Good Brain Foods

Nutrient

Brain benefits

Best food sources

Food sources to use in small amounts

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Improves mood disorders (bipolar and depression) and irritability.  May improve memory or help prevent dementia.

 

Improves heart disease and certain skin diseases (lupus).

Fish (this link tells you how much Omega-3, called EPA/DHA, each fish has.  Bottom line: 2 servings of farm-raised salmon per week has enough omega-3 to treat depression)

 

Dark greens (spinach, kale), kiwi fruit, butternuts.

Though there is controversy about pollutants such as mercury in fish, the benefits of eating fish seems to overwhelm any risk and most experts still recommend eating at least 1-2 servings of fish per week.  The concern about mercury may be greater if you are pregnant, but even there the harm of not eating omega-3’s is greater if you are pregnant.  Fish with high mercury content areshark, swordfish, tile-fish, king mackerel.  For more detail, check the Harvard website.

 

Many people use flax seeds or walnuts  for omega-3’s, but there is evidence that these sources, while good for your body, do not enter the brain like the other sources.

 

Vitamin D

Improves mood and memory.

Fish, fatty fish (salmon), mushrooms, whole grain cereals/oats. 

Liver. Enriched soy or rice milk (low sugar).  See above warnings on fish.

Flavanoids

May enhance memory.

Blueberries in particular. Citrus fruits, green tea. 

Dark chocolate in small amounts.  Red wine is often mentioned as a source of flavanoids, but too much alcohol, in fact often any more than 5 ounces of wine per day for women or 10 ounces of wine per day for men, is toxic to the brain and can cause dementia, depression and mania.

 

Reduce sugar by eating whole fruit instead of fruit juice.

Probiotics

Improve anxiety and digestion.

Many yogurt products contain probiotics, or they are available in pill forms (e.g. Align brand).

 

B Vitamins (B6, B12, Folate)

Improves memory, reduces depression.

Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, whole grain cereals/oats, chicken, fish. 

Enriched soy or rice milk (low sugar).

 

Reduce sugar by eating whole fruit instead of fruit juice.  Or, for a drink, make your own smoothie by blending whole or frozen fruit in a food processor with water or yogurt.

Vitamin E

Improves cognitive function

Asparagus, avocado, nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans), olives, seeds, chia seeds, spinach, healthy oils (olive, walnut, canola, safflower, sunflower oil), wheatgerm.

Peanuts, pistachio, macadamia nuts, red palm oil.

Selenium

Important for cognitive function

Nuts, whole grain cereals/oats, fish.

Lean red meat, eggs (no more than 1 yolk a day but as many whites as you want).

Iron

Improves cognitive function in young women (may help prevent effects of blood loss caused by menstruation).

Fish, chicken, lentils, beans.

Lean red meat.

Curcumin

May help prevent dementia (improves brain function in research and there are low rates of dementia in India where it is eaten).

Turmeric (curry spice)

 

Foods to avoid

Ingredient

Brain problems

Food sources

Healthy substitutions

Saturated and trans fats

Contributes to aging and decline of brain function. 

 

Causes brain changes that are similar to those seen in depression.

Dairy products (milk, cheese), fried foods, processed or non-lean meat (e.g. meats with nitrites, bacon, fast food burgers, processed lunch meats).

 

Some snack foods (check the label for amounts of saturated and trans fat).

 

Margarine, lard, cottonseed oil, palm kernel oil, suet.

For Diary: Plain or vanilla yogurt (add fruit/honey yourself), low fat milk/cheese; tofu, soy, almond or rice milk (without added sugar).

 

For Snacks:  Snack foods low in saturated and trans fats (check the label).  Corn/tortilla chips (check label for trans fat/corn syrup), Popcorn without butter, dried fruits (in small quantities, they have lots of sugar in them), nuts, seeds, fresh fruits, almond butter/peanut butter, celery/carrot sticks.  Kashi products.  Yogurt or dark-chocolate covered raisins. 

 

For Meat:  Grilled lean meats (chicken, fish and lean meats. 

 

For Oils & Butter:  Healthy oils (olive, walnut, canola, safflower, sunflower oil).

Simple sugars

Reduces brain growth, increases diabetes.

 

Causes brain changes that are similar to those seen in depression.

Sweets, white flour, white bread (pizza, white sandwhich bread/rolls).

 

High fructose corn syrup (present in many sodas and sweets).

For sweetness: honey, maple syrup, rice syrup (made from brown rice), agabe syrup/nector, stevia, xylitol. 

 

Reduce sugar by eating whole fruit instead of fruit juice.  Or, for a drink, make your own smoothie by blending whole or frozen fruit in a food processor with water or yogurt.

 

For white bread: Whole grain breads, wheat breads/cereals, oatmeal, brown rice, bulgur, wheat berries, whole wheat pasta.

 

Links:

The World’s Healthiest Foods

Harvard Public Health Nutrition Guide

 

Adapted from Gómez-Pinilla F. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Review: Neuroscience. 2008, July(7):568-78.

 

—Updated 5/25/12 by Chris Aiken, MD and Ann McCarty, PA