The brain is arguably the most important organ in the body, and we all could probably do a better job of nourishing our brains. Keeping our brains sharp well into late adulthood takes some nutritional effort.
We’ve done a deep dive into the research to help you make smarter choices in the grocery store to keep that medulla oblongata strong (or at least to add some fun new words like “medulla oblongata” to your vocab).
Here are some (potentially surprising?) foods to include in your eating plan that can help keep you noggin going strong.
Let’s be real: You didn’t need a listicle to tell you your brain LOVES coffee. But we’re excited to tell you that science agrees.
While human research in this area has been conflicting at times, a 2014 review found numerous studies suggesting that lifelong consumption of coffee and other caffeinated bevvies was associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia.
But before you hit up your local barista for the third time today, know that the research suggests there’s a sweet spot for caffeine’s effect.
A 2015 study found that 1 to 2 cups of coffee per day over a 3.5-year period reduced the rate of mild cognitive impairment, while more than 2 cups of coffee a day or a sudden increase in coffee intake may increase the risk.
So, as with most things, drink happily and in moderation.
Next time you get a pang of doubt about taking that second serving of chocolate cake, remember this: According to a 2012 study, places where chocolate consumption is highest have the most Nobel Prize recipients in the world. We REALLY like that fact.
But seriously, it’s not that surprising when you consider that the flavanols in dark chocolate and cocoa have known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, which research has found to help enhance cognitive performance and function.
In a small 2018 study, healthy participants given 48 grams (1.7 ounces) of 70 percent cacao chocolate experienced an increase in brain activity related to cognition and memory. Though this is just one small study, the results suggest that dark chocolate enhances neuroplasticity and brain health.
Just make sure to stick to a high quality dark chocolate and enjoy it au naturel, without added sugar or fat.
About 60 percent of your brain is made up of fat, and the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish may play a unique role. One 2018 research review found that omega-3 supplementation appears to boost brain health and protect against the decline of brain function in older adults.
A 2014 study found that consuming more fish, independent of omega-3 content, seemed to improve the volume of gray matter — the area of the brain responsible for muscle control, emotions, decision making, memory, and more.
Not a fan of salmon? Try other fatty fish like sardines, mackerel, or herring, or go plant-based with flaxseed, chia seeds, or walnuts (though the benefits are fewer in the plant sources due to reduced absorption and metabolism).
Pass those sweet blue morsels for brain health, baby! Berries, especially blueberries, are rich in anthocyanins and other flavonoids — compounds that may help support memory function, according to a 2014 review.
Blueberries not in season? No problem. Blackberries, raspberries, cherries, and other deeply hued fruits are all fair game.
We always knew nuts were a super smart snack, and now we have the research to back it up. Walnuts are loaded with phytochemicals and polyunsaturated fats linked to a wide range of brain benefits.
According to a 2012 study, a Mediterranean diet rich in walnuts may help improve working memory. A 2011 study also suggests that nut consumption is linked to improved processing speed, cognitive flexibility, memory, and global cognitive function.
It seems that the unique combination of caffeine and the amino acid L-theanine gives green tea its status as a friend of the brain. Just make sure to brew your green tea or matcha latte without added sugar or ask for it unsweetened when ordering.
While there are plenty of goodies you can nosh on to fuel your brain, there are a few — possibly including some of your faves (hello, garlic fries) — that aren’t doing you many favors.
1. Fried snacks
One 2016 study found growing evidence that trans fats may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. And a 2014 review suggests that they increase the risk of cognitive disorders like dementia.
When reading food labels and ingredient lists, don’t be fooled by the “trans fat free” sticker on the front. Manufacturers are allowed to use that claim when a food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. To be sure, avoid any foods with “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients.
A 2017 study found that consuming one to two sugary drinks (including juice!) per day was associated with 1.6 years of additional brain aging. It also suggested that folks who guzzled sugary drinks had poorer memory and reduced overall brain volume than those who abstained.
If you’re relying on soda for caffeine, try swapping your source to one of the options on our pro-brain list.
3. Diet soda
So, yeah… the sugar-free stuff isn’t much better.
While the connection is unclear, a 2017 study suggests that people who drink at least one artificially sweetened soft drink per day are almost three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
The same study also suggests that artificially sweetened beverages are associated with ischemic stroke and all-cause dementia. Yikes.
If you consider yourself a diet-soda devotee, try cutting back slowly and swapping the soda for sparkling water flavored with a splash of freshly squeezed juice.
The issue with alcohol extends far beyond our sketchy memory after a messy night out.
One 2014 study found that men who consumed more alcohol had faster rates of cognitive decline. And a 2017 study found that higher alcohol intakes predicted greater declines in vocabulary and increased cognitive impairment over time.
You don’t necessarily have to quit cold turkey, but you could try stretching out your wine by combining it with seltzer for a spritzer, going longer stretches without alcohol, or volunteering as the DD on more weekends.
Ultimately, eating a good balance of nutrient-dense foods, limiting heavily processed and fried foods, and limiting your sugar intake is a great way to keep your brain (and everything else) in top shape.
But it’s great to know that some things we love — like dark chocolate, coffee, and matcha lattes — may be helping to keep our brains healthier longer.