The keys to a healthy brain and strong memory may be in your kitchen. More and more research is showing a direct connection between what we eat and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. For example, a diet high in trans fats (i.e., cake, cookies, breakfast sandwiches, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, etc.) has been linked to poor word recall, while eating too many simple sugars, such as fructose, has been shown to impair the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.
For as many bad brain foods that exist, there are also lots of healthy and tasty options that scientists say can enhance your grey matter’s function, including protecting your memory. Fill your plate with these seven delicious dietary items regularly and relish in a peace of mind that’s also strong and sharp.
1. Dark Chocolate
As if you needed another reason to reach for the dark stuff after a meal, here’s one more: In a new study published in the journal Appetite, researchers reported that chocolate consumption is associated with improved cognitive function. Eating chocolate at least once a week was correlated with superior visual-spatial memory and organization, scanning and tracking, verbal episodic memory, and working memory. Though scientists don’t know the exact mechanism, they suspect that it may be the cocoa flavanols, which increase blood flow to the brain. It could also be the methylxanthines, which are plant compounds that have been shown to boost concentration levels. The darker the chocolate, the better. Start with 50% cacao and work your way toward a higher percentage (the bitterness is an acquired taste). Pick brands with the least amount of sugar and ideally go for organic, which has less chemicals.
2. Wild Fatty Fish
Researchers keep finding health perks in consuming omega-3 fatty acids, including brain benefits. In a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, eating fish once a week was associated with more gray matter in brain regions responsible for memory and cognition. The hippocampus, which is the memory and learning center, was 14% larger in those who ate fish once a week. This change wasn’t seen in those taking fish oil supplements. That means you’ve got to eat it fresh out of the water, like this simple salmon recipe below. The type of fish you eat doesn’t matter, as long as it’s wild-caught to avoid chemicals, pollutants, and contaminants.
1 teaspoon dried basil (or another herb if you don’t like basil)
1/2 teaspoon Himalayan sea salt
1 pound wild salmon
Olive oil or butter
Mix together basil and sea salt. Rub mixture into salmon. Drizzle with olive oil or butter and broil, grill, or bake until done.
3. Black Coffee
Go ahead, pour yourself a second cup. In a 2015 study of older adults, those who consistently drank one to two cups of coffee daily had a significantly lower risk of cognitive impairment, compared to those who never drank coffee. The hitch: consistency is key. People who increased their consumption had a greater risk of cognitive impairment. Scientists say caffeine appears to contain neuroprotective elements that may keep the brain healthy. If you don’t consume coffee, there’s no reason to start the java addiction now. But if you do, know that scientists believe black coffee has the greatest benefits. If you prefer tea, oolong tea has been shown to improve cognitive function.
Rumor has it, the Chinese once believed that walnuts were good for the brain because these nuts resembled one. Now, some 2,000 years later, scientists have discovered that this silly-sounding theory wasn’t too far off. Studies show a small handful a day may be enough to shield your brain from the negative effects of aging. A 2015 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging examined the diets of thousands of American adults and found that those who ate about five walnut halves daily performed better on six cognitive tests. Walnuts are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid. Earlier research shows that these compounds in walnuts prevent against oxidative stress and inflammation, which can reduce the risk of developing neurodegenerative disease as well as cardiovascular disease. You can use whole or crushed walnuts as you would a condiment, adding them to salads, oatmeal, rice, buckwheat, quinoa, smoothies, and more.
One of the original superfoods, blueberries are tiny, but mighty. In a study presented at the 251st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society last March, researchers gave adults with cognitive impairment blueberry powder or a placebo once daily for four months. Those who took the powder (the equivalent of 1 cup of berries) improved their memory and other brain performance. A small 2010 study on blueberry juice reported similar results. Researchers say the blueberries’ anthocyanins—pigments that give them their dark blue hue—may reduce inflammation and help the memory centers of the brain fire more efficiently. Some scientists also believe an antioxidant in blueberries called pterostilbene may help stave off Alzheimer’s. If you are over age 50 and the disease runs in your family, you may want to consider a real blueberry supplement.
6. Leafy Greens
If you’re already saying ‘oh, kale yes’ to dark leafy greens on a daily basis, here’s more good news: Besides being packed with nutrients, foods like kale, spinach, and collard greens, also contain lutein, which are carotenoids, a naturally occurring pigment in some plants, reports a study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience last December. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne found that people with high levels of lutein in their blood had thicker gray matter in the parahippocampal cortex, the part of the brain that plays a role in memory encoding and retrieval. They also scored higher on intelligence tests. Leafy greens may also increase natural nitric oxide in your body, expanding your blood vessels slightly so that you have better circulation, which is good for your overall health.
If you typically eat only egg whites, stop tossing out the yolks. They contain a B vitamin called choline, which your brain needs to function properly. Researchers tracked the diets of 1,400 adults for 10 years and found that those who ate more choline performed better on memory tests. Choline helps with neurotransmission so your nervous system can efficiently communicate within itself and with your other organs. As a bonus, choline is also good for your hair, skin, and nails. I recommend poached eggs.