Brain Foods: Top 20 to Eat and What to Avoid

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brain foodsBrain Foods: Top 20 to Eat and What to Avoid

In today’s day and age, everyone is looking for ways to boost performance. Having a sharp mind is key to being able to handle stressful situations or just have a deep experience of life. There are very straight forward ways of achieving a high mental acuity. The foods you do and don’t eat are a great place to start. Below you will find the best brain foods and those that aren’t doing you any favors.

The best foods for brain health are full of antioxidants, provide building blocks for neurotransmitters, and help to make sure blood sugar remains stable. These are all crucial factors to consider when deciding if you are consuming.

Top 20 Brain Foods

Coffee

Caffeine provides a stimulatory effect in the brain by blocking a neurotransmitter called adenosine. Adenosine is a molecule that creates feelings of tiredness. By blocking adenosine, we get a boost in energy. Throughout the day adenosine levels rise which will stimulate feelings of tiredness later in the day. Studies have shown that coffee can improve mood, memory, and learning (1, 2).

Caffeine isn’t the only benefit of coffee, however. Coffee also contains powerful antioxidants called polyphenols that lower inflammation and boost mitochondrial function. Finally, a dose of black coffee in the morning has been shown to improve fatty acid metabolism which makes it a great ketosis companion (3). Implementing a daily intermittent fast with a cup of coffee in the morning can be a great fat burning strategy.

While some people may metabolize caffeine slowly and may struggle with even an occasional cup of coffee, there is no disputing the researched benefits of coffee on mental health for the majority of individuals.  It is important to remember that caffeine is a diuretic and you should replace the amount of caffeinated beverage you consume with an equal amount of water to keep your brain sharp!

Grass-fed Beef, Lamb, and Bison

Red meats are underrated sources of nutrition. When these animals are raised on pastures in the sun, their meat is loaded with good stuff. We get omega-3 fatty acids, fat-burning compounds like carnitine and carnosine, as well as a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals.

L-carnitine is an amino acid that acts as a carrier to shuttle fatty acids into cells for energy. This action improves energy production which is powerful for the brain and body.

Carnitine also provides something called an acetyl group (acetyl-L-carnitine) that helps with the production of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is critical for memory. Research has shown that improving carnitine levels in the body may have a protective effect against Alzheimer’s (4).

An excellent source of the highest quality grass-fed beef, wild game, pasture-raised poultry, wild-caught salmon and a wide variety of organ meats is US Wellness Meats

Wild Caught Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye salmon is the superfood of meats. It is absolutely packed with nutrition. It is also high in omega 3 fats and one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants, astaxanthin. The brain is made up of 60% fat and 10-15% of that fat is DHA (an omega 3). Getting adequate amounts of DHA in the diet is critical for brain health.

Salmon, like most meats, also contains saturated fats and cholesterol, two other extremely important structural components of brain tissues. In fact, higher levels of cholesterol are associated with better mental health in old age.

Astaxanthin is a red-pigmented antioxidant that gives salmon its distinctive color. It is believed that the high levels of astaxanthin are what allow salmon to complete rigorous swims upstream for hours at a time. In humans, it is believed that astaxanthin improves brain function by lowering oxidative stress in the brain while promoting the formation of new brain tissue!

Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV): 

ACV is a powerful tonic loaded with incredible living nutrients. The ACV should be raw, unpasteurized with the “mother” intact. The mother is the portion of the apple that is fermented and contains the source of the good bacteria and enzymes.  These enzymes help the body heal and digest nutrients from other foods.

ACV is also a rich source of organic acids which help with insulin sensitivity and decreasing inflammation.  The good bacteria enhance nutrient assimilation and overall gut function.  Use ACV on meat, brown rice, vegetables and other foods.  It can also be put into a variety of different drinks for added anti-oxidants and enzymes.

Avocado

Avocados are high in healthy fats in addition to being great sources of antioxidants and minerals. Altogether they are one of the most versatile and complete brain foods. One nutrient of significance is lutein. Lutein is an antioxidant that has been shown in studies to slow cognitive decline (5).

Avocados are perfect for improving lutein levels in the brain because fats improve its absorption! Avocados are also great for lowering inflammation throughout the body which naturally improves cognitive function!

Citrus

Citrus fruits contain two very important compounds for the brain, Vitamin C and bioflavonoids. Together these compounds improve circulation and help to reinforce connective tissue throughout the body. This helps to oxygenate the deep regions of the brain that are critical for cognitive processing and sensory acuity.

