10 foods to boost your brainpower

Eating well is good for your mental as well as your physical health. But which foods are particularly important to keep your grey matter happy and healthy?

10 foods to boost your brainpower

Whether you want to optimise your nutrition during exam season or stay sharp in your next work meeting, paying attention to your diet can really pay off. Although there's no single 'brain food' to protect against age-related disorders such as Alzheimer's or dementia, thinking carefully about what you eat gives you the best chance of getting the nutrients you need for cognitive health and mood.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes these 10 everyday brain-boosting foods may help to keep your memory, concentration and focus as sharp as can be.

1. Wholegrains

May improve concentration and focus

A selection of wholegrain foods including wholemeal bread, spelt and wholemeal pasta

Like everything else in your body, the brain cannot work without energy. The ability to concentrate and focus comes from an adequate, steady supply of energy (in the form of glucose) in our blood, to the brain. Achieve this by choosing wholegrains which have a low-GI, which means they release their energy slowly into the bloodstream, keeping you mentally alert throughout the day. Eating too few healthy carbs, like wholegrains, may lead to brain fog and irritability. Opt for 'brown' wholegrain cereals, granary bread, rice and pasta.

Find our favourite healthy pasta and healthy rice recipes.

2. Oily fish

May promote healthy brain function

A fillet of salmon on a chopping board with other cooking ingredients

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) can't be made by the body which means they must be obtained through food. The most effective omega-3 fats occur naturally in oily fish in the form of EPA and DHA. Good plant sources include flaxseed, soya beans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and their oils. These fats are important for healthy brain function, the heart, joints and our general well-being. Although studies are at an early stage there is some suggestion that adequate amounts of omega-3 fats in your diet may help to relieve depression. 

What makes oily fish so good is that they contain these active fats in a ready-made form, which means the body can use it easily. The main sources of oily fish include salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards and kippers.

Low DHA levels may be linked to an increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer's disease and memory loss, whilst having sufficient levels of both EPA and DHA is thought to help us manage stress and make the good mood brain chemical, serotonin.

If you're vegetarian or vegan, you may wish to add seeds like flaxseed, hemp and chia to your diet, or consider a plant-based omega-3 supplement from micro-algae. If you are considering taking a supplement speak to your GP first. It’s worth remembering that vegetarian or vegan mums-to-be, or those who are breastfeeding, should consider a supplement because of the important role omega-3 fats play in the development of the central nervous system of your baby. 

Learn more about the health benefits of salmon.

3. Blueberries

May boost short-term memory

Fresh blueberries

Evidence accumulated at Tufts University in the United States suggests that the consumption of blueberries may be effective in improving or delaying short-term memory loss. They're widely available, but you can also achieve the same effect with other dark red and purple fruits, like blackberries, and veg, like red cabbage. These contain the same protective compounds called anthocyanins.

Read more about the health benefits of blueberries.

4. Tomatoes

May prevent free radical damage

Fresh, ripe tomatoes on a table

There is good evidence to suggest that lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes, could help protect against the kind of free radical damage to cells that occurs in the development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer's. Favour cooked tomatoes and enjoy with a little olive oil to optimise your body's absorption and use. Other foods supplying this, and similar protective phyto-nutrients, include papaya, watermelon and pink grapefruit. 

Discover more: Which foods should you eat raw or cooked?

5. Eggs

May delay brain shrinkage

Two eggs cracked into a bowl and whisked

Certain B vitamins – B6, B12 and folic acid – are known to reduce levels of a compound called homocysteine in the blood. Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risk of stroke, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. A study of a group of elderly patients with mild cognitive impairment found that after two years of intervention with high doses of B6, B12 and folic acid there was significantly less brain shrinkage compared to a subset given placebo treatment.

Other B vitamins including vitamins B1, B3 and choline play an important part in regulating normal brain function. Choline, which is rich in egg yolk, is essential for the memory-boosting brain chemical, acetylcholine. 

Opt for B-rich foods like eggs, chicken, fish, leafy greens and dairy. If you're vegan, look to fortified foods, including plant milks and breakfast cereals, for vitamin B12 or consider a supplement. Other useful vegan sources of B vitamins, including B6, include nutritional yeast, avocado, soya, nuts and seeds.

Learn more about vitamin B12, and discover the health benefits of eggs.

6. Blackcurrants

May reduce anxiety and stress

Fresh blackcurrants growing on a plant

Vitamin C has long been thought to have the power to increase mental agility, and some research suggests that a deficiency may be a risk factor for age-related brain degeneration including dementia and Alzheimer's. Furthermore, interesting studies demonstrate that vitamin C may be useful in managing anxiety and stress. One of the best sources of this vital vitamin are blackcurrants. Others include red peppers, citrus fruits such as oranges and broccoli.

Discover more about why we need vitamins.

7. Pumpkin seeds

May enhance memory and boost mood

A bowl of pumpkin seeds

Richer in zinc than many other seeds, pumpkin seeds supply this valuable mineral which is vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills. They're also full of stress-busting magnesium, B vitamins and tryptophan, the precursor to the good mood chemical serotonin. Other useful food sources include beef, oysters, chickpeas and nuts including cashews and almonds.

Read more about the health benefits of pumpkin seeds.

