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The Best (& Worst) Foods For Brain Health, From Experts

Julia Guerra
Author: Expert reviewer:
March 24, 2024
Julia Guerra
Health Writer
By Julia Guerra
Health Writer
Julia Guerra is a health and wellness writer reporting for mindbodygreen, Elite Daily, and INSIDER.
Jaime Schehr, N.D., R.D.
Expert review by
Jaime Schehr, N.D., R.D.
Naturopathic Physician and Registered Dietitian
Jaime Schehr, N.D., R.D., is a nationally recognized expert in integrative medicine and nutrition, based in New York City. She holds dual licenses as a naturopathic physician and a registered dietitian, from University of Bridgeport and University of Nebraska respectively.
woman eating and smiling in kitchen
Image by PeopleImages / iStock
March 24, 2024
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Given the wide variety of ingredients that can technically qualify as "brain foods," we set out to ask credentialed brain experts for the ones that they personally enjoy for the sake of their noggins. Here, neurologists, neuroscientists, and nutritional psychiatrists share their favorite foods for vibrant brain health—plus, the ones they avoid.

The need-to-knows:

  • Omega 3 fatty acids reign supreme: Fatty acids DHA, found in fatty fish, and ALA found in foods like flax and walnuts, are essential for brain function.
  • Skip the processed foods: Foods high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar have all been linked to impaired cognitive function.
  • Start healthy habits ASAP: While the earlier you incorporate healthy habits the better, it's never too late to see positive improvements.

What makes something a "brain food"?

In the same way that some foods are thought to help support sleep, gut health, and blood sugar, there are brain-boosting foods worth incorporating into your meals, too.

Admittedly, identifying which foods are good for the brain does take some research, but it often boils down to their vitamin, mineral, and macronutrient content.

Some foods, like fish and nuts, are widely-recognized brain foods. This is because fish is rich in the omega-3 DHA, which promotes early cognitive development and strengthens cognition1 throughout a person’s lifetime, while nuts are loaded with antioxidants that combat oxidative stress2 in the brain. Still, there are plenty of other grocery items, like kefir and lentils, that can bolster cognitive health too—and we'll explore why below.

brain experts favorite brain foods chart
Image by mbg creative
1.

Green tea

Neuropsychologist Kendal Maxwell, Ph.D. thinks green tea should be at the top of any brain food list for its energizing properties. Plus, she adds, this sip positively affects brain functionality. According to research, green tea is loaded with antioxidants that can improve cognitive function3 and improve your mood4.

2.

Water

Another brain-healthy beverage that’s especially helpful5 for achieving focus and combatting brain fog is water. “I feel like water is overlooked [when it comes to brain food lists],” says Maxwell. The next time your focus is off and things feel a bit muggy, try sipping some water and see if it helps. (Feel free to give it an upgrade with some herbs or fruit infusions, too!)

3.

Lentils

Lentils contain fiber, protein, and folate—each of which boasts brain-healthy benefits.

According to nutritional psychiatrist and mental health advocate Drew Ramsey, M.D., folate is one of “the most studied nutrients in terms of mood and depression."

Research shows that those with depression are often low in serum and red blood cell folate6. The fiber in lentils can also support healthy blood pressure7 throughout the body and brain. Ramsey likes to enjoy them in soups, salads, and side dishes for a tasty brain boost.

4.

Walnuts

It’s a happy coincidence that walnuts look like miniature brains—they're considered one of the best brain foods in existence.

While not a low-calorie food by any means, Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., a research neuroscientist and the author of Sugarless, explains that the nut's caloric density comes from its high omega-3 fatty acid content. This is what makes the plant-based snack so great for cognitive function8.

Just two tablespoons a day may help protect the brain from oxidative stress damage and prevent cognitive decline8. “My favorite way to have walnuts is on top of a salad to add crunch,” Avena says.

5.

Kefir

Kefir is fermented milk made using kefir grains. It has a similar consistency to thin yogurts and it's typically sipped, not scooped with a spoon.

Ramsey loves kefir because it's packed with probiotics that support microbial diversity in the gut. And thanks to the gut-brain connection, probiotics seem to positively affect brain neurotransmitter pathways9 as well.

6.

Salmon

Fatty fishes like salmon are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, aka nutrition’s cognitive function superstar. Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist Uma Naidoo, M.D. recommends adding them to your weekly dinner menu STAT in order to support mood balance and mental resilience10. 

7.

Anchovies

While larger fatty fish often hog the spotlight when it comes to marine cuisine swimming with brain-healthy benefits, Ramsey notes that smaller fish, including anchovies, are also great brain foods.

Anchovies pack a ton of omega-3s and because they’re tiny delicacies, they’re less likely to contain harmful pollutants like mercury, so you can be free to snack away (just be aware of the salt content). 

8.

Blueberries

You know the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away?” Well, according to findings published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a handful of blueberries a day can improve your brain health.

During the placebo-controlled trial, 61 healthy men and women drank a beverage with 26 grams of freeze-dried blueberries, while the others drank a matching placebo. Over 12 weeks, those who drank the blueberry drink saw improvement in memory, focus, increased blood flow, and lower blood pressure.

It's no wonder that you'll find blueberries in Naidoo's go-to healthy dessert recipe.

9.

