The "Mind Diet": Best Foods to Boost Brain Function

by Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC | Reviewed by Advisory Board

best brain foods mind diet

The Best Brain Foods for Cognitive Power

The expression “food for thought” is quite a literal one if you really think about it. The nutrients in food are used to synthesize countless biomolecules that help your brain and body function properly. As such, nutrition should be a priority for protecting against cognitive decline, memory loss, and neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Alzheimer's disease and dementia). 

Many readers are likely familiar with any one of the following popular fad diets; "Zone Diet," "Atkins Diet," "If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM)," "South Beach Diet," "Weight Watchers," "Mediterranean Diet," "Paleo Diet" and the list goes on and on…

But now there's a new contender: the "Mind Diet." Well, it's not really a "diet" per se but more so a nutrition plan that emphasizes foods to boost brain function — something that should be a focal point for everyone, regardless of what "diet" they follow.

With that in mind (no pun intended), let's take a look at the best foods for a healthy brain and how they can enhance memory, mood, and mental performance.

Why Food Choices Are Critical for Brain Health

As the expression goes, "you are what you eat"; and it’s not a stretch to say you are what you eat eats.  It's no surprise that Alzheimer's disease and memory loss are on the rise when looking at the typical Western diet:

Breakfast

  • Coffee with Cream & Sugar
  • Donut

Lunch

  • Soda
  • Fast Food (Burger, Fries, Etc.)

Mid-Afternoon Snack

  • Soda
  • Candy Bar

Dinner

  • Beer
  • Pizza
  • Chicken Wings

Nighttime Snack

  • Ice Cream

Food is medicine, yet most Americans don't think of it like that. The reality is a proper diet serves as a frontline defense against age-related cognitive decline.

The neurons (nerve cells), astrocytes, and glial cells in the brain require specific amino acids, fatty acids, and micronutrients to function properly. When deprived of these nutrients, communication between brain cells suffers, increasing the risk of conditions like Alzheimer's disease.

Thus, eating too many "empty calories" spells disaster for your brain and waistline. A vicious cycle starts where you exceed your energy needs but lack the necessary brain-boosting nutrients found in wholesome foods.  

But when you nourish yourself properly, the opposite happens — your brain cells are primed for optimal cognitive function and sharper memory.

Tips for Your Mind Diet: How to Protect Against Cognitive Decline

Here are some general strategies and guidelines to follow on your mind diet:

Eat 5 to 6 servings of Leafy Greens Daily

Green vegetables, especially spinach, cabbage, collard greens, and broccoli, are loaded with micronutrients like B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin A (beta-carotene), and many others. As noted earlier, micronutrients are critical for proper brain function.

Don't Skimp on Fiber

Many people lack a sufficient amount of fiber in their diet, leading to erratic blood sugar swings and poor gut microbiome balance (which has implications for neurotransmitter activity). Aim for at least 5 to 10 g of dietary fiber per meal to keep your gut health and brain in check. Adding a quality probiotic supplement like Transparent Labs Gut Health can also help.

Drink Green Tea or Coffee to Sharpen Your Mind

Green tea and coffee are the best natural sources of caffeine, a stimulant nootropic that boosts cognitive function. Green tea also has the advantage of containing the potent antioxidant EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) and the calming nootropic L-theanine, both of which can help support brain health [1]. However, don't get too carried away with your caffeine consumption as it can lead to headaches, lethargy, and jitters.

Limit Added Sugars

Consuming too much sugar (especially added sugar) can compromise insulin sensitivity, meaning your body becomes less efficient at utilizing carbohydrates for energy. This drastically impedes cognitive function since blood sugar swings will make you feel nauseous and lightheaded, neither of which are conducive to mental performance. 

Stay Hydrated (Preferably with Water)

Water constitutes about 75% of the brain's mass. This means that dehydration, even as marginal as 2%, can have a negative effect on cognition and nerve signaling.

As a rule-of-thumb, drink at least one ounce of water per kilogram you weigh. For example, a 220-lb (100 kg) individual should consume no less than 100 ounces of water per day. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Are Crucial for Brain Health

Fat is arguably the most important nutrient to consume for longevity purposes. It provides energy for brain cells and is an integral component of cellular structure and metabolism. 

Simply put, the body needs omega-3 fatty acids or it won’t have the core molecules necessary to maintain and regenerate brain cells. Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are nature's densest source of two particularly important omega-3 fatty acids (EFAs): eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Research shows that these omega-3 fats are crucial for decreasing LDL cholesterol, maintaining healthy blood lipid profiles, and mitigating inflammation [2].

Omega-3s like EPA and DHA are also known to cross the blood-brain barrier where they are incorporated into nerve cell membranes [3]. In turn, these essential fatty acids support nerve signaling and may even reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease [4].

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming roughly two grams of EPA and DHA combined daily for healthy brain function and reducing the risk of heart disease [5]; this is the EFA content found in about one ounce of oily fish. Alternatively, supplementing with Krill Oil can help you meet your omega-3 needs while reducing heavy metal intake.

Boost Brain Function with These Foods

Food can taste good and be good for you. Focusing on the brain-boosting foods below will give you the anti-inflammatory nutrients your nerve cells desperately need to stymie cognitive decline.

