The Top 5 Foods That Boost Brain Power

The Top 5 Foods That Boost Brain Power

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by Krista Russ
July 5, 2023

Although your brain only makes up about two percent of your body weight, coming in at around three pounds, it uses up a whopping 20 percent of your oxygen and total energy intake, and for good reason (per the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation [1]). The brain is at the seat of every body function, from thinking to feeling to moving. Without our brains, we couldn’t do the most mindless of tasks like walking or breathing, or the most complex of tasks like playing the piano or driving a car. Simply put, we couldn’t exist without our brains. 

The good news is that we can support our brains with foods that help to keep this crucial, two pound organ in peak condition, not only improving our ability to carry out complex mental tasks like thinking and memory, but reducing the risk of neurodegenerative brain diseases that can seriously impact brain function in the long run, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.  

This article details 5 foods proven to boost brain power.  

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Fatty Fish

Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and herring come in at the top of the list because they are rich in essential fatty acids called omega threes. There are two types found in oily fish–both of which are critical for brain development and function: DHA and EPA. You may know that omega three fats play a role in things like heart health, reducing the chance of blood clots, and forming cell membranes across the body, which are indeed very valuable functions.  

Without properly formed cell membranes, cells can’t communicate properly with each other, and all body functions are compromised. In the brain, the role of omega threes is just as critical since the brain is 60 percent fat–the fattiest organ in the human body (per Healthline [2]), but our brains don’t thrive on any kind of fat. They need a specific kind. DHA is a building block of brain tissue, helping to form brain and nerve cells both in the womb and throughout life (per a 2007 review [3]). To put it simply, DHA is like the legos that makeup our brains.  

EPA has a more functional role, influencing neurotransmitter release, behavior, and mood. Both DHA and EPA also produce neuroprotective substances and control vital brain functions like learning and memory. As a result, they have been shown to improve brain disorders ranging from ADHD to dyslexia to clinical depression (per Healthline [2], a 2007 review [3]).  


Cocoa powder and dark chocolate containing 70 percent or more cocoa is brimming with brain-healthy antioxidants called flavonoids, as well as other brain-supportive substances like caffeine (per Healthline [2]).  

It has been shown that the flavonoids in cocoa accumulate in parts of the brain that control learning and memory and can even reduce age-related cognitive decline and memory loss.  

For example, a 2016 study [4] on 900 subjects found that those who ate dark chocolate performed better on mental tasks that require strong memory skills compared to subjects who ate minimal dark chocolate.  

Chocolate is also high in endorphins, which are the brain’s feel-good hormones, known for curbing pain and generating feelings of pleasure. This may even explain some of chocolate’s positive effects on mood (per a 2013 review [5] ). 


Most people are well aware of how coffee impacts the brain, but few know why coffee makes us feel more alert and improves our attention and concentration. Sure, coffee is rich in caffeine, but how does caffeine work in the brain? Does anything else in coffee give it such powerful brain-enhancing effects? 

Caffeine is a large part of the story. It acts on several neurotransmitters and substances involved in focus, concentration, and memory, such as adenosine, epinephrine (adrenaline), and dopamine.  

Because caffeine is very similar in structure to a neurotransmitter that makes us sleepy called adenosine, it binds to the same receptors adenosine binds to. Adenosine levels tend to rise later in the day as we become more tired, but if those receptors are blocked by caffeine, adenosine can’t bind and accumulate as it normally would, making us feel more awake and alert (according to Driftaway Coffee [6]). Caffeine also increases the supply of the excitatory neurotransmitters dopamine and epinephrine, which drive concentration, focus, and feed the brain’s reward center, as well as acetylcholine, involved in learning and memory.    

Aside from the caffeine, the flavonoids in coffee have shown to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease (per Healthline [2]).  

Dark Leafy Greens

Dark leafy green vegetables like broccoli, kale, and spinach are jam-packed with nutrients to support a healthy brain.  

These plants are all very high in Vitamin K, a fat-soluble vitamin that is needed to make sphingolipids, another type of fat that is richly concentrated in brain cells (per Healthline [2]). This could be why some studies link a higher intake of Vitamin K with improved memory and cognition. This could also be why just a single serving of green leafy vegetables per day has been shown to slow cognitive decline (via Protecting the Aging Brain [7]).  