On top of that, they improve immune function and fight oxidative stress.  The resulting benefit is inflammation lowers and the brain can function with less interference.

Some preliminary research is also showing that Vitamin C plays a very important role in eye health and GABA receptor actions. GABA is a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for allowing us to relax – which is vital for mental health and performance.

Stick with low sugar citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and grapefruits for maximum benefits as sugar and vitamin c compete for the same receptors in the body.

Rosemary

In ancient Rome, it is written that students would use sprigs of rosemary in school to enhance memory and learning. They may have been on to something. Rosemary contains aromatic compounds that increase blood flow to the brain simply by inhaling them!

Setting up an essential oil diffuser with rosemary oil in your home or place of work can be great for stimulating the brain. In fact, rosemary has been shown to provide anti-depressant and memory boosting effects through its powerful polyphenols.

Turmeric

Turmeric is a super spice which seems to help with just about everything. It lowers inflammation throughout the body and protects the brain from damage. In fact, turmeric has been studied extensively for its beneficial implications in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (6).

Specifically, curcumin has been studied and shown to have the following effects: (7)

  • Inhibit the formation of amyloid-beta proteins
  • Increased neurogenesis
  • Enhanced brain self-repair

Raw Cacao

Raw cacao is what is heavily processed and eventually turned into commercially available chocolate. Cacao in its raw form is one of the best brain foods you can eat. Not only does it help improve blood flow to the brain, but it also improves mood.

Raw cacao is packed with valuable nutrients like magnesium, polyphenols, flavonoids, and the amino acid theobromine. Theobromine upregulates a pathway in the body named cAMP. Through this action, cacao helps to down-regulate inflammation and dilate blood vessels to improve blood flow to the brain (8).

Blueberries

Blueberries are a superfood, plain and simple. They are one of the highest sources of a powerful class of antioxidants called anthocyanins. Anthocyanins promote the health of blood vessels and enhance the effects of Vitamin C discussed earlier.

Additionally, anthocyanins are powerful for protecting the brain from oxidative stress and promoting brain health. In fact, studies have shown that the regular intake of blueberries can improve memory and learning while reducing symptoms of depression (9, 10,11).

Blueberries_FightsHeartDisease

Ashwagandha: 

This exotic herb has powerful antioxidant properties that protect the brain and nervous system. Premature aging associated with chronic tension on the nervous system is related to increased oxidative stress. In the largest human trial using ashwagandha the herb was shown to reduce cortisol levels up to 26%. Chronically elevated cortisol increases inflammatory and degenerative processes in the body.

This herb has been shown in studies to have as strong an anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effect as leading name brand medications. Ashwagandha has been shown to support the regeneration and reconstruction of nerve cells and synapses. This suggests that ashwagandha could help reverse states of brain and nervous system degeneration. This makes it a potent defense against dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

You can get Ashwagandha as a fresh or dried herb or in organic herbal teas.  You can also get it from professional grade supplements such as our Cortisol Defense here

Chia Seeds:

Chia is made up of healthy fats, anti-oxidants clean proteins and fiber.  Chia contains no sugar and very minimal amounts of non-fibrous carbohydrates.  Chia also contains high levels of calcium, magnesium and potassium.   This combination is perfect for healthy blood sugar levels and sustained energy.

Chia is loaded with omega 3 fatty acids and neuroprotective anti-oxidants such as quercetin, caffeic and chlorogenic acid.  These essential fats and anti-oxidants produce cell membranes that are more flexible and efficient.  Healthier cell membranes results in more efficient nutrient delivery systems and faster nerve transmission processes.  This improves brain function including memory and concentration.

Ginger:

This is an important part of a de-inflaming, natural pain-relief program. The compound 6-gingerol has been shown to significantly inhibit the production of a highly reactive nitrogen molecule, nitric oxide, which quickly forms a dangerous free radical peroxynitrite. Additionally, ginger helps to protect the body’s stores of glutathione – the master anti-oxidant.

Ginger is also very high in potassium which aids in electrical energy production and detoxification. It is a great source of manganese which protects the lining of key blood vessels that oxygenate and bring fuel to the brain.   Manganese deficiencies can lead to dementia and stroke.

