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Nutrition

Top 12 foods for long-term brain health

A clinical dietitian shares the best brain foods for keeping your brain healthy—and that taste great too.

Sophie Medlin
Sophie Medlin
Head of Nutritional Research
December 02, 2020
11 min read

Using around 25% of the energy from the food we put in our body on a daily basis, the brain takes some serious feeding. But it’s not just about the quantity of calories, the quality of what we eat is even more important to keep the brain functioning as it should.  

For optimal brain health, our Head of Nutritional Research, clinical dietitian Sophie Medlin, recommends following the MIND Diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet). 

This brain-focused, NHS-backed diet has been formulated to provide your grey matter with the nutrients it needs to function at its best and protect against cognitive decline (it’s also the starting point for the Heights Smart Supplement). In one study, participants who followed the MIND diet closely had a 53% reduced rate of developing Alzheimer’s. 

Taking inspiration from the MIND diet (and adding a treat or two), we’ve rounded up 12 of the best brain foods. All of these foods are good for your brain and body.

Want to see how many MIND diet boxes you tick?

Try our Brain Nutrition Assessment

1. Oily fish

When we think of the best brain foods, the first thing that tends to spring to mind is oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, or sardines—and for good reason. Oily fish is a great source of omega 3 fat (both EPA and DHA)—fats which are invaluable to the brain. And, as the body can’t produce omega 3, it’s vital to consume enough through the diet.

In particular, oily fish is packed full of brain-essential DHA fatty acid, along with vitamin B12, selenium, and phospholipids. DHA makes up 90% of the omega 3 fat content of the brain. If your brain doesn’t get enough DHA, it isn’t able to carry out essential cell to cell signalling and other vital tasks as well as it could. 

DHA is mainly found in the grey matter of your brain (and particularly in the frontal lobes)—these areas are important for processing information and memories. Studies have linked low DHA levels in the brain to higher rates of Alzheimer’s and other age-related diseases.

How much oily fish should you eat per week? The NHS recommends eating two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily.

Animal-free alternatives: DHA and EPA omega 3s are notoriously difficult to get on a plant-based diet, as non-animal sources such as flax seeds consist of ALA omega 3 (which is more complex for the body to turn into DHA). The Heights Smart Supplement includes 250mg of DHA and 125mg of EPA omega 3 (both sourced from algae), alongside vitamin B12 and selenium.

2. Nuts

Nuts provide a variety of brain health benefits, with different varieties offering different qualities.

Hazelnuts and almonds are good sources of vitamin E, which may help protect from age-related cognitive decline. Vitamin E helps protect brain cells from oxidative stress (oxidative damage is linked to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and can kill cells).

Walnuts have high concentrations of omega 3 ALA, some of which converts into the brain-important omega 3 DHA and EPA. It is, however, a complicated process and nuts alone are not able to provide the required amount of DHA and EPA—you may wish to consider a high-quality supplement to make sure you get enough.

In a 2017 study, researchers found that regular consumption of nuts strengthened brainwave frequencies, which are associated with memory, healing, and learning. In the study, pistachios produced the greatest gamma response, which is essential for healthy cognitive function and learning and perception.

How many portions of nuts should I eat per week? Aim for five servings of nuts per week (one portion = 30g).

3. Eggs

Eggs are packed full of brain-healthy vitamins and nutrients, including vitamin B12, vitamin D, and choline, so while they’re not included in the MIND diet—they’re a worthy addition to the list!

Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy nerve function and DNA production, as well as cell metabolism—for our brains, it gives the neurons energy to communicate. A deficiency of B12 is linked to mood disorders, including depression.

Vitamin D protects our brain from a build-up of deposits that lead to cognitive decline. Deficiency is common in the UK due to low levels of sun exposure in the winter months (in Heights’ recent vitamin deficiency study, more than 60% of participants were lacking even in the summer). Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with low mood and symptoms of depression.

Choline is important for keeping cell membranes intact and for brain function as it speeds up the release of acetylcholine (a protein that carries signals among brain cells). Research has shown that those who eat a lot of choline are more likely to do better in memory and cognitive ability tests—and the nutrient has links to protecting the brain from Alzheimer’s and other age-related diseases.

How many eggs should I eat per week? The NHS states that there is no limit on the amount of eggs you should eat per week, but be careful about adding salt and fat.

Animal-free alternatives: For a simple and easy way to get your NRV of vitamin D and vitamin B12, Heights Smart Supplement provides a high-quality daily dose.

4. Berries

Not only do they taste delicious, but berries are also one of the best brain foods for improving cognitive function. In particular, blueberries are one of the best sources of anthocyanins, which combat oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain by fighting free radicals (unstable molecules that can damage cells).

In one study, participants who drank blueberry juice for 12 weeks were found to have better blood flow to the brain and improvements in cognitive function, than the group who drank a placebo.

Other berries are also important for healthy brain cells, including strawberries, which provide a source of vitamin C, an antioxidant that protects the brain—much like blueberries.

How many portions of berries should I eat per week? Aim to eat berries at least five times per week (one portion = 80g).

5. Broccoli

When eating your greens, broccoli should be top of the brain food list thanks to its levels of folic acid (folate), vitamin K, and antioxidants. 

Folic acid is important for helping to regulate mood and protect the brain from age-related diseases. Studies have shown a link between folic acid deficiency and depression, with those who used antidepressants as well as supplementing with folic acid seeing the greatest effect. 

Folic acid is also key for regulating homocysteine, an amino acid of which high levels are linked to greater instances of Alzheimer’s and reduced cognitive function.

Antioxidants found in broccoli are also important for brain health, as—much like those found in blueberries—they help reduce inflammation and cellular damage to the brain.

Additionally, vitamin K, which is found in broccoli, has been linked to anti-ageing and a reduced chance of Alzheimer’s. In one study, those with a lower intake of vitamin K were found to have higher rates of Alzheimer’s, however, more human trials are needed to verify these findings.

How much broccoli should I eat for optimal brain health? Aim to eat five portions of green vegetables per week.

6. Dark chocolate

Eating brain-healthy foods doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t enjoy a few treats here and there. Thanks to its flavonoids and antioxidants, dark chocolate has several brain health properties.

The higher the cocoa content in your chocolate of choice, the better, as cocoa is packed full of antioxidants, which help fight brain-damaging free radicals. In one study, participants who ate high-flavanol cocoa (cocoa which has not been ‘dutched’ or processed with alkali) for five days improved the blood flow to their brain. 

Eating dark chocolate can also boost your mood as it stimulates the production of endorphins (the ‘feel-good’ chemical) and it contains serotonin, which improves mood and can act as an antidepressant. 

For delicious and brain-healthy dark chocolate, check out this recipe.

How much dark chocolate should I eat? Aim for at least 70% cocoa content and enjoy as an occasional treat (we recommend no more than 20g a day).

7. Whole grains

If brain fog is a problem, one answer could be to increase the number of whole grains in your diet, thanks to the steady supply of energy they provide the brain. 

Recommended on the MIND diet, whole grains—such as oatmeal, quinoa, brown bread, brown rice, and wholewheat pasta— are good sources of nutrients including B vitamins, antioxidants, and trace minerals.

B vitamins are essential for brain health as they help combat inflammation in the brain, as well as providing the brain with energy to create new cells.

How many whole grains should I be eating per day? The MIND diet recommends three portions of whole grains per day.

Find out if you’re following the MIND diet here.

8. Olive oil

A main component of the Mediterranean diet and subsequently the MIND diet, extra virgin olive oil is widely acknowledged as being good for your heart, but consumption is also beneficial for brain health as well as gut health.

Extra virgin olive oil is packed with antioxidants, which can help fight against the damage of brain cells from free radicals. In a recent study, groups of mice were split into two, with one group fed a diet containing high levels of extra virgin olive oil, and the other not. The group which consumed the olive oil were found to have a 60% reduction of toxic deposits of the potentially dementia-causing toxins (amyloid and tau) in the brain after six months.

Alongside this, extra olive oil is also rich in vitamin E—which protects brain cells from oxidative stress and studies have shown a link between high vitamin E consumption and better cognitive function.

How much extra virgin olive oil should I consume per week? According to the MIND diet, you should use it as your main fat source and aim to consume it at least five times a week.

9. Coffee

That 11am cup of Joe? It could actually have some brain health potential—as long as you stick to one or two cups a day.

As you’ll know, coffee contains caffeine—but the energy jolt you feel is because it blocks adenosine (a chemical that makes you feel sleepy) in the brain. Coffee has also been linked to releasing mood-boosting hormones, such as serotonin.

In some studies, researchers have found that life-long coffee consumption may be linked to lower levels of Alzheimer’s and dementia, due to its high antioxidant content.

How much coffee should I consume per day? No more than two cups of caffeinated beverages are recommended on the MIND diet.

10. Legumes and pulses

Legumes and pulses are rich sources of fibre, folic acid (vitamin B9), magnesium, iron, and thiamine (vitamin B1), depending on which variety you are eating.

Chickpeas and lentils, for example, have higher levels of folic acid—a vitamin that helps the body to process homocysteine (high levels of homocysteine can cause coronary heart disease and strokes). A deficiency in folic acid has also been linked with raised rates of dementia and, separately, depression.

Another example is soybeans, which are rich in iron. Iron is essential for the body as it allows the blood to transport oxygen, and a deficiency can lead to headaches, dizziness, and tiredness.

How many portions of legumes and pulses should I eat? Aim for five portions (one portion = 80 g) per week.

11. Wine

According to the MIND diet, red wine can have some beneficial effects on the brain—as long as it is drunk in moderation.

The researchers that created the MIND diet included red wine due to its higher content of polyphenols—phytochemicals that have antioxidant properties (which help the brain to fight free radicals). However, in order to see any health benefits from red wine, it is important to stick to the guidelines, as drinking too much alcohol has a negative effect on brain health, with excess linked to damage to tissue cells and shrinkage of the brain.

How much wine should I drink per day? No more than one small glass of red wine a day is recommended. 

12. Dark leafy greens

Last but not least in the list of best brain foods, dark leafy greens. Dark leafy greens are abundant in vitamins that brains love, with spinach, kale, and swiss chard all providing the brain with vitamins E and K, folic acid, iron, and calcium.

Kale is incredibly nutrient-rich, with one 67g serving packed with vitamin K, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Both vitamin E and C are important antioxidants that help to protect the brain from oxidative stress caused by free radicals.

Spinach is a great source of iron, which is essential for blood cells to carry oxygen around the body, and an iron deficiency is linked to dizziness, tiredness, and concentration problems.

How many leafy greens should I eat per week? Aim for five or more servings (one serving = 80g) per week.

To find out if your lifestyle is affecting your brain’s performance, try taking the Heights’ free Brain Nutrition Assessment

Find out your brain nutrition score

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