Along with Vitamin K, green leafy veggies pack a powerful punch of other brain compounds like anti-inflammatory substances and fiber. Fiber feeds our gut microbiome, which talks directly to the brain through the gut-brain connection aka the enteric nervous system or ENS, impacting a vast array of mental functions previously unheard of like mood and even how we think (John Hopkins Medicine [8]).     


This deep-orange, richly colored spice is for more than making tasty curries. Its active plant compound, curcumin, can cross the blood-brain barrier, giving rise to direct effects on the brain (per Healthline [2]). For example, curcumin can improve memory in patients living with Alzheimer’s Disease and has even been shown to unclog some of the amyloid plaques that accumulate in the disease, according to studies [9]. 

Turmeric even has positive effects on mental health, increasing levels of the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety when combined with standard treatments (per a  2019 meta-analysis [10] and a 2020 review [11]).  

Foods to Reduce or Avoid

Just as important as what you should consume for brain health is what you should not eat for brain health or at the very least, what you should aim to greatly restrict. This blog would not be complete without guidance on the foods we consume that do just the opposite of what brain health foods do, slowing down thinking, fogging our memory, and worsening concentration, in addition to presenting long-term health risks like neurodegenerative disease.  

We will now introduce four categories of foods that are strongly linked to lagging brain function: simple sugars, processed and refined carbs, alcohol, and trans fats. Be sure to download our patient education on nutrition for brain health, where we discuss the impacts of these foods on brain health in even greater detail.

Simple Sugars

Simple sugars, also known as free sugars or added sugars, make up far too much of the Standard American (SAD) Diet. These include sugars added to foods that are not naturally occurring such as sucrose (table sugar), high fructose corn syrup, as well as some naturally occurring sugars like honey and fruit juice, which differ very little from table sugar in terms of their end effects on the body. Any sugar that is not bound to plant walls is essentially a free sugar.  

The sugar that occurs naturally in milk, vegetables, and fruits is often accompanied by fiber and is therefore not considered simple, though too much sugar from fruit can be problematic too.  

Sugar is added to virtually everything to increase both palatability and shelf-life and is hidden in foods we would hardly suspect, from ketchup to bread. Sugar rewards our brains; plain and simple. It increases feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, and we are hard-wired to seek it from birth, which the food industry is delightfully aware of.  

Most of the added sugar in our diet comes from sugar-sweetened beverages and hidden sources like condiments and salad dressings. For example, a can of cola has a whopping 41 grams of added sugar. This is alarming, considering the American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) and men consume no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of added sugars per day ( [12]).  

The toxic effects of sugar on every aspect of health could fill entire textbooks, but when it comes to the brain specifically, sugar is particularly noxious. Refined carbs and sugar can increase substances known as advanced glycation end products (AGES), which generates high levels of oxidative stress that can damage the brain over time ( Protecting the Aging Brain [7]). A diet high in refined starches and sugars is also strongly linked to insulin resistance, a potent risk factor for Alzheimer’s Disease.  

Processed & Refined Carbs

Starchy carbs act no differently in the body than sugar. In fact, white flour increases blood sugar more than table sugar! Below the neck, your body doesn’t know the difference between starchy carbs and sugars because all starches (besides fiber) are eventually broken down into simple sugars. Starches are simply long chains of sugar molecules. Once digested, an enzyme called amylase comes in and quickly snips the bond between those molecules, turning them into pure sugar.  

For this reason, processed carbs have the same ill health effects as simple sugars, contributing to weight gain, insulin resistance, inflammation, and brain decline.  

But not all carbs are created equally. The carbs in broccoli act much differently in the body than the carbs in cake because of the extent to which they are processed. While processed carbs are stripped of their fiber and ground to a pulp that quickly elevates blood sugar (think white flours, white rice, pastries, etc.), whole, unprocessed carbs found in foods like beans, seeds, legumes, and vegetables have a much smaller impact on blood sugar.  