Pastured Eggs

Pastured eggs are natures multi-vitamin. They contain omega 3 fats, cholesterol, saturated fats, and choline. According to Iowa State researchers in 2007, 90% of the American population is choline deficient.  Egg yolks and egg based lecithin’s are some of the richest and most bioavailable sources of choline.

Choline is important for the brain for several reasons.  It helps to produce phosphatidylcholine and sphingomyelinThese two molecules make up a particularly high percentage of the brain’s total mass.  Choline also helps to form a critical neurotransmitter in the brain called acetylcholine.  Acetylcholine is the body’s primary molecule for sending messages between nerves & muscles.

Choline also helps protect the body’s stores of folate which is a key B vitamin for the development and maintenance of the nervous system.  Finally, choline has important anti-inflammatory properties called methylation.  This process of methylation plays a significant role in many chemical events which actually turn certain genes on and off in the body.

Eggs are king of the brain foods. They contain just about everything you need for healthy brain tissue. The key is to combine them with other brain foods like blueberries, avocado, and the other foods on this list to protect all that healthy brain tissue from being damaged!

Coconut Oil

Healthy fats are key for brain health. The brain is practically made of fats. Saturated fats in particular are important for the brain. Coconut oil is an excellent source of saturated fats.

In addition to saturated fats, coconut oil contains valuable medium chain triglycerides (MCT) which promote the formation of ketones in the body. Periodically shifting your body into a state of ketosis is extremely powerful for keeping your brain young and functioning at a high level.

Grass-fed Butter

Wait, butter is on a list of brain foods?? This is most people’s reaction. Butter is actually super nutritious and contains healthy saturated fats and cholesterol the body needs to build new brain tissue.

In addition to this, butter contains butyrate and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Butyrate helps to promote a healthy gut while conjugated linoleic acid is highly inflammatory. CLA is also powerful for stimulating fat burning. In conjunction with a ketogenic lifestyle, butter is a very important food for the brain.

Leafy Greens

Most nutritionally dense foods are brain foods. Leafy greens are excellent because they contain a wide array of macro and micronutrients like magnesium, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, folate, B6, copper, potassium, and calcium.

Leafy greens also contain chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a green pigment that gently detoxifies the blood and helps the body absorb and create energy from sunlight (12)!

Olive Oil

Olives and olive oil are underrated. Olives are actually high in polyphenols that are antioxidants that boost mitochondrial function. They are also a great source of monounsaturated fats and vitamin E.

Higher levels of olive and olive oil intake are correlated with improved mental health such as with the Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is also a great source of Vitamin K, which in conjunction with Vitamins C and E, have a protective effect over brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Green Tea

Green tea made the list of brain foods for many reasons. It has just a small amount of caffeine which has benefits of its own. In addition, green tea contains an amino acid called l-theanine. L-theanine helps to promote feelings of calm and relaxation. Additionally, L-theanine seems to have a vasodilation effect that counteracts the vasoconstrictive effects of caffeine, improving blood flow to the brain.

Green tea is also high in an antioxidant called EGCG. This antioxidant has been studied for benefits including brain health, anti-cancer, immune boosting, anti-inflammatory, and a lot more. Bottom line, you need more EGCG in your life!

Red Wine

Remember earlier when we talked about blueberries? They are so great for the brain due to compounds called anthocyanins. Grapes are also a great source of these powerful compounds. Red wine is an enjoyable way to get more anthocyanins in your diet.

Not all wines are created equal. In fact, the vast majority of wines (more than you’d think) come just a small handful of mass producers. These wines tend to have chemical additives, high sugar content, mold toxins, and abnormally high alcohol levels.

There are excellent brands that make maximum nutrition, minimum toxin wine. There is a company called Dry Farm Wines whose business it is to sniff out these wines and bring them to you. They put each wine through strict testing to ensure it is the healthiest wine you can drink. I am not much of a wine drinker and this is the only wine I’ll drink on that rare occasion.

Organ Meats

Organ meats such as beef liver are the most nutritionally dense foods you can possibly consume. Liver is packed with just about every vitamin and mineral you can think of in addition to high amounts of choline.

Liver and other organ meats also contain a concentrated amount of CoQ10. CoQ10 is a coenzyme that acts as an antioxidant that is particularly beneficial for the brain and heart.

Top Foods to Avoid                                           

When it comes to brain foods, there certain foods that you should definitely avoid for optimal brain performance. You can eat all the eggs and salmon you want, but if you’re eating a lot of these foods then you may not see the benefits you should.

