25 Brain-Boosting Foods That Will Keep You Sharp

Updated: Jan. 12, 2024

Food for thought—literally!

1 / 25
Heads of celery. Close-up
Valentyn Volkov/Shutterstock


It’s time to stop skipping celery, because what it lacks in taste it more than makes up for in brain power. Celery is a rich source of luteolin, a plant compound believed to reduce inflammation in the brain, thereby protecting it from the aging process. A 2010 study found that luteolin slowed cognitive decline in older mice. You don’t have to chomp down a huge stick of celery to reap its benefits: Try chopping some up and adding it to this easy chicken salad, or tossing a bunch into the next soup you make.

2 / 25
Child breaking off piece of chocolate bar

Dark chocolate

Great news for dark chocolate lovers! Several studies demonstrate its brain-boosting powers, including enhanced cognitive function, a reduced risk of dementia and improved performance on challenging brain teasers—along with a slew of other health benefits of dark chocolate. For example, researchers in 2013 found that the flavanols that get absorbed when you consume chocolate penetrate and accumulate in the brain regions involved in learning and memory, especially the hippocampus. Another test, carried out in 2011, found that even single doses of high-flavanol dark chocolate can improve performance on cognitive tests, including memory test, in healthy adults.

Get your daily dose with one of these dark chocolate recipes you’ll want to dig into.

3 / 25
Walnuts kernels on dark desk with color background


All nuts are good for brain health, but walnuts are at the top of the list. Thanks to their high concentration of DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid (1/4 cup of walnuts provides almost 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of DHA), the nuts have been linked to brain health in newborns and improved cognitive performance in adults, and prevent or ameliorate age-related cognitive decline. A 2012 study found that walnut consumption may increase inferential reasoning in young adults. Don’t eat walnuts often? Take a look at these 8 healthy ways to add nuts to your diet.

4 / 25
Rainbow Carrots via Taste of Home
Taste of Home


Substances called free radicals float through the bloodstream and try to break down the brain cells, which can lead to memory loss as you age. However, antioxidants merge with free radicals and make them harmless—and carrots are loaded with them. Carrots can also protect against other types of cognitive decline, according to a study from 2000, thanks to their ability to lower the oxidative stress in the brain that can weaken nerve signaling capacity. Sweet to savory, these are the best carrot recipes, ever.

5 / 25
Farmed Atlantic salmon

Oily fish

The brain needs plenty of omega-3 fats to stay healthy, and the best natural source is in oily fish, such as salmon, mackarel, trout, herring, sardines, pilchards and kippers. Oily fish contains the active form of EPA and DHA in ready-made form, meaning the body can use it easily. Having healthy levels of both EPA and DHA is thought to help up manage stress and boost levels of the “happy” brain chemical, serotonin. Recent research carried out in the United States found a possible link between high omega-3 levels and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Take a look at these 45 recipes that will make you love salmon.

6 / 25
Beautiful red ripe heirloom tomatoes grown in a greenhouse.


This fruit contains the powerful antioxidant lycopene, which is believed to help protect against the kind of free radical damage to cells which occurs in the development of dementia. Tomatoes also contain other compounds that can protect the brain’s health and functionality. Research carried out in 2013 suggests that the vitamin B group nutrient choline improves short-term memory, aids in learning, and regulates sleep. Additionally, the alpha-lipoic acid in tomatoes helps preserve brain tissue, and may even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

7 / 25
Fried eggs in a frying pan with cherry tomatoes and bread for breakfast on a black background


Though humble, the egg is one of the biggest nutrition bangs for your buck. According to Finnish researchers, eating eggs can boost brain power—and it’s all down to choline again. The diets of around 2,500 men in Finland were monitored for a period of up to 22 years and it was found that those who ate roughly the equivalent of one egg a day did not have a higher risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, the opposite turned out to be true. These actually performed better on certain cognitive tests in later life than men who ate eggs less often. Check out how eggs could be good for your kiddo’s brain, too.

8 / 25
Roasted pumpkin seeds
Shutterstock / Denise-Torres

Pumpkin seeds

Seeds are great for the brain, and pumpkin seeds among the best. These little delights are packed with omega-3 fatty acids to improve mental health, help maintain memory and support brain development, and they also contain high levels of magnesium, which is believed to have a calming effect on the brain, and zinc, which increases brain power by enhancing focus and memory. One handful of pumpkin seeds provides you with 50 percent of the recommended levels of zinc (8-11mg per day). Research carried out in 2011 found that zinc played a “critical” role in regulating communication between the brain in respect of memory and cognition.

Here’s how to roast pumpkin seeds the right way.

