains.
Herbs and Spices
Many herbs and spices serve as anti-inflammatories and can help up your brain power, but two standouts are turmeric and rosemary, according to Milosavljevic. Turmeric is especially good for fighting oxidative stress, and rosemary contains carnosic acid, a phytochemical that helps to prevent against nerve cell damage, she says.
Good news: Your chocolate addiction is great for your memory and focus since it “can improve blood pressure and circulation to the brain,” according to Auslander, which can in turn boost brain function.
Do you already eat any of these memory-friendly foods?