6 Brain-Boosting Foods for Cognitive Health
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6 Brain-Boosting Foods for Cognitive Health

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6 Brain-Boosting Foods for Cognitive Health

Posted a month ago

Brian Stanton

Brian Stanton

Author

It's a cliche to say, "You are what you eat." Still, it's a helpful pointer when deciding what to eat for brain health. 

Your brain is the seat of your thoughts, emotions, and actions. What happens in your brain largely determines what happens in your life.

Because of this, it's worth learning what food is good for brain function. A few minutes of learning can enhance your mind and make you a happier, more effective person in the real world. 

Today, we'll cover six brain-boosting foods, brain-deranging foods to avoid, and the cognitive benefits of the Keto diet. First, though, let's cover some basics.  

Brain Nutrition 101

Your brain is a 3-pound organ that sucks up about 20% of your daily energy needs.[*] This energy comes from food and, if you haven't eaten recently, from nutrients stored in your body. 

If your diet contains carbohydrates, your brain runs almost entirely on glucose for energy. If you don't eat carbohydrates, your brain runs on a combination of glucose and ketones. 

You make ketones by burning dietary or body fat. (Ketones are why Keto is called Keto.) We'll discuss the brain benefits of ketones later.  

Think of glucose and ketones as fuel—your brain burns them to make ATP, your cellular energy currency—but you need many other nutrients to structure and support your gray matter. For example:

  • Fatty acids like omega 3s and omega 6s build brain cell membranes[*]
  • Amino acids (from protein) synthesize neurotransmitters, crucial for brain cell communication[*]
  • Vitamins like B6 (neurotransmitter production[*]), vitamin E (antioxidant protection[*]), and vitamin C (reduce brain inflammation[*]) 
  • Electrolytes like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium conduct electrical signaling

Next, learn foods containing these compounds (and others) to keep your brain running smoothly. 

6 Brain-Boosting Foods

There's nothing like a salmon and kale salad to keep your mind sharp. Here's why. 

#1: Fatty fish

Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and anchovies are excellent sources of marine omega-3s, EPA and DHA. Your brain loves these molecules. 

One study found that children who ate the most fatty fish had higher IQ scores (5 points) than infrequent fish eaters.[*] Other research correlates omega-3 consumption with lower risks of cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease.[*

Try this recipe: Low-Carb Salmon Fillets 

#2: Dark leafy greens

Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and chard are stocked with brain nutrients. We're talking about vitamins C, K, E, magnesium, potassium, and others. One study found that a daily serving of leafy greens was linked to less cognitive decline in older adults.[*]

Kale is also high in lutein and zeaxanthin. These carotenoids nestle in the brain and support visual memory and learning.[*

Try this recipe: Low-Carb Mediterranean Kale Salad with Chicken Breast (feel free to swap salmon for chicken)

#3: Lion's Mane mushroom

Lion's Mane has a long history in Chinese medicine and a recent history of science-backed benefits. For instance, this mushroom increases levels of nerve growth factor, which is like Miracle-Gro for brain cells.[*][*][*

Clinical evidence is promising, too. When older Japanese adults took Lion's Mane for 12 weeks, they showed cognitive improvements vs. the control group.[*

#4: Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is a wise pick for dessert. Not only is it low in sugar, but it's also high in brain-boosting flavonols. Research suggests cocoa flavanols enhance concentration, brain blood flow, and mood.[*] Look for chocolate with 80% cacao and up for maximum benefit.  

Try this recipe: Keto Dark Chocolate Almond Clusters

#5: MCT oil

Medium-chain triglyceride oil (MCT oil) is made from coconut fat. When you eat MCT oil, it travels to the liver and accelerates ketone production.[*

In one study, older adults who consumed a meal with MCTs did better on various cognitive tests, including memory tests.[*

Try this recipe: Keto MCT Coffee

#6: Blueberries

If you have to pick one fruit for brain health, pick blueberries. Blueberries pack an antioxidant punch rarely found in the produce section. One example: blueberries contain pterostilbene, a polyphenol that may curb amyloid plaques linked to Alzheimer's disease[*]

A 2020 review examined 12 studies on blueberries for brain health.[*] Eight studies linked blueberries to better cognitive performance, especially memory-related metrics. 

Try this recipe: Keto Blueberry Streusel Bars

Foods to Avoid for Brain Health

The modern diet is not a brain-friendly diet. It's too high in sugar and too low in brain nutrients. 

High-sugar diets (aka, the Standard American Diet) correlate with a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease.[*] One reason why? Sugar consumption increases chronic inflammation, which drives brain disease.[*

Your brain would also like you to skip trans fats. (Anything with "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" on the ingredient label.) These lab-altered fatty acids have been shown to impair brain cell communication.[*]

Other foods to skip include:

  • Refined carbohydrates (higher blood sugar is linked to impaired cognition[*])
  • Vegetable oils, especially when heated. (High intakes are linked to Alzheimer's disease[*])
  • Alcohol (in excess)
  • Peeps 

As a bonus, avoiding fried foods, heavy drinking, and marshmallow ducks covered in yellow sugar is beneficial for every other organ system. 

The Keto Diet for Brain Health

You'll do better than most if you eat leafy greens, salmon, and blueberries while keeping sugar intake low. But if you keep carbs below 5–10% of daily calories, you unlock additional brain benefits. 

Those benefits come from ketones. Ketones kept our ancestors sharp, savvy, and fueled during times of scarcity—and they're well-documented to do the same in modern times. 

Research suggests the Keto diet can help with:

  • Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's [*][*
  • Epilepsy[*][*][*
  • Brain cancer[*][*][*]
  • Traumatic brain injury[*
  • Cognitive decline[*]

Keep in mind that some of these applications (like epilepsy treatment) require aggressive carb and protein restriction to reach therapeutic levels of ketosis. Work with a medical professional in these instances. However, a sustainable, DIY, high-protein keto diet will do fine for everyday cognitive health. 

Whether or not you go Keto, today's tips will help your brain run better. And when your brain runs better, your life runs better.