One of the best ways to boost brain performance and recall? “Eat,” says David Grotto, RD, LDN, author of 101 Simple Foods That Could Save Your Life and 101 Optimal Life Foods. Sounds simple enough. But despite this advice from nutritionists that we must fuel our bodies and brains with a steady supply of food, many of us still skip breakfast, go too long between meals and eat too much at one sitting. All of these habits set us up for brain drain. Without proper fuel (aka glucose, the main sugar the body makes from the foods we eat and that fuels all the cells in our body), our brains have to work that much harder to complete something as simple as counting change. “The brain fuels itself on glucose, which we need to replenish from food every three to four hours,” Grotto says. “Research on breakfast eaters shows that those who eat it perform better on cognitive function and recall.” Essentially, a morning meal helps your brain function better when it comes to thinking, learning, reasoning and remembering.
Conversely, eating a large amount of calories, carbs and fat at one sitting can make you feel sluggish afterward (thanks to temporarily elevated blood sugar levels, followed by a drop-off — which people can experience as low energy, sluggishness or brain fog). If eating three large meals leaves you with brain drain, consider eating four to six mini-meals over the course of the day.
What you eat is as important as how often you eat. Here are some brain-friendly foods you won’t want to miss out on:
Eggs. The protein-packed egg is rich in vitamins E and D and is considered the optimal brain food by many nutritionists, thanks to its connection with improving memory function. Plus, the yolk is rich in the B vitamin choline, which converts to acetylcholine in the brain, a neurotransmitter that is also critical for memory function. Worried about cholesterol found in egg yolks? Some docs and nutritionists consider whole eggs such an optimal food that they suggest cutting out cholesterol in other areas of your diet (such as butter and cheese) rather than lose out on all of the benefits of whole eggs. You can also keep cholesterol to a minimum by eating one whole egg and adding egg whites to round out an omelet or scrambled eggs.
Oats. “Whole-grain oats are my go-to grain because they’re rich in B vitamins, which reduce oxidative stress to the body’s tissues,” Grotto says. When we’re stressed, our body pumps out the hormone cortisol, which causes an inflammatory response that impairs memory. Getting your whole grains is like putting a bucket of water on the hormonal fire. Slow-cooking, steel-cut oatmeal is a great choice since the grain is still intact and it tastes super yummy. Top oatmeal with walnuts for brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids and milk or soymilk fortified with docosahexaenoic acid (or DHA) and you’ve got a home-run breakfast for your brain. Other smart choices: whole-grain breads, quinoa and whole-grain cereals such as Total.
Omega-3-rich fish. Salmon is considered one of the best sources of two types of brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These two fats are critical to brain, heart and eye function. But since we don’t manufacture DHA and EPA ourselves, we need to get them from our diet. The general recommendation is to aim for two to three three-ounce servings of omega-3-rich fish per week. Sardines, cod, haddock, tuna and halibut also contain omega-3 fatty acids. However, many fish farmers are feeding corn and soybeans to their stock, which actually lowers their overall omega-3 levels. Michael F. Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic and co-author of the best-selling YOU series, recommends sticking to wild salmon and lake trout as your main source of DHA/EPA-rich fish. He also sees benefits to aiming for 13 ounces per week.
Not a fish fan? Or can’t quite meet the recommended fish servings? Incorporate flaxseed, canola oil, walnuts and soybean oil into your diet. These foods are rich in the omega-3 alpha linolenic acid (ALA). You don’t get quite the same brain benefit as you do from DHA/EPA-rich sources, but it’s better than not getting any.
