It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of brain health. Your brain is the control centre for your whole body: it keeps your heart beating, lungs breathing, limbs moving, and allows you to think, feel, and speak.
Yet, when focusing on our overall health and wellbeing, it can be easy to overlook the importance of taking steps to preserve the physical health of our brains.
Diet has been shown to play a significant role in maintaining healthy brain matter and there are plenty of foods that have been proven to help keep our brains healthy, enhance memory and focus, and even improve our ability to do certain tasks.
With this in mind, here are 10 foods that can help to boost brain health.
Broccoli is packed full of powerful plant nutrients. It’s a great source of vitamin K – just 100g of broccoli contains more than 100% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA).
Vitamin K has been shown to improve cognitive function and brainpower, and several studies in older adults link an increased vitamin K intake to improved memory. Broccoli also contains compounds called glucosinolates, which help to keep our central nervous system healthy and, in turn, keep our brain and memory sharp.
Broccoli is packed with plenty of other vital vitamins and minerals too, and its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties may also help protect the brain and keep it functioning at its peak.
The beauty of broccoli is that it’s incredibly versatile and can be served with pretty much any cuisine or dish – from soup and salad to pizza and pasta. If you’re looking for some broccoli-based inspiration, check out some of these tasty broccoli recipes from BBC Good Food.
2. Oily fish
Oily fish is a good source of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids can’t be made by the body, which means they must be obtained through our diet.
Because they help build membranes around each brain and nerve cell, omega-3 fats can improve the structure of neurons, which are the basic working units of our brain.
Omega-3 fats may help reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, slow cognitive decline, improve memory, reduce stress, and even produce more serotonin – the chemical that’s responsible for keeping us feeling happy. This study found that people with higher levels of omega-3s had improved blood flow to the brain and better cognitive abilities.
The most effective omega-3 fats are found in oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards, and kippers. Check these delicious oily fish recipes from The Guardian for some inspiration.
If you don’t eat fish, you can still get your omega-3 fats from plant sources like flaxseed, soya beans, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts (more on these later). Alternatively, if you think you’re not getting enough omega-3 from your diet, you might want to speak to your GP about whether supplements could be helpful for you – and if so, how much you should take.
Omega-3 supplements are usually made from fish oils – but if you’re vegetarian or vegan – you can take a plant-based omega-3 supplement made from microalgae.
Berries like blueberries contain anthocyanins; a group of plant compounds that have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Antioxidants help prevent inflammation, which can decrease your chances of suffering from neurodegenerative diseases.
This study also revealed that the antioxidants in berries can improve communication between brain cells and increase plasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire itself). Improved communication and plasticity can help brain cells to make new connections, which not only enhance learning and memory but can also help to reduce or delay cognitive decline.
The natural plant pigments that give berries their vivid colour are called flavonoids, and they can also help improve memory.
Blueberries are generally seen as the ‘best’ berry for boosting brain health (this study found that eating blueberries may improve or delay short-term memory loss), but other deep-coloured berries, like strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, blackcurrants, and mulberries are also considered great brain foods too.
A helpful way to make sure you eat berries regularly is to sprinkle them onto your breakfast cereal or porridge, or make a daily smoothie. Alternatively, a handful of berries make a delicious and healthy snack.
Avocados are a great source of healthy unsaturated fat, which has been shown to reduce blood pressure.
High blood pressure is associated with cognitive decline and this study found that people over 50 who ate one avocado a day for six months saw significant improvement in both their memory and problem-solving skills. Those who didn’t eat an avocado a day, didn’t see the same improvements in brain function.
Avocados are delicious in sandwiches, salads, dips (like guacamole), or simply on toast – the latter of which has become a modern cult food classic.
5. Dark chocolate
There’s good news for chocoholics too, as dark chocolate can be effective in boosting your brain health.
Dark chocolate contains cacao, which is packed with brain-boosting flavonoids, caffeine, and antioxidants. The flavonoids found in dark chocolate are especially good for the brain as they stimulate blood flow and encourage the growth of blood vessels and neurons in the areas of the brain, which is needed for learning.
Research shows just how good dark chocolate can be for your brain. One study found that people who regularly ate dark chocolate performed better in mental tasks than people who rarely ate it.
Another study discovered that eating dark chocolate containing at least 70% cacao may improve plasticity in the brain, which is needed for learning.
While eating a few squares of dark chocolate each day is health-boosting, you should be careful not to eat too much. You probably will have guessed, but the reason for this is its high-calorie content – around 30–60g (in a day) is the recommended advice.
The higher the cacao content, the better, so ideally try to look for chocolate that’s at least 70% cacao. Unfortunately, milk and white chocolate don’t quite have the same benefits!
