Could eating the right foods help us stop forgetting names and misplacing keys? Fascinating research is emerging about certain foods’ abilities to improve cognitive performance and even lower the risk of neurodegenerative disorders. The 13 highly nutritious edibles in this article show exciting potential to help our brains stay healthy and function better.
The creamy avocado is actually a berry, and it’s packed with nutrients, as all berries tend to be. The flesh of the pebbly-skinned fruit contains high quantities of monounsaturated fatty acids (MFAs), healthy fats that help protect astrocytes—nerve cells in the brain that provide support to the information-carrying nerves—according to a study published in the journal Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. One-fifth of a medium avocado has 50 calories, almost 20 minerals and vitamins, and 3 grams of MFAs, so you can splurge and feel virtuous when the server at your favorite Mexican restaurant asks if you want to add guacamole to your meal.
According to research conducted at Wake Forest University, the nitrate-rich juice of the beet root may help protect against dementia. Good bacteria in the mouth turn the juice’s nitrates into nitrites, which help increase blood flow to the brain; lack of oxygen to certain areas of the brain is thought to be a factor in dementia and poor cognitive abilities. Beets that are roasted or steamed lose some of their nutrients during cooking, but juicing preserves the vegetable’s phytonutrients. Use a juicer to extract the ruby red juice yourself, or purchase fresh beet juice at health-food stores. If you don’t care for beet juice’s flavor, blend it with fruit or other vegetable juices for a more palatable drink.
Blueberries have been shown to increase powers of concentration and decrease cognitive degeneration, and they may even slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, according to findings published in the journal Brain Research. The deeply colored berries are rich in the antioxidant compounds that fight cell-damaging free radicals and protect memory-associated brain regions from oxidant and inflammatory damage; as a result, overall cognitive function improves. Cooking the berries at 350 degrees or higher causes nutrient damage, so enjoy them raw or frozen to retain all of their vitamins, antioxidants and enzymes. Mary Ann Lila, a doctor, blueberry researcher and director of North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute, recommends eating 1 cup of raw blueberries every day to realize the fruit’s full health benefits.
Your morning cup of java might do more than jump-start your day. According to research conducted by Johns Hopkins University, consuming caffeine can have a positive effect on short- and long-term memory. When subjects consumed 200 milligrams of caffeine a day—about one strong cup of coffee—they were able to recognize more of the images they had viewed from the previous day’s study session than the participants who had no caffeine.
India has a low rate of Alzheimer’s disease, a finding some researchers attribute to its citizens’ penchant for eating curry. Though curry blends vary, all curry powders should contain plenty of golden turmeric, a root rich in the anti-inflammatory compound curcumin. One study found that those who ate curry often (more than once a month) or even occasionally (less than once a month) performed better on a cognitive function test than those who never ate curry. Further research is needed to determine whether eating turmeric could be a natural way to combat dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but in the meantime, eating curry once or twice a month might be a delicious way to protect your brain.
One of the best foods for our brains is also one of the sweetest: Dark chocolate contains high levels of cocoa flavonoids—compounds with marked antioxidant properties. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Reading in England, participants who ate a dark chocolate bar had improved cognitive abilities compared with those who ate white chocolate. Dark chocolate may help combat that mid-afternoon slump, too; researchers at Northern Arizona University found that subjects who ate 60 percent cacao chocolate bars were more alert and attentive than those in the control group. Chocolate also contains tryptophan—an essential amino acid the brain uses to produce the “happy chemical” serotonin, making dark chocolate a choice that’s both delicious and good for you. An ounce is generally considered a serving size.
