Just like what we eat can help or harm our heart and skin, our diets can make a big difference to our brains. Our mood, energy and memory are related to the health of (or lack thereof) our daily diet.
"What matters most is what we eat over time, and it's more beneficial to focus on what kinds of nutrient-dense foods we can add, rather than worrying too much about what to take away," explains Alyssa Pike, RD, a manager for nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC) in Washington, D.C.
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As a general rule, think of eating for brain power similar to chowing down for heart health.
"Heart-healthy eating is also brain-healthy eating, so lifestyles like the Mediterranean diet, DASH Diet and MIND diet are all recommended," Pike says. "Each of these emphasizes dietary principles found in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend we eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy and lean meats and limit foods that are high in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars."
Scientists have recently been diving into how gut health — you know, that buzzy microbiome you keep hearing about — can affect the risk for mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. According to a September 2017 study in Clinics and Practice, there's a link between a healthy gut and the treatment and prevention of those two common mental health challenges.
Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a New York-based dietitian and the author of The Smoothie Plan admits we're only scratching the surface of what there is to know about the mind and menu connection: "Further research is needed to examine the role nutrition plays on brain health," in terms of both the brain's current state (attention, concentration, mood) and its future state (dementia, Alzheimer's disease).
As we continue to learn more, it certainly can't hurt to feed your brain the ingredients that appear to support it. Read on for the dish about the best between-meal bites for your brain.
The Best Brain-Supporting Snacks to Buy
1. Good Culture Organic Whole Milk Cottage Cheese
Per ½-cup serving: 110 calories, 4.5 grams fat (3 grams saturated fat), 340 milligrams sodium, 3 grams carbohydrates (0 grams fiber, 3 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 14 grams protein.
Made with milk, cream, sea salt and live and active cultures (translation: probiotics) and nothing else, try pairing a serving of this high-protein pick with a ½ cup of blueberries and 1 ounce of walnuts for a makeshift parfait.
"Cottage cheese offers gut-supporting probiotics and berries provide ample flavonoids and anthocyanins which are linked to reduced cognitive decline," says Mary Stewart, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and the founder of Cultivate Nutrition in Dallas.
Buy it: Target.com; Price: $5.29 for a 16-ounce tub
2. MOSH Chocolate Crunch Bars
Per bar: 160 calories, 8 grams fat (3.5 grams saturated fat), 50 milligrams sodium, 18 grams carbohydrates (5 grams fiber, 1 gram sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 12 grams protein.
MOSH bars are filled with "brain supporting vitamins, adaptogens and grass-fed protein," Largeman-Roth says, including omega-3s, MCT oil, lion's mane (a nootropic said to support mental performance) and more.
One fan who purchased a trial pack of all three flavors — Peanut Butter Crunch, Chocolate Crunch and Peanut Butter Chocolate Crunch — says, "My favorite is the Chocolate Crunch MOSH Bar. Rich, dark chocolate, slight crunch, with a 'zing' ... A MOSH bar is a decadent sweet treat as a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack."
Buy it: MoshLife.com; Price: $39.99 for 12 bars
3. Freshé Barcelona Escalivada
Per tin: 230 calories, 17 grams fat (2 grams saturated fat), 340 milligrams sodium, 7 grams carbohydrates (4 grams fiber, 4 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 12 grams protein.
Fish isn't just the main dish anymore. These tins are packed with certified sustainable Atlantic salmon that's been spiked with roasted red pepper, roasted eggplant, olive oil and more.
Freshé also offers tins with globally-inspired tuna snacks hiding inside, but we suggest that you reel in this one because "salmon contains omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are essential for brain health. These nutrients play a role in mood, cognition and memory," Pike says.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $39.99 for 10 4.25-ounce tins
4. Brainiac Brain Butter
Per packet: 190 calories, 14 grams fat (3.5 grams saturated fat), 90 milligrams sodium, 8 grams carbohydrates (2 grams fiber, 4 grams sugar, 3 grams added sugar), 7 grams protein.
Ideal to tote along inside your gym bag, purse or school bag, these squeezable, spreadable, individual packets of peanut butter are dreamy on everything from apple slices to bread (or, you know, squeezed straight into your mouth).
"This is a blend of peanut butter, omega-3 fatty acids and choline. I use a ton of peanut butter (so do my kids), so it's nice to know I'm getting a brain boost with each bite of toast I spread it on," Largeman-Roth says.
5. Simple Mills Almond Flour Crackers Fine Ground Sea Salt
Per 17-cracker serving: 150 calories, 8 grams fat (0.5 grams saturated fat), 230 milligrams sodium, 18 grams carbohydrates (2 grams fiber, 0 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 3 grams protein.
