The 9 Best Foods for Your Brain

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Want to stay sharp as a knife? Thinking about your diet is a good place to start. The mind is one vital organ that needs its vittles — including protein, carbohydrates, antioxidants and fatty acids that work together to enhance neurological health and wellbeing.

Research suggests that making smart food choices may reduce a person's rate of age-related cognitive decline, preserve memory and protect against depression and anxiety. Scientists have even developed a specific meal plan — called the MIND Diet — that aims to keep your gray matter healthy and happy. Here, we're highlighting nine foods from the diet that have some pretty incredible benefits for your brain.

Want to stay sharp as a knife? Thinking about your diet is a good place to start. The mind is one vital organ that needs its vittles — including protein, carbohydrates, antioxidants and fatty acids that work together to enhance neurological health and wellbeing.

Research suggests that making smart food choices may reduce a person's rate of age-related cognitive decline, preserve memory and protect against depression and anxiety. Scientists have even developed a specific meal plan — called the MIND Diet — that aims to keep your gray matter healthy and happy. Here, we're highlighting nine foods from the diet that have some pretty incredible benefits for your brain.

1. Eggplant

Slices of eggplant on a wooden table

Eggplant is rich in antioxidants called anthocyanins, which have been shown to help with memory loss, Minh-Hai Alex, RD, a registered dietitian in Seattle, tells LIVESTRONG.com. That makes eggplant (served with the skin) a particularly brain-healthy vegetable, she says.

A 200-gram serving of eggplant (about 2-1/2 cups, cubed) can provide 1,500 milligrams of anthocyanins, according to a January 2005 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition — which is a fairly high concentration. (While that research may seem a bit dated, no updated measurements have been reported since.)

Try grilled eggplant seasoned with garlic, rosemary and olive oil on toast for a brain-boosting treat, says Alex. You can also broil, steam or even microwave eggplant stuffed with other veggies for a healthy alternative to a stuffed baked potato.

Read more: Eggplant and 15 Other Foods You Don't Always Need to Buy Organic

Eggplant is rich in antioxidants called anthocyanins, which have been shown to help with memory loss, Minh-Hai Alex, RD, a registered dietitian in Seattle, tells LIVESTRONG.com. That makes eggplant (served with the skin) a particularly brain-healthy vegetable, she says.

A 200-gram serving of eggplant (about 2-1/2 cups, cubed) can provide 1,500 milligrams of anthocyanins, according to a January 2005 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition — which is a fairly high concentration. (While that research may seem a bit dated, no updated measurements have been reported since.)

Try grilled eggplant seasoned with garlic, rosemary and olive oil on toast for a brain-boosting treat, says Alex. You can also broil, steam or even microwave eggplant stuffed with other veggies for a healthy alternative to a stuffed baked potato.

Read more: Eggplant and 15 Other Foods You Don't Always Need to Buy Organic

2. Cocoa

Several blocks of baking cocoa and cocoa shavings on a wooden table

Eating a modest portion of dark chocolate may provide immediate brain-boosting benefits. In a 968-person study published in the May 2016 issue of Appetite, researchers found that adults who consumed chocolate more frequently had better cognitive performance, spatial memory and abstract reasoning — even after they controlled for cardiovascular, lifestyle and other dietary factors.

Cocoa flavanols may also improve blood vessel function in your brain, according to a British Journal of Nutrition study published in October 2015. For the most flavanol benefits, choose the darkest chocolate available, recommends Johns Hopkins Medicine; aim for at least 70 percent cacao.

Eating a modest portion of dark chocolate may provide immediate brain-boosting benefits. In a 968-person study published in the May 2016 issue of Appetite, researchers found that adults who consumed chocolate more frequently had better cognitive performance, spatial memory and abstract reasoning — even after they controlled for cardiovascular, lifestyle and other dietary factors.

Cocoa flavanols may also improve blood vessel function in your brain, according to a British Journal of Nutrition study published in October 2015. For the most flavanol benefits, choose the darkest chocolate available, recommends Johns Hopkins Medicine; aim for at least 70 percent cacao.

3. Cruciferous Veggies

A bunch of Brussels sprouts on a wooden cutting board

"Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage are rich in sulfur-containing compounds, which may help protect the brain from everyday oxidative stress," says Alex. In a January 2018 study published in Neurology, researchers found that healthy older adults who ate leafy green vegetables like kale and collard greens (both from the cruciferous family) every day had a slower rate of cognitive decline, compared to their peers who ate them rarely or never.