Other types of berries

In addition to blueberries, other berries including strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, are what Avena calls “antioxidant powerhouses.” Antioxidants play a key role in cognitive strength11, as they fight free radicals and reduce oxidative stress, making it possible for more cells to function at a high capacity.

As a result, Avena says that eating berries may help improve your motor skills and cognition. Throw a handful into your oatmeal, smoothies, yogurt, or baked goods for a quick brain boost.

10.

Eggs

Egg yolks are loaded with choline, a nutrient that plays an important role in neurotransmitter functionality12 and increases dopamine (the happy hormone) receptor density13. So whether you like your eggs scrambled, fried, or sunny-side up, adding whole eggs into your diet is an easy way to boost your cognitive function14.

11.

Dark Chocolate

Craving chocolate? You might want to reach for a piece of dark chocolate or two. In addition to being an antioxidant-rich food, dark chocolate is also swarming with cocoa flavonols that can improve cognitive function by reducing brain fog and fatigue15, and sharpening concentration.

12.

Beans

Beans truly are a magical fruit—and not just because of their fiber content. Research also shows legumes are great for cognitive function and preventing cognitive decline, especially in elderly individuals16.

Worst foods for brain health

As far as foods that aren't so great for your brain, ultra-processed foods (i.e. cookies, candy, fast food, etc.) earn the top slot. These foods tend to be nutrient-poor, calorically-dense, and high in sugar, salt, and/or fat. Red meats17, foods high in saturated fats18, sugar19, and sodium20 can also harm brain health, Maxwell says, due to their negative impact on the gut microbiome and heart functionality.

  • Ultra-processed foods
  • Sugary drinks and energy drinks
  • Foods fried in seed oil
  • Sugar-sweetened candies, cookies, pies, etc.

Best supplements for brain function

While it's always smart to take a food-first approach to supporting brain health, these supplement ingredients have also shown promise in supporting cognition:

  • Curcumin: Research shows that curcumin, an active compound in turmeric, can enhance DHA synthesis21 in the brain, which can improve cognitive performance and reduce the risk for neurocognitive disorders (i.e. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, among others) and anxiety disorders. 
  • Vitamin D: Research suggests that those who are deficient in vitamin D might be at greater risk of depression22. You can find vitamin D in certain foods and get it from sunlight, but supplementing tends to be the most reliable and effective way to reach sufficient levels.
  • Acetylcarnitine: One supplement for brain health on Avena’s list is Acetylcarnitine, also known as Acetyl-L-carnitine. “It’s an amino acid essential for energy production and affects the brain to promote healthy memory, lessen mental fatigue, enhance mood, and support acetylcholine production,” Avena explains. Studies also suggest Acetylcarnitine can help slow cognitive decline in patients with dementia23—though more evidence is needed to support its clinical use.
  • Citicoline: This bioactive has been shown to support cognitive health and well-being by protecting the brain from neuroinflammation and modulating healthy levels of several neurotransmitters.
  • Omega-3s: You can find brain-critical omega-3 fatty acids in supplements, as well as food.
  • Plant-sourced caffeine: Research shows that caffeine can improve memory and cognitive performance, as well as offer neuroprotective benefits24.
  • L-theanine: L-theanine is a phytochemical found in green tea that's that's been shown to promote a relaxed, focused mental state25.

Other perspectives on brain foods

While all the foods on this list offer brain benefits, you can't just eat them once in a blue moon and expect your cognition to improve long-term. Rather than lean on these brain-boosting snacks like a crutch, you'll be better off incorporating them into your diet regularly.

And according to Maxwell, there is no one brain food better than the others. Eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods (and limiting highly processed sugary foods) throughout your life is what will make the biggest difference in the long run.

As far as which overall diet is best for brain health, Maxwell says the research is mixed, but the Mediterranean Diet, MIND diet, and Japanese diets 26all seem to be protective.

The mindbodygreen POV:

When asked about the best foods for brain health, neurology experts often recommend options like berries, fatty fish, and kefir thanks to their antioxidants, healthy fats, and probiotics. But when it comes to brain health, consistency is key: Eating a handful of blueberries won't make much of a difference if your overall diet is nutrient-poor or ultra-processed. Instead, aim to work a variety of the foods onto this list into your everyday routine to support your noggin.

—Emma Loewe, mindbodygreen health & sustainability director

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best food for the brain?

Experts agree that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and antioxidants are the best for the brain.

What foods help with brain fog?

While Avena highlights “fatty fish, leafy greens, eggs, and berries” as all great foods to help with brain fog because they’re swarming with omega fatty acids, protein, and other micronutrients beneficial to boost one’s memory and ability to focus, Maxwell also stresses the importance of water. If you notice you’re feeling a bit dehydrated, fill up your largest water bottle and start sipping.

How can I increase my brain cells naturally?

Eating some of the foods on this list and exercising, getting enough sleep, practicing mindfulness, and engaging the mind with brain games, books, etc. can help you tap into neuroplasticity and produce new brain cells, Ramsey and Maxwell explain.

The takeaway

The brain is the human body’s control room; every switch and wire must be intact for the rest of the body to function optimally. Eating brain foods is one of the most effective ways to ensure a smooth operation and strengthen your cognition for the long haul.

Hungry for more on this topic? Here's a deep dive into how one macronutrient in particular—fiber—can support brain health and functioning.

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