You can keep your body nearly immortal with exercise and your skin looking youthful with good practices and products, but how about defying the age of your brain? Good news. It involves eating.
A barrage of studies have found compounds like antioxidants, flavanols, polyphenols, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals (notably, folate, vitamin E, and B vitamins) naturally found in food can help protect your brain. Since your mental health is indicative of your overall well-being, give your grey matter a boost by eating foods fortified with these heavy-hitting nutrients.
We enlisted the help of physician, author of the Eat Right for Life book series, and private wellness coach Ann Kulze, M.D. to identify the absolute best eats for your mind. These fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, spices, and more will protect your brain, fight fatigue and fogginess, ward off aging, and boost your mood and alertness.
“Salmon, particularly wild salmon, is arguably the highest-quality protein for brain health,” Kulze says. This oily fish is the richest source of the all-important, but difficult-to-come-by omega-3 fats DHA and EPA. These are critical for healthy brain structure and optimal brain function. “As a huge added bonus, salmon is an outstanding source of five other key brain nutrients: magnesium, B-vitamins, zinc, Vitamin D and choline,” Kulze adds. What you really want is wild salmon (as opposed to farmed) because it’s cleaner and more sustainable. In terms of the breakdown, wild salmon has about 30 percent fewer calories, half the fat, and a third the amount of saturated fat of farm-raised salmon, according to data from the USDA's National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (check out macros for wild-caught salmon here and macros for farm-raised salmon here).
All nuts are exceptional brain foods (check out their unique health benefits here), but walnuts are the all-stars. They’re rich in several nutrients instrumental for brain health, like amino acids, a full spectrum of minerals, B vitamins, and vitamin E, which is said to help prevent cognitive decline, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. “Walnuts also offer a hefty dose of omega-3 fats along with especially potent anti-inflammatory- and antioxidant-rich plant compounds called polyphenols,” Kulze says. "The brain is uniquely vulnerable to damaging oxidation and inflammation,” she adds, so the protective micronutrients in these little guys are crucial to keeping you on your A-game.
“I consider beans the most underappreciated brain-health food,” Kulze says. Bold statement? Yes. But science backs it up. Beans are a low-glycemic (meaning they’re very slowly digested), nutrient-dense starch that provide the brain with its preferred fuel: glucose. Plus, they pack a powerful quintet of nutrients, including magnesium, zinc, fiber, antioxidants, and folate. Folate is essential for brain function, and folate deficiency can lead to neurological disorders, such as depression and cognitive impairment, according to research published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. “Actually, beans provide more folate than any other food,” Kulze says. Cheap, convenient, and versatile, beans are a brain-health winner that are hard to beat.
Here’s something you probably don’t know: All physically intact whole grains are a fantastic food for overall brain protection. Black rice, in particular, is a powerhouse. Also known as “forbidden rice,” black rice is packed with fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. "Measure for measure, black rice is bursting with even more antioxidants than blueberries,” Kulze says. Actually, blueberries and black rice have a lot in common. “Black rice contains the very same deep purple anthocyanin pigments as berries, but the pigments are so concentrated the grains appear black,” she explains.
If you want to eat for your brain, avocados better be on your grocery list. “A review of their nutritional profile reads straight from the winning playbook for optimal brain health," Kulze says. They’re chock-full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that promote healthy blood flow in the brain, along with several of the brain's most valued nutrients, including folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, and copper.” What's more, the B vitamins in avocados relieve stress and keep nerves and brain cells healthy. Its high amount of potassium helps lower blood pressure. And the monounsaturated fats also help support information-carrying nerves in your brain, according to research from the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology.
“Blueberries provide the brain with a gradual dose of its must-have fuel, glucose, along with a massive hit of powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory plant pigments called anthocyanins,” Kulze says. Also found in black rice (like we mentioned), anthocyanins give berries their red, blue, or purple hues, and they’re touted for being the best plant pigment for brain health. Blueberries have even been shown to reverse signs of aging in the brain, help repair and protect cells, and improve memory, according to research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
When it comes to brain health, dark chocolate in moderation really is a guiltless dessert. Thanks to its exceedingly high levels of plant antioxidants called flavanols—which dilate blood vessels, allowing more oxygen and blood to reach key areas of your brain—and a generous supply of magnesium, zinc, and fiber, dark chocolate can help you soldier on against fatigue and the effects of aging. In fact, dark chocolate is one of the only foods shown to acutely boost both mood, focus, and alertness, according to a University of Nottingham study. "And, if you eat a prudent portion (up to one ounce daily) of high cacao dark chocolate (72% or greater), it barely makes a dent in your daily sugar quota," Kulze adds.
The overall brain-boosting nutritional firepower in dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale, collards, Swiss chard, and lettuce greens is difficult to rival. "They provide the full spectrum of protective nutrients, including a huge dose of vitamins A and C, along with 18 additional essential nutrients," Kulze says. They’re exceptionally low in calories (excess body fat damages the brain), and high in plant antioxidants, too, she adds. They even provide a small kick of omega-3 fats. You couldn’t ask for anything more from a vegetable.
These Indian spices are prized for their bounty of curcumin—“one of the most potent, naturally occurring anti-inflammatory agents ever identified,” Kulze says. And, “because we now know that inflammation is the ‘universal brain destructor,’" curry and turmeric are likely the very best spices for brain health. A pinch of what other food could provide a more healthy return in mental health? Probably none.
Hemp seeds are one of the most nutritionally complete foods around. These nutty-flavored seeds provide all the essential fatty acids—including a big hit of those precious omega-3 fats, B vitamins, vitamins D and E, and a comprehensive package of minerals. And before you ask, hemp seeds do not contain any THC.