Broccoli specifically is a prime source of the antioxidant vitamin C, according to the National Institutes of Health, which is necessary for the production of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. It's also rich in beta-carotene, which could play a role in brain function, Harvard Health Publishing reports. And in an April 2018 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, cruciferous-vegetable intake was linked to a reduced risk of atherosclerosis, a major cause of stroke.

Eat cruciferous veggies raw, lightly steamed or grilled with a small amount of olive oil. Avoid overcooking, which can lower nutrient levels.

Read more: 11 Nutrients Americans Aren't Getting Enough Of

"Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage are rich in sulfur-containing compounds, which may help protect the brain from everyday oxidative stress," says Alex. In a January 2018 study published in Neurology, researchers found that healthy older adults who ate leafy green vegetables like kale and collard greens (both from the cruciferous family) every day had a slower rate of cognitive decline, compared to their peers who ate them rarely or never.

Broccoli specifically is a prime source of the antioxidant vitamin C, according to the National Institutes of Health, which is necessary for the production of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. It's also rich in beta-carotene, which could play a role in brain function, Harvard Health Publishing reports. And in an April 2018 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, cruciferous-vegetable intake was linked to a reduced risk of atherosclerosis, a major cause of stroke.

Eat cruciferous veggies raw, lightly steamed or grilled with a small amount of olive oil. Avoid overcooking, which can lower nutrient levels.

Read more: 11 Nutrients Americans Aren't Getting Enough Of

4. Berries

Blackberries in a white bowl

In a small 2017 study published in PLOS One, healthy adults who consumed a mixed-berry beverage every day for five weeks performed better on subsequent cognitive and memory tests than those who drank a placebo beverage. The study included only 40 people, all between the ages of 50 and 70, but its authors wrote that the results "suggest preventive potential of berries" with respect to cognitive decline.

Research also shows that the polyphenols — a type of antioxidant found in brightly colored fruits such as berries — may improve memory and delay the onset of dementia by reducing inflammation and damage caused by toxins called free radicals, according to a 2016 review published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.

Add fresh berries to your breakfast cereal, smoothies and baked goods for added flavor and brain-protective nutrients. Because frozen fruits often are flash-frozen at their nutritional prime, unsweetened frozen berries provide a nutritious and convenient option when berries aren't in season.

Read more: Berries and 11 Other Foods That Can Improve Your Mood

In a small 2017 study published in PLOS One, healthy adults who consumed a mixed-berry beverage every day for five weeks performed better on subsequent cognitive and memory tests than those who drank a placebo beverage. The study included only 40 people, all between the ages of 50 and 70, but its authors wrote that the results "suggest preventive potential of berries" with respect to cognitive decline.

Research also shows that the polyphenols — a type of antioxidant found in brightly colored fruits such as berries — may improve memory and delay the onset of dementia by reducing inflammation and damage caused by toxins called free radicals, according to a 2016 review published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.

Add fresh berries to your breakfast cereal, smoothies and baked goods for added flavor and brain-protective nutrients. Because frozen fruits often are flash-frozen at their nutritional prime, unsweetened frozen berries provide a nutritious and convenient option when berries aren't in season.

Read more: Berries and 11 Other Foods That Can Improve Your Mood

5. Whole Grains

Half a loaf of whole-grain bread on a white tablecloth

Whole grains contain more protein and fiber than refined grains, making them more likely to keep your blood sugar level — and your energy and mental sharpness — stable between meals. Research published in Clinical Nutrition in April 2017 showed that whole grains may also play a role in delaying age-related cognitive problems.

In that study, researchers analyzed the eating habits of more than 5,000 adults who were followed for more than 15 years. They found a significant link between eating fewer healthy foods, including whole grains, and an accelerated rate of cognitive decline in old age.

Ready to eat more whole grains? Swap out processed starches such as white bread, enriched pasta and pretzels for whole-wheat bread, brown rice and air-popped popcorn.

Read more: 13 Powerful Grains and Seeds

Whole grains contain more protein and fiber than refined grains, making them more likely to keep your blood sugar level — and your energy and mental sharpness — stable between meals. Research published in Clinical Nutrition in April 2017 showed that whole grains may also play a role in delaying age-related cognitive problems.

In that study, researchers analyzed the eating habits of more than 5,000 adults who were followed for more than 15 years. They found a significant link between eating fewer healthy foods, including whole grains, and an accelerated rate of cognitive decline in old age.

Ready to eat more whole grains? Swap out processed starches such as white bread, enriched pasta and pretzels for whole-wheat bread, brown rice and air-popped popcorn.

Read more: 13 Powerful Grains and Seeds

6. Fatty Fish

A raw filet of salmon covered in rosemary, peppercorns and salt

Regularly choosing fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and halibut may bring your brain health up several notches. "Fatty fish contain omega-3 fatty acids that are necessary for optimal brain function," says Barry Sears, PhD, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation and creator of the Zone Diet. "They provide building blocks necessary for making and maintaining new neuron formation and are important in reducing inflammation in the brain."

