3 Traits of Brain-Healthy Foods
Updated: Jan 25
Quick thoughts some excellent brain-boosting foods
By Austin Perlmutter, MD
Food turns into the building blocks for our brains, so eating more high-quality foods may be a good recipe for a higher-quality brain
Foods that are rich in polyphenols and antioxidants may be especially excellent for brain wellness (these are found in higher levels in herbs and spices!)
Certain fats (omega-3s in particular) seem to be key to brain health
Vitamins and minerals like zinc, magnesium and selenium are found in higher levels in nuts, seeds and leafy greens and are linked to better brain health
I've recently been asked to comment on top foods for brain health for a number of news outlets. With this in mind, I wanted to provide some extra commentary on the subject here. In reviewing the subject and coming up with recommendations for the best foods for the brain, I tried to focus on foods for which there is scientific evidence that people who eat more of a certain food may have benefits to some aspect of their brain function. Specifically, I looked at risk for dementia and general cognitive performance.
With these criteria in mind, my top foods were:
1. Foods rich in DHA and EPA (e.g., salmon)
2. Nuts and seeds
4. Herbs and Spices
5. Leafy greens
Some of the core themes that came up across these top foods include:
1. They tend to be especially rich in polyphenols, antioxidants that may help to keep cells relatively younger and that support immune and microbiome balance.
Polyphenols help give plants their color (which is why colorful fruits and vegetables tend to be rich in these molecules). As a bit of trivia here, herbs and spices (cloves for example) are among the most polyphenol-packed foods around by weight. Blueberries in particular seem to be a great source of polyphenols and are linked to better brain health. In a study published in 2019, blueberries were found to have a potential cognitive benefit for memory and executive function. Generally speaking, shooting for colorful fruits and vegetables, as well as a diverse range of fruits and vegetables (and of course herbs and spices) is a good way to get more polyphenols. Tea and coffee are good sources too!
2. They tend to be rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to better brain function
Our brains are mostly made of fats. But some fats are especially key to brain structure and function. A good example is omega-3 fatty acids, which are highly represented in our brain and help cell membranes more fluid, as well as appearing to help promote immune balance by decreasing excess inflammation.
Feeding your brains with high-quality fats seems like a reasonable plan for good brain health. Good sources of the most important omega-3 fats for the brain (which research indicates are DHA and EPA) are cold-water fish, although you can also get them in algae-based supplements if you're trying to avoid animal products. Some great specific foods rich in omega-3 fats are wild salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines. If you avoid eating meat products, you may want to consider speaking with your health practitioner about supplementation.
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3. They are rich in vitamins and minerals like zinc, selenium and magnesium, all of which are necessary for optimal brain function.
Nuts and seeds are rich sources of vitamins and minerals, as well as fats, amino acids and fiber. They've been linked to better metabolic health (important due to the brain health-metabolic health connection). Some nuts and seeds are rich in precursors to DHA and EPA (like chia seeds and walnuts), although if the goal is to get higher levels of DHA and EPA, it's probably best to consider a seafood or algae-based source.
Leafy greens are touted for a wide number of benefits, bit it's notable that they are a key component of the MIND diet, one of the two top diets when it comes to cognitive health as we age. Though some have stated concern for the "anti-nutrients" found in certain plant foods, these tend to be (in my opinion) overhyped relative to their actual risk for most people. For a nuanced discussion on this topic in particular, you can read this article by Deanna Minich on the subject.
Obviously, there are more than 5 top foods for the brain. And, you may disagree with my list. I'd love to hear your thoughts! Should I have mentioned eggs? Olive oil? If so, comment and let me know!
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