We may not all aspire to be Nobel Prize winners or graduate from Harvard with a 4.0 GPA, but we can all agree that we want to at least not sound dumb at our next dinner party or job interview.
The brain is arguably the most important organ in the body, and we all could probably do a better job of nourishing our brains.
So 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 fancy-pants new words like “medulla oblongata” to your vocab).
Let’s be real. You didn’t need a listicle to tell you that your brain LOVES coffee. But we’re excited to tell you that science agrees.
Coffee is rich in antioxidants like the neuroprotective compound phenylindane, which forms during roasting and gives coffee its characteristic bitter bite.
While human research in this area has been conflicting at times, one systematic review of the literature found numerous studies suggesting that lifelong consumption of coffee and other caffeinated bevvies was associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia. The effect was found to be stronger in women than in men.
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.
One study found that one to two cups of coffee a day over a 3.5-year period reduced the rate of mild cognitive impairment, while more than two cups of coffee a day or a sudden increase in coffee intake may increase the risk.
Next time you get a pang of doubt about taking that second serving of chocolate cake, remember this: According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 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 one 2018 study, healthy participants given 28 grams (1 ounce) of 70 percent cacao chocolate saw an increase in brain activity related to cognition and memory, suggesting 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 systematic review found that omega-3 supplementation appears to boost brain health and protect against neurodegeneration in older adults.
Another 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 flax, chia, or walnuts, though the benefits are much less 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 that have been shown to help support memory function.
One 2018 study tracked a large group of men over 20 years and found that long-term fruit consumption was linked to a reduced risk of late-life cognitive decline.
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 prove it. Walnuts are loaded with phytochemicals and polyunsaturated fats linked to a wide range of brain benefits.
Research has found that a Mediterranean diet rich in walnuts may help improve working memory. One cohort study found that nut consumption was linked to improved processing speed, cognitive flexibility, memory, and global cognitive function.
A 2012 study found that eight weeks of walnut snacking substantially improved verbal reasoning scores in college students.
Not a coffee drinker? We got you. One 2017 systematic review found that green tea helped improve memory, brain function, and attention during demanding cognitive tasks.
It seems that the unique combination of caffeine and the amino acid l-theanine gives green tea its status as a brain superfood. Just make sure to brew yours without added sugar or ask for it unsweetened when ordering out.
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 any favors.
The research on this one is clear: Trans fats are bad news, and while we’re slowly eliminating them from our food supply, they’re definitely still around.
One 2016 study found growing evidence that trans fats may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. A 2014 systematic review found they increased 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. Foods are allowed to use that claim when they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. To be sure, avoid any foods with “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients.
We all know that loading up on sugary soda isn’t the smartest choice, but America still drinks about 38 gallons of soda per person, per year.
One 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 sugar guzzlers 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.
So, yeah… the sugar-free stuff isn’t much better.
While the connection is unclear, one study found that people who drank at least one artificially sweetened soft drink per day were almost three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. It also found artificially sweetened beverages were 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 seltzer flavored with a splash of freshly squeezed juice.
The issue with booze 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. Another study found that higher alcohol intakes predicted greater declines in vocabulary and increased cognitive impairment over time.
While you don’t necessarily have to quit cold turkey, 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.