A dietitian shares the No. 1 food to add to your diet to boost your brain health

Although our brains only take up 2% of our bodies, they take a lot of energy to run. In fact, 20% of the calories we take in are used by our brains. If you’ve ever tried to do a mentally challenging task on an empty stomach, you should be familiar with that fact. One of the best ways to keep your mind working well and prevent dementia and cognitive decline is to eat a diet full of brain foods.

The most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, affects nearly 6 million Americans and is expected to rise to 14 million by 2060 due to our aging population. Cognitive decline, an impairment of memory, decision-making and ability to learn, develops due to aging neurons and the general slowing down of the speed at which the brain functions. It’s directly linked to the aging process and leads to worsening memory, attention and brain processing.

Beyond the calories that are burned by running all the many functions of the brain, there are specific foods that help support our brain’s activity. Here’s what to know about so-called brain foods.

What is the No. 1 best food for brain health?

Fatty fish.

Studies have shown that eating just one seafood meal per week has been linked with a lowered risk of both Alzheimer’s and dementia. Our brains are mostly made up of omega-3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA, so it makes sense that foods that contain these fats would help support brain health.

Omega-3 has been shown to help protect the brain with its anti-inflammatory effects, ability to help create new neurons, and power to help clear the brain of plaques, one of the signs of Alzheimer’s. The best-known sources of EPA and DHA on the planet are high-quality seafood, like wild Alaskan salmon, sablefish and halibut. Wild-caught seafood is sustainably caught and also has lower contaminants than farm-raised seafood.

What foods help with brain health?

Eggs

The micronutrient choline is finally getting the attention it deserves for its role in brain health, including memory, thinking, mood and more. Higher levels of choline intake are thought to support brain function, which may decrease the risk of some types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. One of the best dietary sources of choline is the egg. One large egg provides 150 milligrams, about 25% of the daily requirement for men and 35% for women.

You’ll find choline (plus nearly half of an egg’s protein and many other vitamins and minerals) in the yolk, so be sure to eat the whole egg. According to the American Heart Association, eggs can be included as part of a heart-smart diet for healthy adults.

Walnuts

Research has found that eating walnuts may be linked with improved cognitive function and memory in groups at high risk for age-related cognitive impairment, and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The nut is also linked with a reduced risk of other diseases, such as cardiovascular disease or Type 2 diabetes, which are both risk factors for developing dementia. Whether you’re munching on walnuts for heart or brain health, you can feel good knowing that you’re covering both bases.

Berries

Known for being rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, berries contain several disease-fighting compounds. Research has found that eating berries has a protective effect against cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. A major contributor to Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases is inflammation. Both strawberries and blueberries have anti-inflammatory benefits.

A study on strawberries found that when older adults, ages 60 to 75, were given the equivalent of 2 cups of strawberries daily for 90 days, they showed improvement in memory and learning tests. In a similar study, participants who ate the equivalent of 1 cup of blueberries daily were tested on verbal learning and task switching and had significantly fewer errors on both tests at 45 and 90 days.

Prunes

Known for their gut health and bone benefits, prunes are also great for your brain. Prunes are high in potassium and a source of vitamin B6 and copper, all micronutrients that contribute to normal functioning of the nervous system. What’s more, studies on prunes show that the dried fruit has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and memory-improving characteristics. The benefits are likely due to the high content of anthocyanin, a blue plant pigment.

Citrus fruits

One of the markers of Alzheimer’sdDisease is neurodegeneration. The peel of a small citrus fruit from Okinawa, Japan called shikuwasa lime (also called citrus depressa) is rich in a plant compound called nobiletin. Nobiletin has been found to protect nerve cells and provide anti-inflammatory benefits and is looking promising as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s. The good news is that this important compound can also be found in mandarins, oranges, tangerines and grapefruits.

Cocoa powder and dark chocolate

Cocoa beans are rich in flavanols, which help fight inflammation in our body and can increase blood flow to the brain. Choosing dark chocolate over milk chocolate helps you get more of the protective polyphenols.

Extra virgin olive oil

As the staple of the Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil is rich in polyphenols and vitamin E. A 2023 study done at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that daily consumption of more than half a tablespoon of EVOO had a 28% lower risk of dying from dementia compared to never or rarely consuming olive oil. The study also found that replacing just one teaspoon of margarine or mayo with the same amount of EVOO daily was associated with an 8 to 14% lower risk of dying from dementia.

Tips to sharpen your memory

In addition to what we eat, there are other habits to work on to support brain health, Dr. Andrew Budson, author of “Why We Forget and How to Remember Better,” tells TODAY.com.

Here are some strategies to remember things better:

  • Focus your attention on whatever it is that you want to remember.

  • Organize whatever it is that you want to remember, whether it is by reviewing the sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, and feelings of an experience or the material you need to memorize for a presentation or exam.

  • Understand what you want to remember, such as the deeper meaning or implications of an episode of your life or the individual elements of your presentation or exam

  • Relate what you are learning to things you already know or have experienced

In addition to the tips above, you may want to ditch some habits that can hinder memory over time, Budson says. These include:

  • Not correcting bad habits immediately. Break bad habits right away or they will become part of your routine. For example, don’t leave your keys, wallet, cell phone where they are difficult to find— even once —or you may find yourself frequently hunting around the house looking for them.

  • Not paying attention to where you are or what you are doing. This is the No. 1 reason people have trouble finding their car, keys, phone, etc. Stop and pay attention to where you parked and where you put down your keys, for example.

  • Not engaging in aerobic exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise releases growth factors from the brain that help to grow new brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms new memories.

  • Being sedentary and watching too much television. There are new studies that suggest that even when controlling for vigorous exercise, it is still important to not be sedentary and not to watch more than one hour of television per day.

  • Eating too much unhealthy food. Everyone can get away with eating dessert, red meat, butter, soda, refined sugar and flour once in a while, but it is important that the majority of one’s diet be from the Mediterranean menu, including fish, olive oil, fruits, and vegetables, nuts and beans, and whole grains.

  • While Budson doesn’t recommend any particular supplements for brain health, he does encourage people to have their vitamin D and B12 levels checked by your physician at least once every decade after age 40. Both vitamin D and B-12 are necessary for proper memory function.

Recipes for brain health

To help you boost your brain deliciously, dig into these wonderful recipes.

One-Pan Lemon-Pepper Salmon and Orzo by Riley Wofford

Bright and Spicy Green Shakshuka by Ayesha Nurdjaja

Walnut-Lentil Bolognese by Radhi Devlukia Shetty

Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp by Jessie Sheehan

Siri Daly’s Watermelon, Blueberry and Feta Salad by Siri Daly

Italian Lemon Ricotta Cake by Jessie Sheehan

Zesty Summer Citrus Salad by Carrie Parente

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Energy Bites by Joy Bauer

Ina Garten’s Chicken Marbella by Ina Garten

This article was originally published on TODAY.com

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