9 / 25
Bunch of fresh green broccoli on brown plate over wooden background


Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli contain sulforaphane compounds, which can stimulate the renewal and repair of nerve tissue in the brain. In a 2017 study, researchers found that sulforaphane may have significant ameliorative properties against underlying pathological disturbances found in common neurodegenerative diseases, including increased inflammation, disconcerted calcium homeostasis, oxidative stress and neuronal death. Broccoli also contains vitamin K, which helps strengthen cognitive abilities and may even have Alzheimer’s-fighting properties. A 2008 study assessed the dietary intakes of patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s and found that the diagnosed patients consumed considerably less vitamin K than the control group, supporting the case for further research into the effects of vitamin K on brain health.

10 / 25
Shutterstock / Costea-Andrea-M


It’s no longer simply an old wives’ tale: sage really does sharpen the mind. That’s according to clinical trials carried out in 2003 which found that healthy adults who had taken sage oil capsules performed significantly better in memory tests. Researchers split 45 individuals into two groups; one group received a placebo while others received sage essential oil at dosages between 50 and 150 microls. Then, each participant took a memory test. Even those who took the smallest quantity of sage oil demonstrated significant memory improvements. These are the foods you would eat (and the ones you should avoid) to prevent dementia.

11 / 25
Red wine pouring into glasses
Shutterstock / Africa Studio


Your evening glass of wine might make you feel relaxed, but it’s actually giving you a great workout—in your brain, at least. Neuroscientist Dr. Gordon Shepherd from the Yale School of Medicine claims that drinking wine engages more working parts of the brain than any other human activity. Shepherd says it all comes down to taste, and believes that the process of swirling a glass of wine in our mouths, and the tongue muscles and taste receptors that this triggers, engages more of the brain than listening to music or even solving a math problem. Take a look at this simple trick that will make your wine taste better.

12 / 25
Turmeric powder and fresh turmeric on wooden background.
tarapong srichaiyos/Shutterstock


Some scientists have hailed turmeric a “wonder spice” due to its seemingly endless list of health benefits—including relief from digestive issues such as heartburn and gas. In terms of brain health, a 2014 study found that turmeric may contribute to the regeneration of a “damaged brain” and help with neurological disorders. Another study, also published in 2014, found that turmeric can prevent and even reverse damage from exposure to toxic fluoride. An easy way to incorporate turmeric into your meals is to saute it in about half a teaspoon of oil in a saucepan then add it to whatever you’re cooking.

13 / 25
Coconut oil on table close-up
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Coconut oil

You may be able to use coconut for your hair, skin, teeth, and even as a household cleaning product. Now it looks like it may also be good for your brain. The main reason coconut oil is considered a brain food is its high concentration of MCTs (medium chain triglycerides). The brain is usually fueled by glucose, but in coconut oil the MCTs get broken down into ketones, which feed the brain directly (without the metabolic process glucose goes through). Neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain, includes coconut oil as part of his “anti-Alzheimer’s trio,” along with avocados and omega-3 rich grass-fed beef. Perlmutter’s belief is backed up by 2014 research that found coconut oil reduces the beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In another study, adults with mild cognitive impairment showed significant improvement in memory recall within 90 minutes of taking a single dose of MCT oil.

14 / 25
Darren K. Fisher/Shutterstock

Sea vegetables

If your local sushi restaurant is your favorite haunt, you’re feeding your brain as well as your belly. Sea vegetables like nori, the seaweed sheets used to wrap sushi, is a great source of vitamin B12, which is essential for brain health. Sea vegetables also contain iodine, which isn’t found in many other foods. In fact, iodine is such a rare dietary source it’s added to table salt to prevent widespread deficiency. When it was added to table salt in the United States in the 1920s, there was a noticeable increase in average IQ. Nori also contains taurine, an amino acid that stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), sometimes called “nature’s valium” because it helps us feel relaxed and happy.

15 / 25
Fresh green superfood kale leaves in wooden bowl on wooden background ; Shutterstock ID 522756688; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of Home


Kale is having such a moment, and for a good reason. One of the most nutrition-dense vegetables in the world, kale is packed with the antioxidants beta carotene, flavonoids and polyphenols. One cup of kale also contains nearly as much vitamin C (a natural antidepressant) as an orange. Kale is also a great source of B vitamins, which are believed to prevent memory loss and keep the brain young and healthy. It has even been linked to Alzheimer’s prevention: A study published in 2013 found that folic acid, B6 and B12 work reduce brain atrophy, improve brain function, and dramatically reduce brain shrinkage in the part of the brain most affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Here are 35 kale recipes that are anything but boring.

16 / 25
Plate with ripe peeled beets on table
New Africa/Shutterstock


Beets contain high levels of dietary nitrates, which help open blood vessels in the body, increasing blood flow and oxygen to places that need it—including the brain. A recent study found that drinking beet juice improved mental performance in hypertensive aging adults. Specifically, drinking a beetroot juice supplement before exercise resulted in brain connectivity that closely resembled what would be expected in younger adults. This built on the findings of a 2010 study, the first to link beet consumption and blood flow to the brain.

Check out these 20 beet recipes you just can’t beat.