While food sources allow for the best absorption of omega-3s, you can also get them in a fish oil supplement. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that while some initial studies look promising, it won’t have an official recommendation on omega-3 supplementation with regards to cognitive health until more research can be done. However, because omega-3s contribute to overall health and “appear to be safe for most adults at low to moderate amounts,” says the NIH, those who aren’t getting adequate amounts of omega-3s from their diets should consider supplements. Some health organizations say healthy adults can reap overall benefit from 220 mg of DHA per day or one gram total combined of DHA and EPA. Dr. Roizen would up this amount but says to consider first what you’re getting from your diet. His general guide: If you’re eating no fish, take one 600 mg supplement of DHA per day or two grams of omega-3 fish oil capsules. If you eat half the recommended amount of omega-3-rich fish on a regular basis, then you can cut that dosage in half. Vegans can get DHA from algae-based supplements that average about 200 mg per day(though DHA and EPA are more effective in combination).
It’s important to know that fish oil supplements may cause stomach upset and bloating. In super-high doses (more than three grams per day), fish oils can cause bleeding. Omega-3s can also interact with certain medications, such as blood thinners and high blood pressure drugs, so be sure to check with your doctor and/or pharmacist before taking supplements.
Chocolate. Chocolate contains cocoa that helps improve blood flow to the brain by boosting nitric oxide levels that in turn allow blood vessels to function more efficiently. Chocolate is also packed with flavonols, which reduce blood clots and fatty buildup in the arteries, and antioxidants, which lessens inflammation in the body. In one study at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England, participants who were given chocolate drinks with 500 mg of flavonols could complete math calculations more quickly and accurately than those who had nothing. Unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably organic, non-alkali) offers the most antioxidants and flavonols. Dark chocolate is the runner-up, followed by milk chocolate. Keep in mind that chocolate contains saturated fat and sugar — so don’t overdo it. Two ounces per day or two teaspoons of cocoa powder will allow you some benefits without overloading on calories, fat and sugar. And until manufacturers develop a uniform system for measuring flavonol levels, rely on percentage of cocoa content — the higher the better.
Spinach. This dark-green leaf is packed with antioxidants, flavonols and folic acid, which is a win-win food when it comes to brain health. Same goes for kale and collard greens. Aim for three servings a day (the amount you’d get in a good-size salad) and your brain will thank you.
Any fruit ending in erry. Blueberry, cranberry, raspberry, blackberry and pomegranate-erry (okay, we snuck that last erry in there). These fruits slow the aging of the brain, thanks to their high antioxidant level. Sprinkle a handful on your cereal or oatmeal each morning, add them to yogurt or mix them in a smoothie. Just find a way to eat some berries each day.
Coffee. In animal studies, caffeine (the equivalent of two cups of really strong coffee) helped improve memory in mice and even improved it in mice that were bred to have the equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease. The caffeine cut in half the levels of beta-amyloid, a protein that clumps in the brain and causes memory loss.
Green tea. To produce the effects of coffee, you’d need to drink 14 cups of tea. But even in smaller amounts, black and green tea contains brain-boosting antioxidants and theanine, an amino acid that can calm you. But be sure to let that tea bag steep. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry shows that tea brewed for seven minutes had 60 percent more flavonoids than tea brewed for only three minutes. Tea devotees are also raving about Matcha, a stone-ground powdered form of green tea that packs a serious nutritional punch, thanks to antioxidants and vitamins C and A.
Red wine. Red grapes contain resveratrol, a substance that counteracts the free radical cell damage that’s associated with aging and normal wear and tear on our bodies and brains that comes from stress, pollutants, etc. Red wine is also packed with polyphenols, which may stop brain-cell-destroying plaques from building up. Why does red wine get all the glory? Red grapes are just naturally higher in resveratrol and polyphenols than green ones are. “Part of this is also due to the red wine making process, which allows for the skin of the red grape to stay in longer contact with the fruit, and further up levels,” Grotto says. White wine has some resveratrol, but not as much as red. Docs recommend one glass of wine per day for women, one to two glasses for men. Not a wine drinker? Pour yourself a glass of Concord grape juice instead.
Just Say No . . .
To high amounts of fructose, a sugar found in concentrated juices, table sugar and processed foods made with high-fructose corn syrup. A new study out of Georgia State University says that when rats were fed a diet high in fructose they had a hard time remembering previously learned tasks. Fructose can up your triglyceride levels, and consequently impair memory.