The following are food groups that you should avoid for optimal brain health.

Refined Carbs & Sugar

First and foremost, refined carbs and sugar are one of the worst brain foods. Sugars tend to send blood sugar skyrocketing only to come crashing back down shortly after. This pattern is highly inflammatory and sets off cortisol to help re-stabilize. When this happens chronically, insulin resistance can develop which is highly correlated with brain diseases later in life.

High amounts of sugar also feed opportunistic bacteria and yeast in the digestive tract. For example, candida loves sugar. High levels of candida can be absolutely toxic for the body. This is largely because candida produces waste products that are toxic to the brain.

Omega-6 Oils

As we have discussed, healthy fats are incredibly important for brain tissue. Saturated fats, omega-3 fats, and cholesterol are play important roles in the formation of healthy brain tissue. When we consume a high amount of vegetable, canola, corn, and other highly processed oils, it promotes an inflammatory environment in the body.

Additionally, it is likely that in the absence of adequate healthy fats, the body will resort to building brain tissue with what it can get ahold of. Ditch the processed vegetable oils, instead opt for the fats and oils listed in the picture below.

Non-Organic Produce

Some people see organic food as a fad, I see it as a no-brainer (see what I did there). You see, pesticides, herbicides, and different chemicals used in pest control are harmful for humans. They can disrupt the bacterial balance of the gut and leach critical minerals from the body.

Disrupting the gut microbiome already has important implications for brain health. On top of this, many of these chemicals leach things like magnesium from the body. Magnesium is vital to over 300 different processes in the body, including the activation of ATP. ATP is the energy molecule cells use to run themselves and the brain has a disproportionately huge demand for ATP!

Unfermented Soy

Oftentimes, people are led to believe that soy is a healthy food. Especially women are led to believe it can be beneficial because it contains estrogen-mimicking compounds. In reality, having excess estrogen is not good for either sex. In fact, studies have documented the worsening of menopausal symptoms with soy consumption (13).

Symptoms of excessive estrogen include fatigue, depression, and brain fog. Small amounts of fermented soy like tempeh, miso, and natto can all be great in moderation.

Grains

Grains are the opposite of brain foods. Gluten containing grains in particular are especially damaging to the brain. Gluten and pesticides often prayed on grains are highly inflammatory to the gut lining. Over time these things can damage the protective barrier of the gut and begin poorly regulating what gets through.

This process leads to something called leaky gut. It is often said that a leaky gut equals a leaky brain. I see this all the time when someone has leaky gut, they are almost always suffering from some level of cognitive dysfunction.

8 Brain-Boosting Recipes

To finish off this article and get you started on a brain-boosting diet, I have put together a small list of some amazing recipes featuring powerful brain foods. These are recipes designed to lower inflammation and provide the brain with the building blocks it needs to perform and stay healthy.

The first thing to consider before implementing these recipes is a ketogenic lifestyle. Getting your body into a fat burning stage is probably ht most powerful step in regaining brain health.

**NOTE: Simply click on the pictures below each recipe description to go to the recipe page! 

Ketogenic Brain Foods

Turmeric Fat Burning Coffee

This coffee recipe is delicious and absolute brain fuel. This is something I highly encourage my coffee lovers who follow a ketogenic diet to drink in the morning. It is great to stick with something like this as a breakfast replacement to help boost ketones in the morning and place the body in a fat-burning state that also boosts the brain tremendously.

Featured Brain Foods

  • Coffee
  • Turmeric
  • MCT Oil (Coconut Oil)
  • Grass-fed Butter

Keto Matcha Green Tea

If you’re more of a tea person over coffee, then this keto matcha can be another great morning option. It is similar to the turmeric fat burning coffee but with the unique benefits of green tea which contains the calming amino acid, L-theanine.

Featured Brain Foods

  • Matcha Green Tea
  • Coconut Oil
  • Grass-fed Butter
  • Bone Broth (Optional) 

Blueberry Pudding

I am a big fan of using liquid nutrition in the form of smoothies and puddings. This is because it is super easy to digest which cuts down on energy requirements needed for digestion. When people do liquid meals for breakfast and lunch they often notice much more stable energy levels throughout the morning. This Blueberry pudding is also loaded with brain foods.

