As we are now living longer and the UK population is getting older, many of us are looking for ways to keep our mind sharp as we age. There aren't any magic solutions – we know the best way to maintain a healthy body (including a healthy brain) is by following a healthy lifestyle and eating a balanced diet rich in a variety of whole, minimally-processed foods. However, some foods are particularly renowned for their brain-boosting power. Here are 6 top picks to include in your diet.
Topping the list of brain foods is oily fish. Fish included in this category include salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines and pilchards.
Oily fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have long been associated with a healthy brain, due to their positive effects on reducing inflammation and promoting the expression of brain-healthy genes [1,2]. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids has been linked with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease . Additionally, the types of omega-3 found in oily fish (DHA and EPA) are the best form for our bodies to use easily.
Nuts are uniquely rich in a variety of nutrients. All nuts provide a dose of fibre, protein and healthy unsaturated fats, however each type of nut offers a slightly different benefit. Almonds are packed with vitamin E, an antioxidant that may reduce the risk of neurological diseases . Brazil nuts are one of the best sources of selenium, which is also an antioxidant , and some studies have even found a link between high selenium intake and reduced risk of depression .
Walnuts, in particular, contain omega-3 fatty acids, making them a good source for vegetarians and vegans. However, the type of omega-3 found in walnuts is called ALA, which requires processing to become usable by the body. The rate of this processing is relatively poor, so it might be worth trying to include some oily fish too, or consider taking an algal oil supplement if you're plant-based.
Small but mighty – one of the many benefits of berries is that they're rich in anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are responsible for the red/purple/blue colour of berries, and they also have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This in turn may confer benefits to cognition and reduced risk of neurodenegerative diseases .
Seeds contain all the nutrients a plant needs to develop and grow, so naturally they're packed with lots of good stuff. Two minerals found in particularly high quantities are magnesium and zinc. Magnesium plays a pivotal role in sending signals to nerve cells, as well as protecting our neurons (brain and nerve cells) from dying . Zinc is used in the brain to create and maintain nerve cells, and is also implicated in synapse function and neurotransmission . Deficiency in these minerals has been associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders . Chia seeds and flaxseeds in particular also contain ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid.
Eggs are great to include in our diets as they are packed with nutrients, especially brain-boosting nutrients – vitamin B6, folate, vitamin B12 and choline to name a few. B-vitamins are involved in the production of energy and signalling molecules in the brain . Vitamin B6, folate and B12 are also key for reducing the amount of homocysteine in the body. High levels of homocysteine have been associated with an increased risk of impaired cognitive function, and brain diseases such as Alzheimer's . Much of the nutrition in eggs is found in the yolks, so it's important to consider this if you are only eating the whites as a means to save on calories.
Like eggs, dark green leafy vegetables are a powerhouse of nutrients. They're rich in antioxidants and vitamin K. Vitamin K plays a role in the metabolism of a special class of lipids called sphingolipids, which are heavily involved in brain cell development . A study of older adults found that consuming just one serving of leafy green vegetables per day was associated with a slower age-related cognitive decline .
Nutritionist Amy Wood (ANutr), MSci BSc Nutrition has a keen interest in the relationship between diet and health. Having been published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Amy is passionate about making evidence-based nutrition accessible to everyone and helping others to adopt a food-focused approach to taking control of their health.