Berries

Berries (specifically blueberries, strawberries, acai berries, raspberries, and blackberries) comprise the densest natural sources of polyphenol antioxidants. Clinical findings suggest that consuming the unique polyphenols found in berries is linked with decreased inflammation and improved intercellular signaling, which reduces oxidative stress and keeps the brain healthy [6].

And if you're not a fan of berries, including other fresh fruits in your mind diet is prudent. Grapes, for example, are a good source of trans-resveratrol that helps boost blood flow by expanding blood vessels [7].

However, avoid dried and candied fruits; those are loaded with added sugars and won't do much good for your brain function. Also, steer clear of packaged and canned fruits that come drenched in sugar-based syrups.

Here are the best antioxidant-rich fruits that are high in fiber and micronutrients:

  • Acai berries
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cherries
  • Cranberries
  • Grapes
  • Grapefruit
  • Honeydew melon
  • Kiwi
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Watermelon

Avocado

While technically a fruit, the avocado is very low in sugar. Instead, it contains a rich amount of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. The fats in avocado have actually been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol, increase HDL cholesterol, and enhance blood lipid profiles [8].

As such, avocado has an indirect benefit since proper blood flow and heart health is integral to brain function. And the good news is there are other plentiful sources of the same monounsaturated fatty acids found in avocados, including:

  • Almonds/almond oil
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Fresh/canned olives
  • Macadamia nuts/oil

In general, you’ll want to consume about 20-25% of your total daily fat intake as saturated fat, and the rest should come from unsaturated fats. 

Leafy Greens

Spinach (and many leafy greens alike) are packed with water-soluble micronutrients (especially B vitamins and vitamin C). Studies suggest that vitamins B6, B9, and B12, which are abundant in spinach, are imperative for regulating homocysteine levels in your body [9].

Homocysteine is an amino acid your body converts to cysteine (with assistance from those B vitamins). Naturally, when vitamins B6, B9, and B12 are lacking in your diet, homocysteine levels rise, leading to chronic inflammation, especially in blood vessels [10]. Thus, leafy greens are exceptional anti-inflammatory foods that can protect both the heart and brain.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts, seeds, and nut/seed butter great sources of essential fatty acids for brain health. Technically speaking, nuts are the shelled “fruit” of various plants; seeds are small edible plants enclosed in a seed coat. Therefore, most nuts are seeds but not all seeds are nuts. 

It’s necessary to be selective about which varieties of nuts and seeds you consume since some of them have a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids, which may increase inflammation [11]. The typical Western diet is suspected of elevating inflammation because many processed foods rely on cheap vegetable/corn/canola oil, which is predominantly omega-6 fatty acid sources and few omega-3s. Consuming more omega-3 essential fatty acids is crucial for reducing the pro-inflammatory effects of a diet high in omega-6s. 

Here are some general guidelines for nuts and seeds that are high in omega-3s and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats: 

  • Almonds 
  • Pistachios
  • Cashews
  • Chia Seeds
  • Brazil Nuts 
  • Macadamia Nuts 
  • Pecans 
  • Walnuts 

Nuts and seeds high in omega-6 fatty acids include (consumption of these should be limited):

  • Peanuts
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Soy Nuts
  • Flax Seed
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Pine Nuts 

Dark Chocolate

Can dark chocolate really help you avoid brain fog and think clearer throughout the day? It just might! The cocoa bean is a natural source of several promising polyphenol antioxidants, as well as caffeine and theobromine. But be careful not to use this as an excuse to eat "chocolate candy bars" every night. You can get the same benefits of dark chocolate minus the sugar-laden calories by sticking to pure cocoa powder [12].

Using Nootropics to Enhance Memory and Brain Health

In addition to your "mind diet,” supplementing with nootropics is one of the most practical ways to enhance cognitive function and attenuate neurodegenerative processes. While nutrition should always be the first line of attack for health and longevity, many nootropic ingredients, like NeuroFactor™ coffeeberry extract and Infinergy™ di-caffeine malate, are not readily found in foods. 

If you’re not sure which nootropics to take, we've done all the hard work and research to create an evidence-based formula that works for beginner and advanced nootropic users. Transparent Labs Mind Series Nootropic gives you the benefits of optimal mental performance without the unwanted side effects of being over-stimulated. Not a fan of caffeine? Don't worry. We created a stimulant-free version as well.




Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC
Elliot Reimers, M.S.(C), CISSN, CNC

Author

Elliot holds a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Minnesota, as well as being a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN) and Certified Nutrition Coach (CNC). He is currently pursuing a Master's of Science in Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology at Michigan State University. Elliot began freelance writing circa 2012 and has since written 100s of articles and several eBooks pertaining to nutritional science, dietary supplements, exercise physiology, and health/wellness. Being a “science whiz,” he has a passion for helping people understand how nutrients (and other chemicals) and exercise work on a cellular and molecular level so they can make smarter choices about what they put in, and do with, their bodies. When Elliot is not busy writing or studying, you can find him pumping iron, hiking the mountains of beautiful Colorado, or perusing nutraceutical research.



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