Think about it: The foods you eat have a huge impact on your body, from your energy level to your heart health and beyond. Your brain is no exception, and research shows that things like the MIND (Mediterranean — Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, which focuses on specific brain-beneficial food groups, is linked with better brain health as well as dementia prevention.
Research also shows that the same benefits can’t be obtained from consuming the same nutrients through supplements. While the reasons for this aren’t completely understood, experts believe they may lie in how pills and foods metabolize in different ways in our bodies.
Here are what experts say are the top five foods you should be eating for brain health, and easy ways to make room for them in your diet.
1. Extra dark chocolate
“Extra dark chocolate is full of antioxidants and cacao flavanols that help preserve the health of brain cells,” Naidoo tells CNBC Make It. “It also contains fiber to help reduce brain inflammation and prevent cognitive decline.”
A 2020 study looked at how dark chocolate and white chocolate can affect the memory of healthy young adults. Participants who were given dark chocolate had better verbal memory performances two hours after consuming the chocolate, compared to the group that received white chocolate.
Researchers suggested this was due to the higher flavonoid content of the dark chocolate, “which can acutely improve cognitive function in humans.”
Extra dark chocolate should be at least 70% cacao or greater, according to Naidoo.
“Berries are packed with antioxidants, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins and minerals,” says Naidoo. “These nutrients help retain memory, and the fiber content helps feed microbes in the gut to reduce brain inflammation.”
She suggests choosing from an assortment of red, blue and black-colored berries. Strawberries, for example, are rich in flavonoids and may help slow down cognitive decline; blueberries contain different types of flavonoids linked with preventing oxidative stress; and blackberries are great sources of antioxidants, which help brain cell health.
“Eating a variety of colorful berries can also reduce symptoms of anxiety and help fend off neurodegenerative diseases like dementia,” says Naidoo.
She typically goes for a half or single cup in her daily serving.
3. Turmeric (with black pepper)
One of the major ingredients in curry powder, turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which is the secret behind its brain-boosting benefits.
“Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory substance,” says Naidoo. “Consuming it, studies have found, can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and lower cognitive decline with age.”
Turmeric is good solo, but the benefits can be stronger when combined with black pepper. Naidoo always adds “a pinch of black pepper in turmeric because piperine — the compound in black pepper — activates the curcumin and increases the bioavailability to the brain and the body.”
You can incorporate turmeric and black pepper into your diet by adding it to a hearty rice dish, a side of potatoes, a golden milk latte or some oatmeal.
4. Leafy Greens
“Leafy greens are a staple in brain-healthy diets because they contain folate, which is a B vitamin that supports neurodevelopment and neurotransmitter function,” explains Naidoo. “Folate deficiency has been tied to increased symptoms of depression as well as cognitive aging.”
Naidoo says her favorite leafy greens include:
- Dandelion greens
- Swiss chard
Not a salad fan? You can also enjoy them as creative ingredients in your favorite dishes, like pasta, burritos or as a pizza topping.
5. Fermented foods
Fermentation involves adding foods to a culture of microorganisms that then feed on the sugars in the food. This creates other products, such as lactic acid, that can generate gut-friendly bacteria.
“We have what’s called a gut-brain connection,” says Naidoo. “So when we eat fermented foods and boost our gut health, we may also improve our cognitive function.”
She likes to eat homemade kimchi as a snack with celery sticks, or combine it with salads for extra texture and flavor. Some other fermented foods Naidoo recommends:
However, large amounts of fermented foods can make you bloated. “If you feel uncomfortable, cut back on your intake until your gut and body adjust,” Naidoo advises.
You’ll also want to double-check the food labels to ensure that what you’re buying is actually fermented. Typically, you’ll see a label that mentions “live active cultures.”