Get your grey matter into gear with these high-performing brain food ingredients

This article appeared on the SumoSalad blog in 2019. Click here to read the original.

Ever struggled through a game of Sudoku? Hey, us too. There is evidence that exercising and challenging your brain can help keep it healthy. That includes classic brain training activities like Sudoku. However, your brain also needs to be nourished – “brain food” is a real thing. To mark Brain Awareness Week, we found out which brain foods we should be adding to our weekly menu.

Guidelines from The Brain Foundation say that, as a general rule, good nutrition for the body is good nutrition for the brain. They point to the importance of protein and unsaturated fat for developing brains, as well as vitamins E and C for their protective properties. “Healthy oils like olive oil, and nuts and seeds are the main dietary sources of vitamin E, whereas fruits and vegetables are the primary sources of vitamin C,” advises nutritionist Ashleigh James.

Studies repeatedly suggest that eating a Mediterranean-style diet is linked to better overall brain function. A study of older adults in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that adults eating this style of diet had a 35% lower risk of scoring poorly on cognitive tests. Another study in Neurology found that older people who stuck to the Med diet retained more brain volume over a three-year period than those who didn’t follow it as closely. A popular riff on this diet is the appropriately named MIND diet, which highlights ten “brain healthy food groups” including green veg, berries, beans, fish and more.

With so many studies out there on brain food, we’ve waded through the research and tracked down some delicious ingredients to add to your shopping list. Hey, you could even memorise them and turn it into a brain game if that’s your jam.

Best brain food

Fish Fish deserves the top spot on the brain food list. It is rich in protein, but most importantly it’s a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. “Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, have been found to promote the efficient electrical signalling between nerve cells, improve mental concentration and fight memory loss,” explains Ashleigh. “We need omega-3 fatty acids to help build cell membranes in the brain and make hormones that regulate inflammation, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and blood clotting. They are therefore associated with protecting us against heart disease and supporting healthy brain and eye development.” The best sources are fatty fish, like salmon, mackerel and rainbow trout. “Aim for about 500 milligrams per day, which works out to at least two servings of fatty fish per week,” says Ashleigh.

Extra virgin olive oil This is definitely the real good oil. A staple of the Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil can have big brain benefits. A study in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology found it may reduce brain inflammation and kick-start a process called autophagy. This is basically when cells break down and clear out toxins in the brain, like plaques and tangles, which may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Regardless, extra virgin olive oil is a source of good fats, which your brain loves!

Chocolate Hooray – chocolate is a brain food! The flavonoids that are found in cacao are potent antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory effects, which benefits brain health. Two 2018 studies from Loma Linda University found that the higher the concentration of cacao you eat, the more positive the impact is on cognition, memory and mood. When choosing chocolate, look for one with 70% or more cacao.

Walnuts These nuts look like brains and nourish your brain, too! Walnuts are packed with ALA, which is the plant-based kind of omega-3s. For some background, there are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, EPA, DHA and ALA. “EPA and DHA are also known as the marine omega-3s because they are found primarily in fish, while ALA is referred to as the plant omega-3 since it is found almost exclusively in nuts and vegetables,” says Ashleigh. “EPA and DHA are the most biologically active and therefore are considered the most important. ALA is still beneficial, but the body must convert it to EPA or DHA before it can provide any sort of benefit. Therefore, obtaining omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish is considered the gold standard.”

“As with all essential nutrients, the best way to obtain the protective benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is through food sources, not supplements,” advises Ashleigh. “But if you cannot eat enough fish, or choose not to, you can still reap the benefits by making sure you include plenty of plant omega-3 sources in your diet.” And yes, that includes walnuts.

However, there’s more to walnuts than just their plant-based omega-3s – they offer plenty of antioxidants, too. A study from the University of Scranton found that a handful of walnuts contains almost twice as many antioxidants as an equivalent amount of any other commonly consumed nut. Antioxidants are critical in fighting damage to brain tissue as we age.

Berries Pop open a punnet of these guys. According to a review in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, scientists believe berries’ benefit is twofold. They are packed with antioxidants, which protect your brain cells from damage. They can also change the ways the neurons in your brain communicate, improving your cognition and motor control. In fact, a study from Harvard researchers found that eating blueberries and strawberries was linked with a slower rate of memory decline in older women. Sounds berry good to us…

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