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.

Enjoyed this? Now try...

Foods that improve memory
Eating for exams
Top 5 foods to boost your child's brainpower
More health & nutrition tips


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 works as a Community Nutritionist and private consultant. She is a Registered Nutritionist (Public Health) registered with the UKVRN. Visit her website at www.nutrijo.co.uk or 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

Sign in or create your My Good Food account to join the discussion.
harinigs
15th Apr, 2015
In India, okra is considered an important brain food, while brahmi is the herb traditionally used to cool the brain and build memory power. I was surprised neither of these figured on your list.
rhod mitch
31st Mar, 2015
Eating healthy foods is good to the mind as well as to the physical health. We can think properly and do things without facing any health problems. We can also avoid having diseases. Anyway thanks for sharing this. Keep on posting :)
HealthyJames
2nd Jan, 2015
This is an awesome list. But as another member also noted, it surprised me that Green Tea and some other items (like Vinpocetine) were not included in the list. Regardless, I think this is a great introductory list, I'm definitely going to be looking to eat more of these foods. I also wanted to say that supplementation can also go a long way in meeting all the requirements too. Personally, along with taking vitamins and fish/flaxseed oil, I do also take a product called Limidax once a day. Limidax is a focus and concentration (brain-power) supplement that's made a great difference for me and its getting pretty popular, at least in my area, with professionals and college students (use it to study). It's completely all-natural and uses ten great ingredients with decades of research. Definitely something people should look into as well (they provide all the research and links to studies on their website; initially the main reason my friend and I bought it).
momandkidz
13th Nov, 2014
Learn the secret from the Mal Alzheimer researchers in Europe, the specific combination of very specific ingredients reverse much of memory loss,dementia and Alzheimer's disease. When you "Combine" the right targeted nutrition it actually revives the brain. See Here http://malalzheimer.blogspot.com/2014/11/alzheimers-disease-and-food.html
samantha7298
8th Oct, 2014
My friend just wrote a piece about this! As well as blueberries and oily fish he mentions turmeric, ginger, spinach. The only problem is that a lot of the studies are done on rats, not people! http://www.cafe.com/r/93239969-2fa4-4d82-b2d1-89a96975467d/1/a-recipe-for-the-ultimate-brain-food
Marguerite van As
3rd May, 2014
Marguerite van As (14213461) Thank you for the article, I enjoyed reading it. I have done a bit of reading on nuts in particular. I often hear that it is really healthy but did not know all the benefits it offers. Nuts, containing fibre and essential fats and a lot of protein, contributes not only to a healthy mind but also to physical health, such as your skin appearance. An example of this is Almonds. It is rich in calcium and high in vitamin E. 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. Antioxidants neutralize the oxidant effect of free radicals. They are molecules that damage collagen and cause skin dryness, wrinkles and pimples.
Katerina T
27th Apr, 2014
Very interesting and informative article about brain health! It has been proven that by eating the right food, you can boost your IQ, improve your mood, be more emotionally stable, sharpen your memory and keep your mind young. Your body ages as you get older, your brain often does too but IT DOESN'T HAVE TO! You can still have a healthy mind at your old age by eating the best brain foods. Here is another article how to boost your brain health: http://www.healthyfoodmind.com/food-brain-health/
Miro
31st Mar, 2014
Recent studies have shown that brain training tremendously increases the brain power. By using the newest and best brain training apps you'll be able to train your brain to the max! More at http://www.brainqo.com/category/brain-training-apps/
JessJessJJ
13th Mar, 2014
Thank you, I am really interested in knowing more about food that really helps people using their brain in a more healthier and balanced way. I wrote more healthy foods for your brain here, http://www.weightlossdose.com/health/well-being/food-makes-us-smarter/ Hope they can help out other folks! :)
Sharpie5
4th Feb, 2014
Thank you for a very interesting and informative article on brain power.

Pages

Be the first to ask a question about this recipe...Unsure about the cooking time or want to swap an ingredient? Ask us your questions and we’ll try and help you as soon as possible. Or if you want to offer a solution to another user’s question, feel free to get involved...
Be the first to suggest a tip for this recipe...Got your own twist on this recipe? Or do you have suggestions for possible swaps and additions? We’d love to hear your ideas.