That large latte with an extra shot that’s supposed to power up your morning along with the midday sugar rush that you depend on to beat the afternoon slump could actually hinder learning and memory and impair cognitive function.
The brain is a complicated organ and different foods have different impacts, explains Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University. Some foods—hello, colorful vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins—can actually build brain tissue and reduce inflammation, while others have the opposite effect.
4 best foods for brain health
Add a few handfuls of berries to a salad or your morning smoothie for a big brain boost. Recent research found that as little as 2.5 cups of the flavonoid-rich berries per day for six months tamped down inflammation and significantly improved the speed that the brain could process information. It’s essential to eat blueberries daily to get the benefits.
“[Flavonoids] improve brain tissue by depressing inflammation and not allowing oxidative stress to impair brain functioning,” but it has to be a regular input of flavonoids, says Lila: “You have to eat a serving a day; you can’t just load up on weekends.”
Wild caught salmon and other fatty fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which a 2022 study linked to greater brain volumes, improved abstract reasoning and logical thinking; omega-3s also slow cognitive decline and decrease the risk of developing dementia.
Three pieces of sushi contains around three ounces of salmon—a sufficient amount to get those essential fatty acids and boost brain health, according to Nyree Dardarian, director of the Center for Nutrition and Performance and professor at Drexel University.
Whether you prefer them scrambled, poached, or fried, eggs are chock-full of nutrients like choline and lutein that support brain function. Eating one egg per week is associated with slower rates of cognitive decline.
A morning caffeine jolt can actually provide a brain boost too.
“[Coffee] isn’t building brain cells or providing the fuel for the brain neurotransmission, but it does seem to help people with neurological diseases,” Lila explains. “Coffee is helping you to be more alert and helping you concentrate.”
Studies show that the popular beverage could help slow cognitive decline and improved planning and decision-making abilities. But drinking too much coffee could have the opposite effect. Drinking more than six cups of coffee per day was linked to a 53% increase in the risk of dementia.
4 foods to avoid or minimize
1. Fast food
Items on the drive-thru menu tend to be high in fat, salt, and sugar and lacking in other important nutrients.
“Limit your drive-thru visits to once a week or less,” says Dardarian. “Eating fast food too often has long-term repercussions on cognitive health.”
Research presented at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference showed that adults who got at least 20% of their calories from highly processed foods experienced 25% faster decline in their abilities to plan and execute tasks. In those under 30, eating fast food more than three times a week was linked to higher rates of mental distress.
2. Baked goods
Cookies, cakes, pies, and other oh-so-delicious baked goods are high in trans fats (which can also appear on food labels as partially hydrogenated oils). In addition to increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke, trans fats take a toll on the brain.
Adults over age 60 with the highest levels of trans fats in their blood were 50% more likely to develop any form of dementia and 39% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Ditch the diet soda. Aspartame, an artificial sweetener found in countless foods and beverages, inhibits essential brain functions, including the release of dopamine and serotonin, and it’s been associated with an increased risk of learning problems, irritability, and other neurobehavioral health issues.
Chronic alcohol use can reduce brain volumes and lead to persistent issues with learning and memory. The latest research found that even moderate alcohol consumption takes a toll on the brain: In a study of 36,000 adults, increasing intake from half a beer a day to a full pint of beer had the same impact on the brain as aging two years. You don’t have to give up happy hour, but Lila advocates for moderation.
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