5 Foods for a Faster Brain

Board Certified Functional Nutritionist By Dana James, M.S., CNS, CDN
Board Certified Functional Nutritionist
Dana James is a Columbia University–educated nutritional therapist and founder of Food Coach NYC.

Salmon and blueberries are the loud-mouth kids in the brain-food playground. They get all the glory while leaving the quieter brain foods to fend for themselves.

That's not to denigrate salmon and blueberries--they are pioneers in the cognitive-nutrition world--but there are other foods that rival (and even surpass!) their brain enhancing effects.

As the brain is 80% fat, foods that are rich in omega 3 fats and/or antioxidants continue to be the cornerstone of cognitive nutrition. However, as nutritional science has progressed, so too has our understanding of food and how it impacts the brain.

Below are 5 foods for a faster brain: 

1. Black Cod/Sable Fish

Black Cod/sable fish is one of the richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA makes up 60% of the fatty constituents of the brain which keeps the brain cell membranes soft and fluid. This improves communication within the brain cells and enhances learning and memory. 4oz of black cod contains 1800mg of omega 3 fats, one third more than wild salmon. And thanks to Nobu's signature black miso cod dish, black cod is on almost every mid-priced Japanese restaurant.

How to Eat: Try cod drizzled in a miso sauce and served over baby bok choy; added to a brown rice kedgeree; smoked and served on baby pumpernickel bread. Available at the Lobster Place and www.vitalchoice.com

2. Chia seed

Chia seed contains the highest vegetarian source of omega 3 fats, alpha linoleic acid (ALA). While chia seed does not contain DHA, its omega 3 fat will convert to DHA with the help of magnesium and Vitamin C. Three tablespoons of chia seed will create 1200mg of DHA and EPA, making its cognitive-nutrition capacity consistent with wild salmon and far exceeding farmed salmon.

How to Eat: Try chia seeds soaked in almond milk and topped with berries (rich in magnesium and Vitamin C), or soaked and blended with cashew nut milk and blueberries to create a vegan blueberry mousse. Enjoy a green smoothie made with frozen banana, chia seed, kale and almond milk. Or try Chia Goodness cereal with apple and almonds, available at Whole Foods and other healthfood stores.

3. Broccoli sprouts

Broccoli sprouts contain the powerful phytonutrient, sulforaphane. Sulforaphane activates and amplifies the body's most abundant antioxidant, glutathione. This protects the brain from free radical damage and preserves the integrity of the synaptic membranes, which are central to learning and memory. Half a cup of broccoli sprouts have more sulforaphane than over a pound of broccoli.

How to Eat: Toss into a salad. Add to a nori wrap filled with avocado, mixed leaves, tomatoes and wild salmon. Serve atop toasted spelt bread with cottage cheese and tomatoes. Broccoli sprouts are available at Whole Foods and most health food stores.

4. Turmeric

Turmeric is the yellow pigment in curry which contains the polyphenol, curcumin. Curcumin turns on a brain protective pathway, Nrf2, which upregulates detoxification, increases glutathione levels and reduces inflammation.

Inflammation has been linked to many neurodegenerative conditions and more mild cognitive conditions such as lowered mental acuity and slow information processing speed. Turmeric may even inhibit the progression of Alzheimer's disease by removing amyloyd plaque buildup in the brain. Interestingly, India has the lowest level of Alzheimer’s disease in the world.

How to Eat: Try in a curry with chickpeas and tofu. Another option is cauliflower tossed in turmeric and dipped in yogurt. Or enjoy turmeric added to a green smoothie, or dusted over hard-boiled eggs.

5. Raw Cacao Nibs

Cacao beans have more antioxidants flavonoids than blueberries, green tea and red wine. They are an excellent source of phytonutrients, which turn off damaging inflammation transcription factors such as NF-kB and turn on protective pathways such as Nrf2.

This helps to improve memory, increase information-processing speed and improve verbal fluency. Cacao beans have also been associated with improvements in mood as they enhance opioid-receptors in the brain. Stick to the raw cacao nibs versus chocolate. You lose many of the health benefits when you eat commercially produced chocolate (even 70%).

How to Eat: Try raw cacao and goji berry balls; raw cacao and coconut balls; trail mix with dehydrated fruit; cacao pudding with coconut butter; tossed in vanilla powder and lucuma.

If these foods aren't familiar to you, get out there and experiment. More adventurous eaters may be getting smarter than you!

Dana James, M.S., CNS, CDN
Dana James, M.S., CNS, CDN
Dana James is a Columbia University–educated nutritional therapist and founder of Food Coach NYC....
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Dana James, M.S., CNS, CDN
Dana James, M.S., CNS, CDN
Dana James is a Columbia University–educated nutritional therapist and...
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