You don’t have to think too hard to know that eating right is important to your health. But it’s not just your heart and your waistline that benefit from a bounty of vegetables, whole grains and the almost magical omega-3 fatty acids — your brain gets a much-needed boost from all those good-for-you ingredients, too.
“If you’re only going to do one thing to improve your health, including that of your brain, eating a well-balanced diet should top the list,” says Mark Liponis, M.D., author of "Ultra Longevity" and medical director at the Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts.
In the short term, the right foods and beverages can help you stay alert and focused for those mid-afternoon tasks that can’t be ignored. They’ll also help you better remember where you left your keys. And down the road a bit, it’s been shown that getting enough of certain nutrients on a regular, long-term basis will help protect your gray matter and lower your risks of developing dementia, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Here’s a grocery list of brain foods you’re wise to stock up on:
Salmon, Sardines and Other Fatty Fish
Let’s just get the obvious out of the way up front: Fish really is brain food (mothers never lie!) and these types of fatty fish are at the top of the chain, thanks to their high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
Nutritionists are quick to point out that diets higher in omega-3s are linked to lower dementia and stroke risks and a slower overall mental decline. Some studies show omega-3s also improve memory powers. To get the benefits, all you need to do is sit down to two fish meals each week.
Although they’re not considered an everyday food, mussels are a wonderful source of B12, a vitamin that helps protect your brain cells as you age.
Plus, many men and women over 50 are considered B12 deficient because as we get older the body doesn’t absorb the nutrient as well. One more reason to order mussels the next time you’re out to eat — they’re high in protein, which your brain needs for regular maintenance.
Along with fish, beans are another food that nutritionists would like to see us eat more of. Kidney beans, in particular, are good for the brain because they’re high in the protective nutrient choline.
Choline plays a role in producing acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that fine tunes our perception and concentration powers. A 2011 study on 1,400 adults found that those who had the highest levels of choline performed better on a host of memory tests and were less likely to have markers of a blood vessel disease in the brain that could contribute to dementia. Other good sources of choline: eggs, chicken, wheat germ.
The flavones in citrus fruits help enhance blood-vessel functions and have anti-inflammatory properties that are thought to reduce the risk of strokes related to blood clots. Researchers have found that eating two servings a day lowers one’s stroke risk by 10 percent, compared to those who eat fewer than two servings.
All nuts fall into the good-for-you fats category, but walnuts are the only ones that contain alpha-lenolenic acid (ALA) — an omega-3 fatty acid that promotes efficient blood flow.
That, in turn, insures proper movement of oxygen to the brain. Plus, they’re heart-healthy and contain anti-inflammatory nutrients. One serving a day (about 1/4 cup) fits the bill.
Don’t you love finding java on lists like these? Yes, our favorite daytime beverage is good for our noggin. From the first sip, the mild stimulant known as caffeine lifts that mental fog and gives us a few moments of clarity.
Long-term, caffeine has antioxidants that help safeguard overall brain health. A cup or two each day is plenty for your brain to run on.
If you haven’t been moved to stock extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO as the Food Network stars like to remind us) near your stove now’s the time.
It’s the smarter way to flavor your stir-fry, sauté and salad than traditional cooking oils because it’s a monounsaturated fat, which has been shown to slow normal aging of the brain. Plus, it helps your body absorb nutrients from many other foods. If you’re also trying to lose weight, pay attention to how much you’re drizzling on as it’s also high in calories.
Yes, they’re an acquired taste, but they’re also a good source of naturally occurring nitrates, which help improve blood flow to the brain.
Experiment with cooking methods or juice recipes to find one to your liking. Still not a fan? Eggplant, broccoli, chard, radishes, avocados, and string beans are other sources.
Like fish, this one may be obvious, but it’s worth pointing out why: Several studies have looked into the blueberry-brain connection and linked the sweet gems to slower rates of decline in the areas of memory-retention and focus.
Credit the fruit’s ability to shield the brain from damage caused by free radicals. Research on animals has also found that a daily dose of blueberries improved the learning and muscle functions of older rats, essentially evening out the mental playing field when compared to much younger rats.
Spinach, chard, kale and other leafy green vegetables are rich in the antioxidant lutein. Studies out of Tufts and Harvard medical schools have found an association between lutein and lower rates of cognitive decline. Many cruciferous vegetables also contain the ingredient.
Chop and dice away — the potent onion may help prevent certain strokes. Onions contain antioxidant enzymes that help stop the formation of certain compounds that damage a protective blood barrier.
You’ve probably heard about vino’s heart-health benefits; it turns out the compounds in grape seeds may also help fight Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2011 study found that grape seed extracts, also found in red wine, significantly lowered levels of proteins that contributed to the development of Alzheimer’s in mice that were predisposed to develop memory problems.
This elegant spear is loaded with folate, which has a host of brain benefits. For example, low levels of folate are associated with depression.
Folate also works in concert with B12 to help prevent cognitive impairment. Scientists at Tufts University determined that older adults with plenty of folate and B12 circulating in their blood performed better on a speed and mental flexibility test, compared to peers who were deficient in the two nutrients. Most leafy greens provide healthy doses of folate; B12 is found in eggs and meat.
The next time you’re irritable or perhaps struggling to figure out a problem, try drinking a glass of milk or having a yogurt snack. When your body craves calcium, you’re apt to feel a little anxious, grouchy or slow thinking.
You need water to prevent dehydration, which causes brain tissue to shrink and affects many brain functions, like your ability to focus and make decisions, not to mention remember what you did earlier in the day.
Sip water with every meal and a few times throughout the day and you should be fine. Water-rich foods like watermelon and cucumbers can also keep you properly hydrated.
Go ahead and indulge a little — it’s for your brain, after all! Dark chocolate (choose one with a cocoa content of 65 percent or higher) is packed with flavonoids — antioxidants that improve brain health by enhancing blood flow, regulating cholesterol and helping to lower blood pressure. What’s more, the good stuff contains vitamin E, which is linked to less cognitive decline, and caffeine, which helps keep you sharp.