8. Broccoli

May improve brainpower

A bowl filled with broccoli florets

Broccoli is great source of vitamin K, which is known to enhance cognitive function and improve brainpower. Researchers have reported that because broccoli is high in compounds called glucosinolates, it can slow the breakdown of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which we need for the central nervous system to perform properly and keep our brains and memories sharp. Low levels of acetylcholine are associated with Alzheimer's. Other cruciferous veg rich in glucosinolates include cauliflower, kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, whilst you can obtain vitamin K from liver, hard cheeses and prunes

Discover more about the health benefits of broccoli.

9. Sage

May boost memory and concentration

A sage plant

Sage has long had a reputation for improving memory and concentration. Although most studies focus on sage as an essential oil, it could be worth adding fresh sage to your diet too. Add at the end of cooking to protect the beneficial oils.

Put sage to good use in our healthy recipes, including butternut soup with crispy sage, pearl barley & sage risotto and veal escalopes wrapped with proscuitto, sage & lemon.

10. Nuts

May help protect healthy brain function

A selection of mixed nuts in a bowl on a table

A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that an adequate intake of vitamin E might help to prevent cognitive decline, particularly in the elderly. Nuts are a great source of vitamin E along with leafy green vegetables, asparagus, olives, seeds, eggs, brown rice and wholegrains.

Learn more about the health benefits of nuts.

The importance of exercise

Don't forget that as well as a healthy diet, exercise helps to keep our brains sharp. Research suggests that regular exercise improves cognitive function, slows down the mental aging process and helps us process information more effectively.

Get inspired with our guides to how to workout at home and how to exercise for free.

Brainpower supplements

Although research linking diet and dementia is still in its infancy, there are a few important relationships between nutrients and brain health that are worth exploring. Having a nourishing, well rounded diet gives our brain the best chance of avoiding disease. If your diet is unbalanced for whatever reason, you may want to consider a multivitamin and mineral complex and an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to help make up a few of the essentials. If you are considering taking a supplement it is best to discuss this with your GP or qualified healthcare professional.

Download a printable PDF of the top 10 brain-boosting foods.

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This article was last reviewed on 21 January 2020 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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Ramasamy Masilamani's picture
Ramasamy Masilamani
8th Dec, 2017
oh,,, its really,,these are easly availble,,in our kitchen.but donot know the role in brain power.thank you.i will teach it .in my class room also
18th Jan, 2017
14th Nov, 2016
Thank you for sharing these tips! I will try to follow this advice, especially when I have to study.
30th Apr, 2016
I read that Vitamin E helps improve skin appearance. I had a rough skin and I started taking in a handful of almonds everyday. It really helped my skin. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that protects and repairs your skin Android Apps APK Developer
12th Apr, 2016
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Allan Lees
18th Jan, 2016
Professor David O Kennedy published a book in 2014 called Plants and the Human Brain. In his book he summarizes the last 15 years of research into cognitive nutrition, including the work he's done with colleagues at the Brain Performance Nutrition Research Center at Northumbria University. It's a great read and a good guide to what sorts of herbs and other plants to include in our weekly diet and it is all based on hard science rather than mere assertion or trendy but unsubstantiated beliefs.
7th Jan, 2016
I love this topic as I have been reading all about brain function and natural cognitive enhancers. I am currently using a product from brainfunctionbooster.com which is based more of plants and herbs. Keen for more articles on improving brain power.
17th Dec, 2015
Thank you for sharing these tips! I will try to follow this advice, especially when I have to study. I hope they'll give me a boost!
7th Jul, 2015
Great post!I have an abundance of tomatoesnowr and don't want to let them go to waste. What is the best way to freeze tomatoes?
Mia M
7th Jul, 2015
When I have a glut of tomatoes, I make something the French call Concassé. Onions, lightly fried, but not browned, and tomatoes added - with basil or garlic if you wish - and cooked lightly. This makes a great base for soups, stews, ratatouille - all sorts of dishes - even a pizza sauce, if you boil it down further. Yummy.


28th May, 2015
I have Coeliac disease. What would be a good substitute for eating grains for brain health?
goodfoodteam's picture
14th Jul, 2015
Hi there,Non-gluten alternatives include amaranth, buckwheat, rice, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff. Varying the alternative you use is often the best strategy.All the best,The Good Food team
14th Nov, 2014
I have to follow a gluten-free diet and find that it is very difficult finding wholegrain gluten-free food. Any suggestions or advice?
goodfoodteam's picture
12th Jan, 2015
Hi there, thanks for your e-mai. We put yor question to Coeliac UK who recommend you take a look at this page, which is complete with a list of glute-free wholegrains and tips: https://www.coeliac.org.uk/gluten-free-diet-and-lifestyle/keeping-healthy/fibre-and-wholegrains/Many thanks,The Good Food team 
chrisnation's picture
5th Nov, 2014
Tomatoes - does that include tinned? And what about passata? And while we are at it, are frozen veg as good [or very nearly] as fresh? I'm particularly thinking of green veg like peas, broad beans, green beans. Fresh peas are a seasonal rarity, so are broad beans and green beans in supermarkets are often rather tired after their long trip from Kenya.
goodfoodteam's picture
12th Jan, 2015
Hi there, yes it does include tinned tomatoes - two tinned tomatoes equal one portion of your five-a-day too. Frozen fruit and vegetables are great options and definitely count.Many thanks,The Good Food team
4th Feb, 2014
Hi, This a very informative article. For more great information on nutrition for the brain feel free to check this out. http://FoodForTheBrain.BrainAbundance.biz
21st Nov, 2013
Hey, Nice article. If you found it interesting, you may find this interesting as well. Check it out. http://chrismrice.brainabundance.biz/ Thanks for the read. Chris