Research published in the September 2018 issue of Nutrients found an association between higher levels of omega-3s and better executive function over the next two years.

Healthy cooking options include grilling, baking or poaching fish seasoned with natural herbs and spices, citrus juice and a touch of olive oil.

Read more: 17 Reasons Why You Probably Need More Omega 3s in Your Diet

Regularly choosing fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and halibut may bring your brain health up several notches. "Fatty fish contain omega-3 fatty acids that are necessary for optimal brain function," says Barry Sears, PhD, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation and creator of the Zone Diet. "They provide building blocks necessary for making and maintaining new neuron formation and are important in reducing inflammation in the brain."

Research published in the September 2018 issue of Nutrients found an association between higher levels of omega-3s and better executive function over the next two years.

Healthy cooking options include grilling, baking or poaching fish seasoned with natural herbs and spices, citrus juice and a touch of olive oil.

Read more: 17 Reasons Why You Probably Need More Omega 3s in Your Diet

7. Walnuts

A close-up view of a bunch of walnut meats

Nuts are satisfyingly crunchy, and they're also rich in potentially brain-protective compounds such as vitamin E, folate, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. In fact, a February 2019 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging revealed that adults who ate more than 10 grams of nuts a day scored better on tests for reasoning and memory.

To gain the health benefits of nuts without going calorically overboard, the Mayo Clinic recommends consuming 1.5 ounces per day (about 42 grams, or a small handful) and using them to replace less-healthy, calorie-dense foods like candy and potato chips.

Read more: 4 Surprising Health Benefits of Walnuts

Credit: indigolotos/iStock/Getty Images

Nuts are satisfyingly crunchy, and they're also rich in potentially brain-protective compounds such as vitamin E, folate, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. In fact, a February 2019 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging revealed that adults who ate more than 10 grams of nuts a day scored better on tests for reasoning and memory.

To gain the health benefits of nuts without going calorically overboard, the Mayo Clinic recommends consuming 1.5 ounces per day (about 42 grams, or a small handful) and using them to replace less-healthy, calorie-dense foods like candy and potato chips.

Read more: 4 Surprising Health Benefits of Walnuts

8. Legumes

Lentils in a white bowl on a table

Legumes such as split peas, lentils and beans are rich in fiber, protein and antioxidants. They may also help your brain stay sharper longer. A June 2012 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging linked consistent intake of legumes and vegetables with a lowered risk for cognitive decline among elderly Chinese participants.

For added benefits, replace the meat in recipes such as chili and lasagna with cholesterol-free legumes. Other nutritious legume dishes include steamed soybeans, lentil or black bean soup and hummus-topped cucumber slices.

Read more: Legumes and 20 Other Muscle-Building Foods

Legumes such as split peas, lentils and beans are rich in fiber, protein and antioxidants. They may also help your brain stay sharper longer. A June 2012 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging linked consistent intake of legumes and vegetables with a lowered risk for cognitive decline among elderly Chinese participants.

For added benefits, replace the meat in recipes such as chili and lasagna with cholesterol-free legumes. Other nutritious legume dishes include steamed soybeans, lentil or black bean soup and hummus-topped cucumber slices.

Read more: Legumes and 20 Other Muscle-Building Foods

9. Green Tea

A pot of green tea with a cup and saucer beside it

Reaching for green tea with minimal or no added sweeteners — instead of sugar- and caffeine-laden sodas and energy drinks — may boost brain function. "Green tea contains a class of antioxidants called catechins that may help prevent cognitive impairment," says Alex. "It also contains an amino-acid-like compound called theanine that's been found to help lessen anxiety and promote a relaxed wakefulness by stimulating alpha brain-wave activity."

To avoid anxiety and other effects of too much caffeine, drink green tea in moderation or stick to caffeine-free varieties, particularly if you're sensitive to the stimulant.

Additional reporting by Amanda MacMillan

Reaching for green tea with minimal or no added sweeteners — instead of sugar- and caffeine-laden sodas and energy drinks — may boost brain function. "Green tea contains a class of antioxidants called catechins that may help prevent cognitive impairment," says Alex. "It also contains an amino-acid-like compound called theanine that's been found to help lessen anxiety and promote a relaxed wakefulness by stimulating alpha brain-wave activity."

To avoid anxiety and other effects of too much caffeine, drink green tea in moderation or stick to caffeine-free varieties, particularly if you're sensitive to the stimulant.

Additional reporting by Amanda MacMillan

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