That nut butter would be particularly brilliant with these gluten-free, dairy-free and vitamin E-rich crackers.
"Simple Mills crackers are made with ingredients you can recognize, and the shining star is the nut and seed blend made with almonds, sunflower seeds and flax seeds. Nuts and seeds are an excellent food for brain health," Stewart says.
6. IQ Bar Brain and Body Keto Protein Bars
Per bar: 180 calories, 12-15 grams fat (2.5-3 grams saturated fat), 135-140 milligrams sodium, 11-13 grams carbohydrates (8-10 grams fiber, 1 gram sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 12 grams protein.
Let the name be your cue that these bars are a smart idea. Each variety pack includes a mix of Chocolate Sea Salt, Almond Butter Chip and Peanut Butter Chip, which all feature nuts as the most proponent ingredient. Anti-inflammatory cocoa, cinnamon and lion's mane star, too.
"Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of zinc. They also contribute fiber and healthy fat to your diet," Stewart says.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $24.99 for 12
7. Kuli Kuli Dark Chocolate Super Bark
Per ¼-package serving: 170 calories, 11 grams fat (6-7 grams saturated fat), 60-140 milligrams sodium, 14-16 grams carbohydrates (7 grams fiber, 0-1 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 2-3 grams protein.
"The flavonoids in chocolate provide a benefit to the parts of the brain that involve memory and learning. The main flavonoid — epicatechin — improves various aspects of cognition in humans and is linked to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and stroke," Largeman-Roth explains.
In this chocolate bark, available infused with the flavor of mint, peanut or raspberry, you'll score all of those benefits while satisfying your sweet tooth. Chia seeds, peanuts, peanut butter and peanut flour ensure each bark bite delivers plenty of brain-healthy fats plus a bit of protein.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $24.99 for three bags
8. Vital Farms Pasture-Raised Egg Bites
Per 2-bite serving: 230 calories, 14 grams fat (6 grams saturated fat), 560 milligrams sodium, 8 grams carbohydrates (1 grams fiber, 4 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 17 grams protein.
Speaking of protein, two of these egg bites (one serving) offer 17 grams strong. Available in four flavor combos, including Sun-Dried Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella Cheese, these refrigerated egg bites "are a convenient snack packed with choline, an essential nutrient for normal development of the brain. Research suggests choline is associated with higher memory performance," Stewart says.
(If you fall in love with Vital Farms, here's a list of high-protein egg bite brands dietitians swear by.)
Buy it: Instacart.com; Price: $4.79
9. Memore Blackberry and Ginger Powder
Per 2-scoop serving: 130 calories, 3 grams fat (0.25 grams saturated fat), 150 milligrams sodium, 17 grams carbohydrates (6 grams fiber, 6 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 10 grams protein.
Similar to those popular greens powders, this is designed to be mixed with water, milk, oatmeal or blended into a smoothie. It's made with dehydrated powdered fruits and vegetables, milled seeds and nuts and anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric and ginger.
"Memore is a powdered supplement that utilizes the science behind the MIND Diet, which has been linked to a reduced risk of Alzheimer's," Largeman-Roth says.
Buy it: YourMemore.com; Price: $86 for 30 servings
10. MyAir Focused Yellow+ Adaptogenic Super-Plant Bar
Per bar: 80 calories, 2 grams fat (1 gram saturated fat), 0 milligrams sodium, 13 grams carbohydrates (3 grams fiber, 4 grams sugar, 2 grams added sugar), 27 grams protein.
Snack on superfoods galore in these low-calorie bars. Take a quiz to pinpoint your major stressors, or simply take your pick of Sleepy, Calm, Relaxed, Energetic, Comfortable or our top pick for this topic, Focused.
The latter option is designed to enhance cognition with supporting ingredients like rosemary, cocoa, oats, cranberries and hazelnuts, all hand-picked to help you focus.
Buy it: MyAir.ai; Price: $50 for 20 bars
11. Verb Chocolate Chip Banana Bread Caffeinated Energy Bar
Per bar: 90 calories, 4 grams fat (0.5 grams saturated fat), 25 milligrams sodium, 13 grams carbohydrates (1 grams fiber, 6 grams sugar, 6 grams added sugar), 2 grams protein.
If more energy is your aim, keep this caffeinated snack in your pantry or desk drawer. Instead of relying on coffee, which can provide an energy spike and crash, Verb bars are powered up with green tea for a more lasting, jitter-free perk-up.
