Even though we may not think about our brains that often, the reality is that it takes a lot of energy to think, move and go about our daily lives. And our brain needs adequate fuel to do its job well.
Studies show that, on average, the brain accounts for about 20% of the calories we burn daily. However, that doesn’t mean any food will help your brain power through. When it comes to bolstering your brain to do its best work — staying focused and maintaining a strong memory — some foods are much better than others.
If you want to keep your mind in good shape, here are the 12 best foods for brain health.
Not to parrot your mother, but she was right on this one. Those leafy greens really are good for you, especially your brain. Spinach, collards, kale — you name it. These veggies are rich in brain-boosting nutrients such as beta-carotene, folic acid, lutein and vitamin K. Plus, research has shown that plant-based foods may be especially good for curbing cognitive decline.
Daily recommended intake: Aim for about 1/4 of a cup per day, or 1.5 to 2 cups a week.
Nuts are lauded as a source of protein and healthy fats. But they’re also great brain foods. Each nut has unique benefits, and including pistachios, macadamias and almonds in your diet will definitely support your brain health. But for a real mental power boost, turn to walnuts. They’re packed with omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, both of which are important for preventing mental decline.
Daily recommended intake: A 2021 study found that adults who consumed 15 to 30 grams of nuts per day had notably higher cognitive scores than those who ate less.
Coffee and tea
You may be accustomed to drinking coffee or tea to stay awake, but these caffeinated beverages have more to offer than a simple morning perk-up. Researchers have noted caffeine’s ability to boost the brain’s information-processing capacity, and coffee also packs many powerful antioxidants, which may help support brain health. In addition to both of these, green tea is rich in L-theanine. This powerful amino acid can help manage stress and anxiety, which is important for brain function.
Daily recommended intake: Up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (about four cups of coffee or black tea) is generally considered safe for most adults.
Tomatoes are one of the best foods for brain health, thanks to their rich lycopene content. This powerful carotenoid has been shown to help stave off cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. One fresh, medium tomato contains about 3.2 milligrams of lycopene, and you can also find even more in tomato sauces, pastes and ketchup.
Daily recommended intake: Studies show that 9 to 21 milligrams of lycopene per day may be most beneficial.
Whole grains like whole wheat, oatmeal, barley and brown rice are essential parts of a balanced diet, and they’re known to support cardiovascular health. What’s less well-known is that many whole grains are rich in vitamin E, an important antioxidant that helps reduce the presence of free radicals and prevent neurological damage. Experts also favor consuming vitamin E in its natural form rather than via supplements, making whole grains a great choice for boosting vitamin E intake.
Daily recommended intake: Guidelines recommend at least three servings of whole grains per day, totaling at least 48 grams.
Leafy greens aren’t the only green veggies that make the list of the best foods for brain health. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are also important. These vegetables contain high doses of glucosinolates. When combined with water, these compounds produce isothiocyanates, powerful metabolites known to have neuroprotective properties.
Daily recommended intake: The USDA recommends that adults eat 1.5 to 2.5 grams of cruciferous vegetables per week.
Salmon and tuna
You may make it a habit to avoid fatty foods, but when it comes to fish, fat is a good thing. Fish such as salmon and tuna are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with many positive health outcomes, including for the brain. In particular, these healthy fats have been tied to lower levels of beta-amyloid in the blood. This damaging protein forms clumps in the brain that often lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
Daily recommended intake: Aim for at least two servings of low-mercury fish such as salmon and light tuna per week.
An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but a bunch of berries keeps mental decline at bay. Berries are one of the best brain foods because they’re packed with flavonoids. Not only do these natural pigments make berries colorful, but they also improve brain function, particularly when it comes to memory.
Daily recommended intake: Eating at least two servings (half a cup each) of berries per week has been shown to slow memory decline by as much as two-and-a-half years.
If you’re looking for food that’s good for your brain, a delicious treat like dark chocolate might not come to mind. But dark chocolate brings together many of the benefits of the other foods on this list. It’s full of antioxidants, flavonoids and caffeine, making it one of the more brain-healthy foods you can eat. Don’t say I didn’t give you any good news.
Daily recommended intake: A small snack of dark chocolate, 30 to 60 grams a few times a week, may help improve brain function. Make sure it’s at least 70% dark to get the most benefits and limit calories from sugar.
They may be small, but seeds are as nutrient-packed as many nuts, and they make a great snack to munch on. Sunflower seeds, in particular, are rich in vitamin E, whose brain benefits we’ve discussed above. Pumpkin seeds are also a potent source of antioxidants and important minerals such as copper, iron, magnesium and zinc. Each of these minerals can help guard against cognitive decline or brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, depression and even epilepsy.
This go-to breakfast food isn’t just good for a morning protein punch. Eggs are also rich in several important B vitamins, including B6, B12 and B9 (folic acid). Studies show that these vitamins may help prevent brain shrinkage and curb mental decline in older adults.
Daily recommended intake: For most adults, one egg a day is a good target. Your doctor may recommend more or less based on your overall health and cholesterol levels.
Your spice rack probably isn’t the first place you think to look when you’re considering good brain foods. But turmeric, a major ingredient in curry powders, isn’t something you’ll want to overlook if you want to support a healthy mind. Turmeric contains curcumin, which has been linked to various positive outcomes for brain health, from protecting against Alzheimer’s to supporting brain cell growth.
Daily recommended intake: Because turmeric is a spice, you likely won’t be able to get as much as you need simply from cooking with it. Speak with your doctor about whether a curcumin supplement would be a good option for you.
Supplements for a healthy brain
In brain health, as with any type of nutrition, it’s best to meet most or all of your needs through your normal daily diet. In other words, eating the foods we’ve looked at above is the best way to keep your brain functioning well for the long haul.
However, if you find it difficult to get what you need with these brain foods, it may be helpful to include some supplements in your diet. You might consider supplements or multivitamins containing any of the following:
- B vitamins, especially B6, B12 and B9
- Vitamin C
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Brain health is critical to your overall health and well-being, so be sure to consult your physician before you add any supplements to your diet.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.