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Updated on May 10, 2022
Powerful Brain Foods: Add These 7 Foods to Your Grocery List (& Avoid These)
Neurological health has become a topic of concern as the incidence of neurological diseases like Alzheimer's disease, Dementia, and Parkinson's continue to rise in the United States.
As modern medicine begins to recognize the significant role that food has in the health of both your mind and body, nutritional strategies for preventing and managing these conditions have come to the forefront of research.
What studies have revealed is that certain foods increase inflammation and toxicity in your body and have a direct impact on your brain. Whether it lapses in memory with bouts of brain fog or full-on neurological disease, these foods interfere with the healthy function of your brain.
Conversely, there are a handful of foods that can enhance neurological health and promote optimal brain function. These foods help to combat neuroinflammation and infuse your brain with nutrients that support memory, learning, and overall cognitive health.
In this article, you'll learn:
- How the food you eat impacts your brain
- Which foods to include in your diet to support brain health
- Which foods are the most harmful to neurological function
The 7 Best Foods for Brain Health
The seven best, science-backed foods for brain health include the following…
1. Medium-Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are an excellent food for your brain. When you consume MCTs, they're converted into a different form of energy called ketones. Ketones, and the ketogenic diet, have been the center of a vast number of research studies related to brain health due to their ability to provide clean fuel for your brain.
In addition to their energy-sustaining activity, research shows that ketones are also anti-inflammatory to your body, and they enhance the function of your mitochondria (energy-producing centers in your cells). What's more, animal studies show that they inhibit amyloid-β aggregation and brain atrophy—two key risk factors in neurological diseases like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease (1).
You can find MCTs in coconut and coconut products, but to get the most bang for your MCT buck, MCT Powder is the way to go. Add it to your coffee, tea, smoothies, or breakfast bowls.
2. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish is one of the most well-known brain foods due to its high omega-3 fatty acid content, specifically DHA.
Dietary fat is crucial for your brain's integrity and ability to perform, as 60% of your brain is made up of fat. As you can imagine, if you consume a diet rich in healthy fats, it translates into a brain that's rich in healthy fats.
If, however, you consume a diet that's rich in unhealthy fat, you'll get a brain that's rich in unhealthy fat.
You may be thinking to yourself, “Why is my diet so important for brain health, anyways?”
Because your body can't produce omega-3s on its own—they must come from your diet.
These essential fatty acids are not only vital for building your brain's structure, but they also act as messengers involved in the synthesis and function of neurotransmitters (2).
As you age, cognitive decline may be associated with the amount of DHA you consume and integrate into your brain tissue. Research into neurological diseases like Alzheimer's disease and Dementia shows promising results in intervention trials with DHA. Furthermore, there is a strong association between low DHA levels and psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia (3).
Research shows that nuts, in general, are nutrient-rich and may provide support to enhance brain function and fight neurodegenerative diseases. Studies show that a diet that includes moderate amounts of nuts can alter cognitive performance in humans—potentially reversing the neurodegeneration that comes with aging (4).
With that being said, walnuts stand out amongst the various nuts for their superior omega-3 content. As mentioned above, omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for your brain and nervous system's development, function, and health.
Studies show that consuming one to two ounces of walnuts a day can improve cognitive function while also mitigating the risk for depression, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease—all of which are risk factors for dementia (5).
Coffee has both long-term and short-term benefits when it comes to brain health and function.
Most people are very familiar with the short-term pick-me-up you get with your first cup of coffee in the morning. For some, you can go from almost comatose to fully functional within minutes of your first few sips.
This is the magic of caffeine. But contrary to popular belief, caffeine doesn't just get you going, then leave you hanging. In fact, research shows that consuming caffeine long-term is associated with a reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease (6).
Along with caffeine, coffee possesses a unique compound called Eicosanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamine (EHT), which has been shown to decrease protein aggregation and reduce neuroinflammation associated with neurological disorders (7).
In the short term, studies find that caffeine consumption is associated with improved mental alertness, better mood, and enhanced concentration (8).
Turmeric is a spice that's been revered for thousands of years in India for its healing properties and continues to gain attention in the West for its potent anti-inflammatory activity.
The primary active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, which research shows may have an affinity for your brain as it's able to cross the blood-brain barrier. Here, it can bind to plaques (like those seen in Alzheimer's disease) and calm inflammation and oxidative stress (9).
Furthermore, curcumin has been shown to boost a compound called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF plays a vital role in the growth, maturation, and survival of brain cells. In addition, BDNF helps to maintain neuroplasticity, which is crucial for learning and memory (10, 11).
Research shows that berries are highly neuroprotective due to their abundance of phytonutrients, including caffeic acid, catechin, quercetin, kaempferol, tannin, and anthocyanins.
Anthocyanins are responsible for their deep red, purple, and blue hues, but it's the combination of all their phytonutrients that make them excellent brain food.
These little nutrient-dense powerhouses are capable of modulating inflammation, enhancing cell survival, improving cell signaling, and increasing neuroplasticity in your brain.
Here's a little breakdown of the benefits of common berries (12):
- Blueberries have been shown to enhance brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), decrease amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease, improve memory and motor performance, and provide a significant enhancement in cognitive function.
- Strawberries are able to minimize inflammation and protect against oxidative stress.
- Blackberries reduce reactive oxygen species generation within the cell, enhance antioxidant activity, and improve behavioral performance in motor tests.
Eggs are one of the best sources of the essential nutrient choline. Choline is crucial for neurodevelopment and brain function, with low levels of choline associated with poor cognitive function and higher levels associated with improved cognitive performance (13, 14).