Banana bread not your jam? Try one of Verb's other flavors, such as Salted Peanut Butter, Double Chocolate, Red Velvet Cake, Gingersnap, Pumpkin Spice Latte, Cookie Butter, Vanilla Latte, Lemon Raspberry, Coconut Chai, Blueberry Crisp, Salted Peanut Butter or Peppermint Mocha.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $21.95 for 12 bars
12. PROBAR Bite
Per bar: 150 calories, 6 grams fat (1.5 grams saturated fat), 70 milligrams sodium, 21 grams carbohydrates (7 grams fiber, 4 grams sugar, 3 grams added sugar), 5 grams protein.
The snack-sized version of PROBAR meal is lower in calories (think: 150ish versus 400ish), but still packs in a healthy serving of fiber (5 to 7 grams depending on the flavor you choose), plus whole grains in the form of oats and brown rice flour.
Eating foods that are low on the glycemic index, such as whole grains, has been observed to improve attention, brain function and even memory, according to September 2018 research in Nutricion Hospitalaria.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $27.99
13. Serrats Tuna In Olive Oil
Per 1/4 cup: 128 calories, 8 grams fat (1 gram saturated fat), 174 milligrams sodium, 0 grams carbohydrates (0 grams fiber, 0 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 15 grams protein.
This 4-ounce can of tuna is smaller than what you typically find at the grocery store, and also quite delicious. Tuna is a great way to get more brain-healthy omega-3 fats, which have been shown to support memory and general brain function, according to a review in the August 2018 journal Current Neuropharmacology.
Buy it: World Market; Price: $9.99
14. Cult Crackers Classic Seed Crackers
Per 6 crackers: 120 calories, 8 grams fat (1.5 grams saturated fat), 200 milligrams sodium, 11 grams carbohydrates (3 grams fiber, 0 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 4 grams protein.
These crispy, seedy crackers have six different seeds — sunflower, sesame, flax, chia, pumpkin and hemp. Not only are seeds lower on the glycemic index and offer a nice dose of fiber, but they are also full of healthy, unsaturated fats.
And in a study of women, those who ate a meal high in unsaturated (healthy) fat and low in saturated fat performed better on a test that measured attention, concentration and reaction time, per June 2020 research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Buy it: Hivebrands.com; Price: $7.19
15. The GFB Bites Blueberry + Almond
Per 2 bites: 110 calories, 6 grams fat (1 gram saturated fat), 45 milligrams sodium, 11 grams carbohydrates (1 gram fiber, 5 grams sugar, 3 grams added sugar), 5 grams protein.
These grain-free snack bites are an easy way to incorporate blueberries into your diet. Why blueberries? Well, they've been shown to help with focus and memory.
When a small group of people drank a smoothie made with a mix of berries, including blueberries, their attention (as well as memory and flexible thinking) improved over the following six hours compared to their counterparts who drank a placebo, per a November 2019 study in Nutrients.
Buy it: Hivebrands.com; Price: $5.84
16. Purely Elizabeth Blueberry Walnut Collagen Protein Oats
Per container: 260 calories, 12 grams fat (1.5 grams saturated fat), 120 milligrams sodium, 29 grams carbohydrates (4 grams fiber, 5 grams sugar, 2 grams added sugar), 11 grams protein.
You already know that oats and blueberries are great for your brain, and so are walnuts. Women who regularly ate at least two servings of walnuts a week were more likely to have no memory issues between mid-life and older age compared to their counterparts who didn't eat walnuts, per a January 2020 study in the Journal of Aging Research.
"Not only do walnuts contain several plant compounds that help fight inflammation, including tocopherols and polyphenols, they're also the only tree nut that provides an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids (2.5 grams per ounce). Numerous studies have shown the brain health benefits of including walnuts in a healthy diet," Largeman-Roth says.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $19.48 for 4
17. Glaceau Smartwater Clarity Ginseng Green Tea Extract
Per bottle: 10 calories, 0 grams fat, 0 milligrams sodium, 0 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams protein.
As its name implies, drinking this green tea extract-infused water has the potential to help you stay focused. There's a compound in tea called theanine, and experts believe it may have more potential than caffeine, per a December 2013 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Plus, staying hydrated is key for brain function.
Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $41.99 for a variety pack of 12
18. Big Spoon Figgy Chai Bars
Per bar: 260 calories, 14 grams fat (2 grams saturated fat), 250 milligrams sodium, 27 grams carbohydrates (6 grams fiber, 13 grams sugar, 9 grams added sugar), 11 grams protein.
These deliciously unique-tasting snack bars are packed with nuts, nut butter and whole grains (oats and quinoa). That's a trifecta of focus and memory goodness for your brain: healthy unsaturated fats and choline in the nuts, plus fiber from the figs, quinoa and oats.