The incredible edible egg is one of the best sources of choline, an essential nutrient used to produce acetylcholine—a neurotransmitter that helps the brain form memories and concentrate. A long-term study by the Boston University School of Medicine found that subjects who had higher long-term choline intake performed better on memory tests. The average U.S. diet only provides about 300 milligrams of choline per day, falling short of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of 425 to 550 milligrams for adult women and men. One egg provides more than 100 milligrams of choline in the form of high-quality protein. If you decide to add eggs to your diet, choose organic, pasture-raised eggs for the best nutritional benefits. Research conducted by our sister magazine Mother Earth News found that, compared with official USDA nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain a third less cholesterol, a fourth less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E, seven times more beta carotene and four to six times as much vitamin D.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A staple of the famously healthful Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the unrefined oil derived from the first pressing of the olives. Delicately flavored EVOO contains polyphenols—antioxidants that have been shown to reverse age- and disease-related learning and memory deficits. Just 1 to 2 tablespoons per day provides significant anti-inflammatory benefits, and because heating the oil does not degrade its antioxidant qualities you can use EVOO for cooking and drizzle it on everything from salads and soups to veggies and meats.
Ginkgo has long been marketed as the “brain herb” for its purported ability to enhance memory, along with a host of other benefits. Now modern research is beginning to support ginkgo’s brain-boosting reputation. Ginkgo contains antioxidants that improve blood circulation to the brain by dilating blood vessels and reducing the stickiness of blood. Ginkgo is used widely in Europe to treat dementia, and studies suggest that the herb may help protect nerve cells damaged by Alzheimer’s disease. The dried green leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree can be brewed as tea, and are also used to make capsules, tablets and liquid extracts. Because ginkgo can interact with other medications, the herb should only be taken under the supervision of your health-care provider.
Green Leafy Vegetables
According to a study published in Neurology, eating vegetables may help slow the rate of cognitive change in adults; green leafy vegetables had the strongest association with this improvement. Participants scoring in the top 20 percent of vegetable intake enjoyed a 38 percent lower rate of cognitive decline than participants in the bottom 20 percent. Bok choy, parsley, Romaine lettuce, spinach and turnip greens are excellent sources of the B vitamin folate, which was shown to help reduce brain atrophy in older adults in a recent clinical trial. Add leafy greens to salads, smoothies, sandwiches, casseroles, soups and stir-fries.
Green tea is brimming with powerful antioxidants, and new research suggests that the brew may boost brainpower, as well. In a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology, subjects who consumed a drink containing a green tea extract performed better on memory tests; subsequent MRIs confirmed improved brain connectivity between the frontal and the parietal regions, which process visual and auditory information. Further research is needed to determine whether brewed green tea shares the same brain-boosting benefits as extracts, but sipping a daily cup of green tea may be an easy way to give your memory a boost.
A recent study by UCLA suggests that eating walnuts may improve performance on cognitive function tests, including those for memory, concentration and information-processing speed. Adult participants with higher walnut consumption performed significantly better than the control group on six cognitive tests. The only nuts that are a significant source of the inflammation-reducing omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, walnuts have high antioxidant content and contain numerous vitamins and minerals. Just 13 grams (about seven halves) of raw walnuts daily provide significant health benefits. Add walnuts to granola, yogurt, salads, breads, baked goods and pesto—or just enjoy a handful of the tasty raw or toasted nuts as a snack.
Salmon caught from the wild, as opposed to farm-raised, is high in omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients that can help boost cognitive function. According to a study from Rush University Medical Center, men and women who regularly ate salmon and other fatty fish such as mackerel and sardines had memory recall similar to individuals who were three years younger. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon also has lower mercury levels than most fish and is the only salmon deemed “low risk” for sustainability by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Despite mercury concerns, the USDA recommends eating fish two times a week to realize its health benefits; research findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest that the nutrients found in fish may actually help protect the brain from mercury’s potential toxic effects.
ELIZA CROSS is the author of nine books, including her most recent cookbook, 101 Things To Do With Pumpkin. She blogs about sustainable living, organic gardening, good food and saving money at Happy Simple Living. After researching this article, she committed to supporting her brain by eating a little dark chocolate every afternoon.