Of course, all carbs should be consumed in moderation and for some people even “healthy” carbs can have a negative impact, particularly in those with a propensity towards insulin resistance, PCOS, and/or diabetes. For these individuals and others, a diet that restricts all carbs (download Nutritional Hacks to Optimize your Mental Performance and Brain Health for more on carbs), may be best. Still, avoiding the most refined carbs benefits everyone. Even “whole grains” are a problem because they are still processed even though a little bit of the outer bran (fibrous part) is kept in. The wheat is pounded into a fine flour that can quickly raise blood sugar despite these efforts. Avoiding or greatly limiting foods like bread, pasta, crackers, and other processed grains, wholegrain or otherwise, is beneficial, as well as opting for lower glycemic [13] grains like whole kernel rye or buckwheat in place of wheat, which has among the strongest glycemic response of any grain.  


Alcohol is a drug that is widely socially acceptable in our society. Red wine is often touted for its health benefits, but the fact remains that alcohol is a toxin with far more detriments to health than benefits. Because alcohol drifts freely into every tissue in the body, it has effects on virtually every organ, including the brain, where it is actively metabolized.  

Alcohol has direct toxic effects on the brain such as shrinking brain volume and killing nerve cells (per CNN Health [14]). This is the reason alcoholics often suffer nerve damage, tremors, and dementia over time, but there is concern that even small amounts of alcohol could induce some type of cumulative damage over time, which is what the research shows. Just one glass of wine a day can reduce brain volume, according to a recent study reported by CNN Health [14] 

Like sugar and refined carbs, alcohol also increases advanced glycation end products (AGES). These highly corrosive molecules can damage the brain over time. Because alcohol burdens the liver, it can also contribute to insulin resistance, yet another factor linked to brain health. Alcohol also increases inflammation, and neuroinflammation is now linked to many brain disorders ranging from M.S to fibromyalgia to dementia.  

Trans Fats

At one time, we were all told to replace butter with margarine, and that it was good for us because it replaced harmful saturated fat with hydrogenated vegetable oil. We now know nothing could be further from the truth. Hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats) are far more lethal than saturated fat ever was. In fact, butter is pretty benign, according to multiple, unbiased studies conducted by major organizations (2020 [15], 2021 research [16]). 

Unfortunately, much of the campaign to support a drastic reduction in saturated fat was not based in science and was instead based in fallacy [17], ego, and the political agenda of a popular scientist named Ancel Keys, who shaped American eating habits in some long-lasting and detrimental ways. The result of that agenda was lethal.  

And while partially hydrogenated oils were recently banned from the food supply because of their proven lethality, fully hydrogenated oils have not been banned because they are much lower in trans fats, but they aren’t totally free of them. Foods like margarine, peanut butter, shortening, packaged snacks, and other ultra-processed foods often contain these fully hydrogenated vegetable oils. Deep-frying foods also creates trans fats through a chemical reaction called oxidation.  

Trans fat affects the brain in many ways. Firstly, it increases several inflammatory markers, which can feed the neuroinflammation responsible for brain disease. Second, when we eat these fake, man-made fats, our brain cells, which should be built from omega three fats, are instead built with these harmful fats. The firm, rigid structure of trans fat impairs cellular communication between brain cells which has far-reaching implications. A diet high in trans fat also reduces serotonin production, leading to both memory and mood impairment (per Psychology Today [18]). And sadly, that’s only the beginning of the story.  

What’s Next?

Now that you know a little more about the foods that can support your brain, you might be wondering what more you can do to support your brain, improving focus and memory today, and protecting your brain and memory in the future.  

Fortunately, in our upcoming education on brain healthy foods, we’ll be discussing these five neuroprotective foods in even more depth, including the research supporting them, more about the foods to limit for brain health, as well as some specific nutritional strategies that have been linked to better brain health, including better focus and memory now–not just as you age, so check it out.  

Also, be sure to read 5 Supplements to Tune Up Your Brain, which details the top five supplements proven to support brain health and pairs with this blog.   

As always, to best improve your health, we strongly recommend you speak with an APIM | WLM Trained Provider, who can help you form a more personalized blueprint to support your brain based around a variety of strategies, including diet and supplements pertaining to your specific health goals.  


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