Buy it: Hivebrands.com; Price: $26.99 for 12
19. Quinn Popcorn Aged Parmesan & Rosemary
Per 3 cups popped (2 tablespoons unpopped): 170 calories, 10 grams fat (1.5 grams saturated fat), 150 milligrams sodium, 17 grams carbohydrates (3 grams fiber, 0 grams sugar, 0 grams added sugar), 3 grams protein.
This airy, crunchy snack is a great way to add whole grains to your diet. That's right — popcorn is a whole grain. We like the cheesy rosemary flavor because there's some research that suggests the scent of rosemary can help your memory, according to a small June 2017 study in the Egyptian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences.
Buy it: Hivebrands.com; Price: $4.29
What to Look for in a Healthy Brain Snack
The best snacks for your brain include one or more of these important features, according to Pike, Largeman-Roth and Stewart:
- Fiber: This indigestible form of carbohydrate is not only filling, but it's also very important in promoting digestion. "Fiber serves to fuel a healthy gut microbiome and, in return, can impact the kind of neurotransmitters released in the gut. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is important for memory, learning and behavior," Stewart says. For every 1,000 calories, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend you get 14 grams of fiber.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: These heart-healthy fats, found in fish, nuts and seeds, have been scientifically proven to improve cognitive function and reduce chronic inflammation, Stewart says. "A large percentage of our brain is composed of fat, and EPA and DHA, two types of omega-3 fatty acids, are essential for proper neuron functioning in our brain and central nervous system," Pike adds.
- Choline: Naturally found in eggs, Brussels sprouts and canned salmon, this essential nutrient "supports optimum brain health and function," Largeman-Roth says. "It's the precursor of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter most strongly associated with learning, memory and cognition in general. A deficiency of choline can lead to memory loss, dementia, depression and other cognitive issues."
- Zinc: Involved in nerve signaling, this mineral is essential for "neurodevelopment and neurotransmitter synthesis," Stewart explains. "A deficiency has been linked with ADHD in children, impaired memory and learning in adolescents and stress, depression and cognitive decline in adults." Find it in yogurt, pumpkin seeds, oysters and other shellfish.
- Vitamin C: "This antioxidant protects cells from oxidative stress and, therefore, has been shown to play a role in preventing damage to the brain that can impact your focus, memory and cognitive performance," Stewart explains. Get your dose via red bell peppers, citrus fruit, kiwi, strawberries and broccoli.
- Vitamin E: Another very important antioxidant, "lower levels of vitamin E have been associated with poor memory performance in older adults," Pike says. Sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts and spinach are all strong sources.
- Folate (vitamin B9): "Adequate levels of folate are essential for brain function and folate deficiency can lead to neurological disorders, such as depression and cognitive impairment," Pike says. It's found in cruciferous vegetables, dark leafy greens, beans, seafood, peanuts and eggs.
- Anthocyanins: These water-soluble pigments are members of the phenolic group, and are the reason why certain fruits and vegetables are red, purple and blue. "Anthocyanin intake is associated with a number of benefits, including brain health," Largeman-Roth says. "Research shows that the anthocyanins present in blueberries are linked to better cognitive performance in older adults."
What to Watch Out For
It's also wise to study what ingredients to steer clear of during the rest of the day so you don't undo all of the brain-supporting benefits. Aim to limit:
- Highly processed oils: "These manufactured fats can be unfavorable for brain health because they may cause an imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids ratio, which is linked to inflammation and memory loss," Stewart says. Watch for soybean oil, corn oil and rapeseed oil, which is occasionally found in commercially-made products like pie crusts, fried foods, pastries, crackers, non-dairy creamers and spreads like peanut butter and margarine.
- Sugar: Enjoy sweets like cakes, cookies, ice cream, candy and soda in moderation, if at all, as high-sugar foods "can cause spikes in your blood sugar level impacting your concentration, focus and may affect memory negatively," Stewart says.
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- Alzheimer's & Dementia Journal: "MIND Diet Slows Cognitive Decline with Aging"
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine: "Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Choline"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Zinc"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin C"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Vitamin E"
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Folate"
- ScienceDirect: "Anthocyanin"
- Hippocampus: "Effects of Sucrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup Consumption on Spatial Memory Function and Hippocampal Neuroinflammation in Adolescent Rats"
- Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research: "Alcohol and the Human Brain: A Systematic Review of Different Neuroimaging Methods"
- Annals of Neurology: "Dietary Intakes of Berries and Flavonoids in Relation to Cognitive Decline"
- The Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging: "A Cross Sectional Study of the Association Between Walnut Consumption and Cognitive Function Among Adult US Populations Represented in NHANES"
- Nutrients: "Neuroprotective Actions of Dietary Choline"
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