Choline is also a vital component of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for parasympathetic functions of your nervous system. Acetylcholine plays a role in memory, mood, and muscle control (15).
Research also shows that people with Alzheimer's disease may require more dietary choline due to low levels of an enzyme that converts choline into acetylcholine in the brain (16).
The 4 Worst Foods for Brain Health
One of the underlying causes of most diseases is inflammation, and neurological disease is no exception. The following foods interfere with brain health by inhibiting its natural processes, creating inflammation, and slowing down cognitive function...
1. Refined Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates include everything from white bread to pasta, pastries to cookies, and everything in between.
Basically, if it's rich in carbohydrates and isn't a whole food (like a potato, rice, quinoa, etc.), it's probably a refined (or processed) carbohydrate.
Why are these foods so tough on your brain?
Refined carbohydrates are often rich in either pure sugar or complex carbohydrates that have been broken down so that they can be digested and absorbed like simple sugars. This creates an influx of sugar (glucose) in your bloodstream.
While glucose, which comes from carbohydrates, is your brain's primary source of fuel, too much sugar can lead to neurological issues like memory impairment and dementia (17).
Some potential mechanisms by which refined carbohydrates and the resulting influx of sugar can impair brain health include (18):
- Dysregulation in metabolic functions (leading to issues like diabetes)
- The formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs)
- The increased risk of inflammation
- Reduced brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (which plays a vital role in the growth, maturation, and survival of brain cells, as well as neuroplasticity)
When blood sugar is not controlled, as is the case in diabetes, neurological issues may arise due to the impact of sugar on the central nervous system. Some examples include depression, anxiety, and cognitive deficits. Some research even suggests that diabetes medication could assist in the management of diseases like Alzheimer's and Dementia (19, 20).
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are the result of chemical reactions between sugar and proteins. When you have too much blood sugar in your body, it can react with proteins in your tissues and result in the formation of AGEs.
AGEs are incredibly harmful to your body, instigating inflammation, oxidative stress, and impairing mitochondrial function. They can target any of your organs, and research shows that there is a link between AGEs, Vascular Dementia, and Alzheimer's disease (21, 22).
Diets high in sugar are also correlated with reduced levels of BDNF. As previously mentioned, BDNF plays a crucial role in the health of your brain cells, allowing them to grow and mature. Furthermore, it assists in neuroplasticity, which is a function of your brain involved in memory and learning (10).
Research shows that there is a thread between diets high in sugar, reduced BDNF expression, and resulting memory deficits (23).
2. Sugary Drinks
Right along the same lines as processed or refined grains are sugar-sweetened beverages.
Research shows that sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are associated with a cognitive decline for much the same reasons that refined carbohydrates are—they're rich in sugar (24). And truly, with 25 to 40 grams of sugar per can, soda may be one of the most potent sources of sugar on the market today.
To make matters worse, it appears that the intake of soda and other SSBs is only increasing, with around 60% of youth and 50% of adults in the United States consuming at least one SSB per day.
In addition to the vast research on sugar and cognitive decline, studies have also shown that SSBs, specifically, were positively correlated with risk for dementia, Alzheimer's, and stroke (25).
What's more, it appears that even the "diet" versions of sugar-sweetened beverages may have an impact on brain health, with research showing a link between artificial sweeteners and ischemic stroke, all-cause dementia, and Alzheimer's Disease (26).
3. Processed Meat
Research shows that processed meat, but not unprocessed meat, is linked to a higher risk for both dementia and Alzheimer's disease (27).
Processed meat includes deli meat, sausages, bacon, hot dogs, salami, and more. While it's not necessarily the meat itself that's the issue, the ingredients that are added to processed meats like nitrates and sodium can increase inflammation in your body (28, 29).
These flavor enhancers and preservatives can also increase your blood pressure, which results in hypertension—a risk factor for dementia (30).
In fact, long-term research suggests that high blood pressure during mid-life significantly increases your risk for dementia in later life (31).
4. Fried Food
Fried food is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to brain health or the health of any organ, for that matter. With fried food, you get a combination of processed carbs, sugar, low-quality fats, and AGEs (29).
Regardless of what you're frying, fried food typically involves high-heat cooking methods with low-quality oils and some type of carbohydrate. It's pretty rare that you'll come across fried food that's cooked with heat-stable fats like butter or avocado oil. Instead, most fried food is made with soybean oil or canola oil. These oils are much less stable and, when heated, can produce trans fats.
And, of course, trans fats, in combination with the detrimental effects of AGEs and simple sugars, make a recipe for disaster when it comes to cognitive health (34).
The most common fried foods to watch out for include french fries, chicken nuggets, fried chicken, tempura sushi, fried calamari, and onion rings—but almost every cuisine has its fried culprits.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, there's simply no argument—you are what you eat.
Consuming foods that optimize brain health can contribute to greater learning and memory and may help to prevent the cognitive decline that comes with age. These foods provide your brain with the nutrients it needs to function optimally and combat issues like inflammation and oxidative stress.
At the same time, avoiding brain-draining foods like processed grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meat, and fried foods will do wonders for neurological health as these foods are proven to cause a host of issues.
Does this mean you can never enjoy a french fry again? Of course not. Just be sure to stack the odds in your favor by choosing brain-supportive foods the majority of the time and saving the rest for special treats here and there.
As a doctor of Physical Therapy, Senior Wellness Expert, and co-founder of NativePath, Dr. Walding has helped millions of people improve their quality of life from the inside out—by speaking, writing, and educating others on how to live life a little more #OnThePath.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.