Foods that sharpen your memory and boost your cognitive performance
If you’ve ever experienced difficulties recalling important snippets of information from your past or have struggled to concentrate during critical moments, it may be time to rethink the fuel you’re putting into your body.
We sometimes forget that our brains consume around 20 per cent of our body’s calories and require a great deal of energy to undertake the complex thinking tasks that many of us engage in on a daily basis.
We’re all familiar with the idea that we are what we eat, yet the foods we consume can also influence our brain function over the short- and long-term. It also requires specific nutrients; antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, which aid in the process of building and repairing brain cells.
"Our diet has a key role to play in helping us with our brain performance today and brain health long term," says nutrition scientist and author Dr Joanna McMillan. "We used to think dementia was just a lotto with old age, but although some of us will draw that awful card no matter what we do, most of us can do much to reduce the risk by eating well."
Here are the superstars you’ll want to include in your diet in order to consistently perform at your best.
From kimchi to kefir and yoghurt, fermented foods play an essential role in our gut and cognitive health, as they contain probiotics. Foods that are rich in probiotics are widely known to promote healthy digestion by supplying good bacteria to our gut. Consuming high amounts of tempeh – fermented soybeans – has also been linked to an improved memory. However, fermented foods have also been shown to improve our mood and cognition. You’ve probably heard of the mind-gut connection, which refers to the communication signals that travel between the brain and the gastrointestinal system.
"Our gut houses about 100 trillion bacteria and the balance of good and bad bacteria determines how our gut impacts the rest of our body," explains nutritionional psychiatrist Dr Uma Naidoo.
Around 60 per cent of our brain is comprised of fat. Since our bodies are not able to produce fats, it is critical that we consume them through our diet. Fatty fish, such as salmon, trout, tuna, sardines and herrings, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which our brains need in order to produce and repair brain cells. These fats may aid in slowing cognitive decline while improving your ability to learn and recall information.
"I recommend cold water, fatty fish, especially Alaskan salmon, mackerel, blue fish, sardines, or anchovies," neuroscientist Dr Lisa Mosconi says. "These are all very high in the omega-3’s that your brain needs on a daily basis."
The healthy fats, antioxidants and vitamin E contained in nuts can have a positive impact on your overall brain health. Vitamin E in particular has been noted for its cell-protecting properties. Walnuts, which are rich in this vitamin, are shaped like the brain for a distinct reason – they provide what it needs to function well. These nuts contain a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid and polyphenolic compounds that protect against inflammation and oxidative stress, which suggests that you may be able to keep your brain working optimally for longer and perhaps even prevent developing dementia over the long-term.
For those with a sweet tooth, there is far more to berries than their refreshing taste and depth of flavour. Mosconi points out that "berries are packed with antioxidants that help keep memory sharp as you age." They contain fibre and are low on the glycaemic index, so they also help stabilise blood sugar, she adds. While strawberries, blackcurrants and blackberries are all great options for reducing inflammation and improving communication between brain cells, blueberries have a high flavonoid content, which researchers have found may improve brain function in older adults.
Broccoli and other green vegetables – notably kale, dandelion greens, spinach and Swiss chard – are all rich sources of vitamins, fibre, minerals and nutrients that support a healthy nervous system, Moscani says. Broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts and bok choy additionally belong to the cruciferous vegetable group that contains compounds – glucosinolates – that lower the risk of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
An antioxidant-rich beverage, pomegranate juice may be the answer for those suffering from brain fog. It has been shown to both improve memory function and reduce inflammation. The punicalagins (powerful antioxidants) protect the cells in your body from free radical damage, which is linked to cognitive impairment.
"Probably no part of the body is more sensitive to the damage from free radicals as the brain," Board-certified neurologist and New York Times bestselling author Dr David Perlmutter says. Since it also contains magnesium, pomegranate juice may even help you to get a good night’s sleep.
Eggs are widely known as a powerhouse that delivers protein, iron, vitamin A and omega-3. What may surprise you is that they also contain melatonin – the hormone your brain produces to help you sleep, says Naidoo. This is one of the reasons why preparing an omelette for dinner can improve your sleep quality and your brain function.
Research suggests sleep plays a role in how well nerve cells communicate with one another and the elimination of toxins from the brain. With the added benefits of B vitamins, you may even be able to prevent your brain from shrinkage and delay cognitive decline.
Described as a fatty fruit, avocados are an excellent source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which improve blood flow and oxygen to the brain. These fats may also help to maintain brain cell membrane flexibility and protect nerve cells in the brain. Since they have been found to lower blood pressure, avocado oil may even prevent a stroke and the decline in cognitive abilities.
Simple ways to incorporate these brain foods into your diet
McMillan suggests the following guidelines: "I would focus on getting oily fish at least twice a week and consider a good quality long chain omega-3 supplement." She recommends using extra virgin olive oil every day and including vegetables in at least two of your meals.
"Low nutrient dense junk foods are detrimental to the brain (and the rest of you) and so aiming for a whole food diet goes a long way towards improving your brain health," she explains.
McMillan also advises to "eat berries for their polyphenols and a handful of nuts most days."
Combine a probiotic with a prebiotic
Whether you consume yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir or kimchi on a regular basis, including prebiotic foods in the form of leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus or bananas can help probiotics to work more effectively. Prebiotics are made up of carbohydrates that your body is unable to digest and function as food for the probiotic bacteria.
Create your own non-alcoholic cocktail
Pomegranate juice can be combined with saffron along with freshly squeezed lime and orange juice for the ultimate health drink after a busy day.
Choose healthy snacks
A few walnuts or a handful of blueberries mixed with Greek yoghurt are healthy alternatives to caffeinated drinks or beverages that are laden with sugar.
Include green foods
If you don’t enjoy eating salads, consider adding dark green leafy vegetables to pasta dishes or use as toppings for pizzas.