17 / 25
olive oil, best natural cleaning products
DUSAN ZIDAR/Shutterstock

Olive oil

A Mediterranean-style diet is often hailed for its health benefits, including better brain function. Recent research found that the consumption of extra-virgin olive oil (an integral part of the Mediterranean diet) protects memory and learning ability and reduces the formation of amyloid-beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles (classic markers of Alzheimer’s disease) in the brain. Previous research, published in 2013, found that the polyphenols in olives increase levels of important proteins in the brain nerve growth factor (NGF) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—both of which are key players in the development, growth, and survival of brain cells.

18 / 25
Bone broth

Bone broth

There’s a lot of hype about bone broth, and much of it is warranted. Instead of commercial broth, which is made only with the skin of the animal, homemade bone broth is full of collagen (which forms 30 percent of our bodies’ protein). When collagen is cooked it turns into another protein, gelatin, which is loaded with antioxidant-rich, gut-health-promoting, metabolism-boosting amino acids like proline, glycine, arginine and glutamine. Gelatin helps heal the lining of the gut by improving gastric acid secretion and restoring a healthy mucosal lining in the stomach. According to clinical nutritionist Josh Axe, DMC, the gut and brain are directly connected, meaning a healthier gut can lead to a healthier brain. These healthy foods are even more nutritious than you thought.

19 / 25


Beans are a great source of complex carbohydrates and protein, which helps maintain healthy brain function throughout the day. They also contain omega-3 fatty acids to support brain growth and function. (Go for kidney and pinto beans for the biggest omega-3 fix.) Beans also provide a constant supply of glucose to the brain, which helps keep it energized. Garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, are one of the best dietary sources of magnesium, which keeps brain cell receptors working as they should and relaxes blood vessels to increase blood flow to the brain.

20 / 25
Japanese green tea; Shutterstock ID 592030826


Tea is often credited with boosting metabolism and helping to prevent cancer, but many scientists believe this hot drink is just as beneficial for the brain. Tea obviously contains caffeine, an instant brain-booster, but it also delivers the more calming amino acid L-Theanine, which relaxes without causing drowsiness. A 2008 study found that tea’s unique combination of caffeine and L-Theanine (in extract form) helps reduce mental fatigue while increasing reaction time and working memory. Preliminary evidence suggests that drinking tea can lower the risk of dementia, such as a 2004 study testing the effect of green tea catechins on mice, which found that they can prevent cognitive dysfunction, improve working memory, and prevent negative changes in the brains of at-risk mice.

21 / 25
Beef steak on cast iron skillet with empty space for text
Shutterstock / wideonet


2004 study found that women with healthy iron levels performed better on mental tasks and completed them faster than women with lower iron levels. Iron is vital for brain health because it is the center of our red blood cells, which allow oxygen to be carried throughout the body and into the brain. Beef also contains B vitamins, which produce neurotransmitters and replace nerve cells. If you don’t eat beef, try one of these other iron-rich foods.

22 / 25
Yerba mate
Shutterstock / SC-Image

Yerba mate

In South America, yerba mate is just as common as coffee is in the United States. Brewed out of the leaves of the South American holly tree, this hot drink is believed to have a stimulant effect, which enhances short-term brain power. According to yerba mate manufacturer Guayaki, this plant’s leaves contain 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, and an abundance of antioxidants. Besides caffeine, yerba mate contains two related compounds, theobromine and theophylline, which work together to provide unique, mild stimulant effects, similar to that of green tea.

23 / 25
Whole grain oats
Shutterstock / mEjLik

Whole-grain oats

For a brain-boosting breakfast, you can’t go wrong with whole-grain oats, as they have a high carbohydrate content. (Carbs produce glucose, the primary fuel for your brain.) Yet oats have the advantage over other carbohydrates by being low on the glycemic index, meaning oats won’t jack up your blood sugar. The carbs in whole-grain oats are broken down very slowly by the body, and your brain will reap the benefits for hours! Oats also contain essential B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium and manganese. Don’t think whole grains have to be boring. These 39 recipes prove that whole grains can be as delicious as they are nutritious.

24 / 25
Red lentil soup
Taste of Home


Make lentils a staple in your soups and salads and your brain will thank you for it! Lentils are packed with folate, a B vitamin shown to help boost brain power and play a role in decreasing levels of amino acids that can impair brain functioning as we age. Lentils also contain thiamin and vitamin B6, which increase focus and energy, iron, which is important for cognitive functioning in women during childbearing years, and zinc, which is believed to be a memory booster. Here are 20 easy lentil recipes you’ll want to remember.

25 / 25
Ground flaxseed

Ground flaxseed

A top source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), flaxseed is the perfect way for vegetarians and vegans to add healthy fats to their diet. The only trick is figuring out how to work the seeds in. According to WebMD, ALA, which is also abundant in soybean oil, canola oil, and walnuts, improves the workings of the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain that processes sensory information like touch and taste. Sprinkle a tablespoon over salad, hot or cold cereal, or in a smoothie to get your daily flaxseed fix. Check out these surprising facts about your brain.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest