It may seem obvious but looking after your brain is important.
Your brain is like your main hub or head office.
It takes control of many of your body’s most essential functions - including keeping your heart beating, your lungs breathing, helping you think, feel and move.
This is why it’s a good idea to keep your brain in the best condition possible.
In this article we’ll be looking at foods you can eat to help both your physical and mental health.
Whether you’re looking to keep your brain well-nourished for an important work presentation, exam season or just generally concerned about your brain health, we’ve got you covered with 12 of the best foods to feed your brain!
What is brain food?
At least 50% of our brain is made up of fat.1
So, making sure we eat the right fats and fatty foods are important to promote brain health.2
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for maintaining healthy brain cell structure.3
Typically you can find Omega 3 in oily fish such as:
The NHS states that a healthy, balanced diet should include at least one to two portions of fish, particularly oily fish per week.
If you do not eat fish, then the Vegan Society suggests cooking with vegetable oil and eating small amounts of omega 3 rich linseed, hemp seeds or walnuts (six halves per day).
Which food is best for your brain?
It’s advised that you try to keep a small amount of unsaturated fat and omega-3 in your diet so you can ensure that your brain remains well nourished.
As mentioned above, you can get omega 3 from a fish and a number of nuts and seeds, but we’ll go more into that later.
On the other side of that coin, you should look to avoid trans-fats.
Trans-fats are seen to be harmful for brain function, as well as heart health. Trans fats are found in processed and packaged foods, such as:
- Processed meats
- Ready meals
- Pre-packed cakes and biscuits
Instead, you should try to cook using fresh produce where possible.
Olive oil or rapeseed oil are great for cooking, you can also use olive oil or nut oil for dressings on salads as great alternatives to pre-made options.
Ideally, your diet needs a range of foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function properly.
The following foods digest slowly, which helps you provide a slow and steady supply of glucose to your brain and body:
- Wholegrain cereals
- Fresh fruit
- Fresh veg
These foods are also rich in B vitamins, including folate and zinc.
You should also look to include your five-a-day in order to get the range of vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function properly.
This can include:
- One banana, orange, pear or apple or a similar sized fruit
- Half a grapefruit or avocado
- A slice of large fruit such as melon or pineapple
- Two satsumas, plums or similar sized fruit
- A handful of grapes
- Two handfuls of blueberries or raspberries
- One heaped tablespoon of dried fruit, such as sultanas, currants or cranberries, or three heaped tablespoons of fruit salad (fresh/tinned in fruit juice).
- Three heaped tablespoons of vegetables (raw, cooked, frozen or tinned)
- Three heaped tablespoon of any ‘pulse’ – beans, peas or lentils (however much you eat, pulses only count as one of your five a-day)
- One cereal bowl of lettuce, watercress or spinach6
- Feeding your body for mental health is equally as important as feeding your body for physical health.
- Your brain is made up of at least 50% fat, but it’s what fats you feed your brain that make the biggest difference.
- You should look to foods that contain omega 3 fatty acids and avoid trans fats where possible.
Three everyday tips for keeping your brain healthy
Start with breakfast
Make sure you start the day with breakfast.
You’ve probably been told many times, ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’, and it’s true!
Start with wholegrain cereal with milk and fruit, multigrain toast with a poached or fruit with yoghurt.
Avoid having more than 150ml of fresh fruit juice or smoothie to drink.
Add some starchy foods to your diet
Include starchy food in your diet as they slowly release energy and help your brain function in a stable way.
Foods such as boiled potatoes, rice, pasta and granary or multigrain bread make great additions for lunch and dinner.
Pick your snacks wisely
If you’re snacking between meals then you should look to include food such as fruit, vegetables nuts, yogurts and oatcakes or cracks with low fat cheese, meat or fish to avoid the usual chocolate or crisps.
This will help you avoid trans fats.
12 of the best brain foods
So, with all of the above info, it would probably be a good idea to know which foods, and why you should add to your diet.
Below we’ve found 12 science-backed foods that are proven to improve brainpower and help with cognitive function.
Oily fish (Omega 3)
It makes sense to start with the previously mentioned powerhouse that is omega 3.
Omega 3 is known as an essential fatty acid (EFA) which is found in oily fish but is not made naturally in the body. So, you need to obtain it through your diet.
These fats are great for healthy brain function, your heart, joints and general wellbeing.
Studies are still in the early stages - however, some research shows that normal amounts of EFA such as omega 3 fats in your diet can lift your mood.7
Oily fish that contain high amounts of omega 3 include:
The reason why these fish are such a good source of omega 3 is that they contain these active fats in a ready-made form, which means your body can obtain them easily.
For vegetarians and vegans, good plant sources of omega 3 include:
Or there are also plant-based omega-3 supplements from micro-algae.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan who is pregnant or in the breastfeeding phase, it might be worth considering a supplement because of the important role omega-3 plays in the development of your baby’s central nervous system.
If an omega 3 supplement is something you are considering, then you should speak to your GP in the first instance.
If you have a sweet tooth, then you’re in for a bit of a treat.
Dark chocolate contains cocoa, also known as cacao, which contains flavonoids.
Flavonoids are a type of antioxidant, and antioxidants are particularly helpful for brain health.
This is because your brain is sensitive to oxidative stress, which is related to age-related brain conditions and diseases.
Cacao flavonoids appear to be food for the brain as they can help cognitive performance.
One particular study from 2013 found that these flavonoids may encourage neuron and blood vessel growth in areas of your brain that are connected to memory and learning, as well stimulating blood flow in the brain.8
Research carried out by Tuffs University in the US found that blueberries may help with improving or delaying short-term memory loss.9
This is again down to active antioxidants contained in blueberries, and other dark red and purple fruits like blackberries and dark veg like red cabbage, which contain the same protective compound known as anthocyanins.
Basically, the bit that gives blueberries its colour is pretty good for you, particularly the brain!
Evidence also suggests that lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes may help protect against free radical damage.
Free radicals are rogue molecules that can cause a reaction in your body.
In this instance, it’s considered that lycopene may help protect against the development of brain conditions such as dementia.10
BBC Good Food favours cooking tomatoes with a little olive oil to increase the absorption of lycopene within your body.11
They also suggest foods such as papaya, watermelon and pink grapefruit hold similar protective nutrients that may work in the same way.12
If you’re one of those ‘morning coffee’ people, then you’re in luck!
Coffee is thought to support brain health, according to some studies.
The two main components of coffee, caffeine and antioxidants, are thought to have a number of positive effects on your brain.
- Keeping you awake
Caffeine helps keep your brain alert by blocking out a chemical called adenosine, which is the bit that makes you sleepy.13,14
- Improves your mood
Caffeine may also help increase your mood by lifting your neurotransmitters, such as dopamine which is stored in your brain’s ‘pleasure and reward’ systems.15
- May improve concentration
One study carried out in 2017 found that drinking coffee may lead to short-term improvements in attention and alertness. The web-based cognitive study looked at 64 participants using caffeine in a home setting.
Turmeric has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years.
Although, it’s perhaps best known as the deep yellow spice that’s used in Indian cuisine.
Yet, one of the key active ingredients, curcumin has been shown to benefit the brain.
The potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory is linked to benefits such as:
- May benefit memory
Curcumin may help improve memory in people with conditions that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease.16
- Helping new brain cells grow
Turmeric is linked to a growth hormone that helps your brain cells grow. Curcumin is linked to brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which affects cognitive function.17
There are also studies that suggest curcumin may help delay age-related mental decline, although more research is needed to qualify this.18
B vitamins such as vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid which are all found in eggs are known to reduce a compound called homocysteine in the blood.
High levels of this compound have been associated with increasing the risk of cognitive conditions such as stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
One study which looked at group of elderly patients with mild cognitive impairment found that high doses of B6, B12 and folic acid found that there was significantly less brain shrinkage compared to those given a placebo.19
Broccoli is packed with antioxidants and other plant compounds.
It’s also really high in vitamin K, meaning it can deliver more than 100% of the recommended daily intake in just one 160 gram serving of cooked broccoli.20
Vitamin K is essential for building sphingolipids which are densely found in your brain cells.21
In fact, some studies suggest that vitamin K is linked to better memory and cognitive status, particularly in older adults.22
Much like many of the above examples, pumpkin seeds contain antioxidants that may protect your brain from free radical damage.23
They also contain magnesium, iron, zinc and copper which are all important for brain health.
Research shows that eating nuts may improve heart health, and a healthy heart means a healthy brain!26,27
According to one Chinese study, which looked at adults over 55, found that the regular consumption of nuts may see lower risk in the brain condition of its participants.28
Another 2014 study looked at women who ate nuts over several years.
Results found that participants had a sharper memory compared to those who lived their life nut free.29
There are many nutrients found in nuts, such as healthy fats, antioxidants and vitamin E, which may explain the benefit they have on brain health.
While all nuts are thought to be good for your brain.
It’s walnuts in particular that are thought to have the edge as they contain omega 3 fatty acids.30
Whole grains are another great addition to your diet. They’re a great source of vitamin E which is found to improve brain health.
You can do this by adding more of the following to your daily diet:
- Brown rice
- Bulgur wheat
- Whole-grain bread
- Whole-grain pasta
Did you know that you can get nearly all of your daily required vitamin C in just one medium orange?31
Vitamin C is not only good for your body, but your brain too as it’s thought to help prevent mental decline.32
One study, in particular, found that having higher levels of vitamin C in your bloodstream may help improve cognitive tasks including focus, memory, attention and the speed in which you make decisions.
You can also get high amounts of vitamin C from bell peppers, guava, kiwi, tomatoes and strawberries. So, there’s no need to stop at oranges!
The foods listed above may help improve your brain health, including your memory and concentration.
Some may also reduce the risk of more serious cognitive disease.
Some contain compounds such as healthy fatty acids, like omega 3 which can help improve the structure of brain cells which are known as neurons.
Other compounds, such as sugars and saturated fats may damage your brain cell structure.
Foods that help the brain function generally contain one or more of the following:
- Antioxidants, such as flavonoids or vitamin E
- B vitamins
- Healthy fats
- Omega fatty acids
Supplements to support your brain
Obviously, dietary changes such as these are not suitable for everyone, and some would prefer to opt for a supplement.
Taking supplements that contain vitamin B, C or E or magnesium may improve your brain function.
Particularly if you have a deficiency, however, these supplements are unlikely to improve mental performance.
If you have a deficiency to any of the above then you should speak to your doctor or a health professional before considering a supplement.
Last updated: 21 October 2021