6. Soya products
Soya bean products like tofu, edamame beans, soya milk, tempeh, and soya-based meat alternatives are packed with a special type of antioxidant called polyphenol.
Multiple studies link polyphenols with both a decreased risk of dementia and enhanced cognitive abilities. The polyphenols found in soya products are called isoflavones, which act as antioxidants and can provide a variety of powerful health benefits throughout the body.
Soya products are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain function, maintaining a healthy heart, strengthening joints, and improving general well-being.
B vitamins are present in soya products too, which have been shown to reduce the risk of stroke and cognitive impairment and dementia, as well as play a key role in regulating normal brain function.
7. Whole grains
Just like the rest of your body, your brain needs energy to function. In order to concentrate and focus at its peak, the brain needs to have a steady supply of slow-release energy – and these are best sourced from whole grains.
Low-GI whole grains like brown rice, barley, quinoa, bulgur wheat, oatmeal, and whole grain bread and pasta are best, as they release energy more slowly, helping you feel energetic and alert for longer – all while avoiding sugar highs and lows.
If you want to include more whole grains in your diet, there are countless ways to do so. Simply swapping from white bread, rice, and pasta to brown can make a difference.
If you’d like to get more creative in the kitchen, check out this selection of whole grain recipes from Cookie and Kate. You’ll find everything from breakfasts to sides and salads.
Tomatoes may also have serious brain-boosting properties. They contain lycopene, which is a powerful antioxidant that can help to protect the brain against free radicals (unstable atoms that can damage brain cells).
Free radical damage has been seen to occur during the onset of dementia – especially Alzheimer’s. Plus, tomatoes are a great source of vitamin C, which also acts as an antioxidant and supports general brain health as you age.
Because tomatoes release more lycopene when they’re cooked, it’s best to use them in cooked food rather than eating them raw in salads or sandwiches – although, raw tomatoes will still help boost your vitamin C levels, of course!
Adding a splash of olive oil to your cooked tomatoes helps your body absorb the nutrients better. For ideas on how to add more tomatoes to your diet, check out these tomato recipes from Delicious Magazine. From tomato and burrata tagliatelle to smoky tomato soup, hopefully they’ll stir your appetite.
9. Nuts and seeds
There’s lots of evidence to suggest that eating nuts and seeds can boost brain health.
Research shows that eating tree nuts can improve heart health – which is strongly linked to brain health – and this scientific review found that nuts can improve cognition and ward off neurodegenerative diseases.
Another study discovered that women who regularly ate nuts had a better memory compared to those who didn’t.
Walnuts, flaxseeds, and pumpkin seeds are especially good for you as they contain plenty of health-boosting omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Pumpkin seeds, almonds, and cashews are also very high in zinc, which is essential for improving memory and cognition. While all tree nuts are good for your brain, walnuts are probably best because of the high levels of omega-3 they contain.
Nuts and seeds are also high in the antioxidant vitamin E, which protects cells from free radicals. The results of this study suggest that vitamin E might improve cognition and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The nuts and seeds containing the most vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, and hazelnuts.
Nuts are great for snacking on, but there are also lots of tasty ways to include them in your cooking: have a look at One Green Planet’s selection of nut recipes that take nuts to a whole new level.
If you can’t fathom starting your morning off without a cup of coffee, there’s more good news. Coffee does more than just increase alertness and temporarily boost concentration.
Studies show that it can also improve memory and reduce the risk of stroke, as well as neurological diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Because coffee contains lots of antioxidants, it’s been shown to maintain general brain health as we age too.
The caffeine in coffee also has powerful brain benefits. It blocks adenosine, a chemical that makes us sleepy, increasing alertness and making it easier to concentrate. Plus, it can have a positive effect on mood thanks to the feel-good neurotransmitters it contains, such as serotonin.
However, because it can adversely affect sleep and increase blood pressure, it’s important not to have too much coffee or to have it too close to bedtime. Experts suggest having no more than five cups of brewed coffee a day. If you don’t drink coffee, green tea and black tea also contain antioxidants and caffeine.
Because the foods listed above are so diverse, there are plenty of ways we can include them into our normal diets and our favourite dishes.
Perhaps, you might want to pick one or two of the suggestions and see how you can weave them into your normal routine. Often, it’s much easier to build one or two small changes into your existing routine than to try to change everything all at once!
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is one important way of keeping our brains healthy, but there are also other ways we can help optimise brain function.
Our article offers advice on 8 different ways to help maintain your brain health – from getting regular exercise, to sleeping enough, staying hydrated, and reducing stress through practices like yoga or mindfulness.