Featured Brain Foods

  • Coconut Fats
  • Avocado
  • Blueberries
  • Bone Broth
  • Bonus Brain Food: Chia Seeds

Fat Burning Deviled Eggs

Eggs are one of the most perfect brain foods. They are also easy to make and are a great staple for any meal. These are sure to fill you up and keep your brain humming. The eggs provide valuable choline to support learning and memory while the other ingredients are anti-inflammatory and full of healthy fats!

Featured Brain Foods

  • Eggs
  • Avocado Oil (in the mayo)
  • Olive Oil
  • Coconut Oil
  • Turmeric

Naked Kale Burger Sauté

This recipe is super simple and requires very minimal prep work. It is great as a dinner meal and provides everything you need to support brain health. Burgers are a classic comfort food, unfortunately the bun and meat typically used are not good for the brain. Take away the bun and use some pastured beef instead!

Featured Brain Foods

  • Grass-fed Beef
  • Kale
  • Bell Peppers (Source of Vitamin C)
  • Avocado
  • Coconut Oil
  • Olive Oil

Creamy Lemon Superfood Guacamole

Whenever you want a heart megadose of brain food, reach for this guacamole recipe. I took a traditional guacamole and made it a brain nourishing superfood.

Featured Brain Foods

  • Avocado
  • Lemon
  • Coconut Fats 

Coconut Chocolate Cream Cups

Sweet treats can be brain food too. These chocolate cream cups are keto friendly and a simple way to get in nutrition for the brain. These can be used as an anytime snack or even as a dessert. The use of stevia or monk fruit cuts out the concerns of sugar while satisfying your sweet tooth.

Featured Brain Foods

  • Coconut Fats
  • Raw Cacao

Super Brain Salmon Burgers

Looking for a new way to cook salmon? These burgers are tasty, easy to make, and a great way to feed the brain. Serve them alongside some chopped avocado and leafy greens and you’ve got yourself a super meal!

Featured Brain Foods

  • Salmon
  • Eggs
  • Bonus Brain Food: Chia Seeds

Navigating the Ketogenic Diet

Using the foods and recipes above in conjunction with a ketogenic diet will be one of the most powerful strategies for improving and protecting your brain health. This dietary approach aims to stabilize blood sugar and promote the body to burn fats as a primary energy source.

Implementing this lifestyle is fairly simple but can be overwhelming when you are just starting out. That is why I have created the Navigating the Ketogenic Diet Online course to guide you through the process. This program provides lifetime access to a grocery list, recipes, meal plans, and extensive e-guides filled with information to optimize your health using this dietary strategy. To find out more, click on the banner below.

Sources for this Article Include

1. Tenore GC, Daglia M, Orlando V, et al. Coffee and Depression: A Short Review of Literature. Curr Pharm Des. 2015;21(34):5034-40. PMID: 26303345
2. Islam MT, Tabrez S, Jabir NR, et al. An Insight into the Therapeutic Potential of Major Coffee Components. Curr Drug Metab. 2018;19(6):544-556. PMID: 29512445 
3. Vandenberghe C, St-pierre V, Courchesne-loyer A, Hennebelle M, Castellano CA, Cunnane SC. Caffeine intake increases plasma ketones: an acute metabolic study in humans. Can J Physiol Pharmacol. 2017;95(4):455-458. PMID: 28177691 
4. Bianchetti A, Rozzini R, Trabucchi M. Effects of acetyl-L-carnitine in Alzheimer’s disease patients unresponsive to acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. Curr Med Res Opin. 2003;19(4):350-3. PMID: 12841930
5. Johnson EJ. A possible role for lutein and zeaxanthin in cognitive function in the elderly. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;96(5):1161S-5S. PMID: 23053547
6. Talbot K. Brain insulin resistance in Alzheimer’s disease and its potential treatment with GLP-1 analogs. Neurodegener Dis Manag. 2014;4(1):31-40. PMID: 24640977
7. Hügel HM. Brain Food for Alzheimer-Free Ageing: Focus on Herbal Medicines. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2015;863:95-116. PMID: 26092628
8. Deree J, Martins JO, Melbostad H, Loomis WH, Coimbra R. Insights into the regulation of TNF-alpha production in human mononuclear cells: the effects of non-specific phosphodiesterase inhibition. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2008;63(3):321-8. PMID: 18568240
9. Spencer JP. The impact of fruit flavonoids on memory and cognition. Br J Nutr. 2010;104 Suppl 3:S40-7. PMID: 20955649
10. Spencer JP. The impact of flavonoids on memory: physiological and molecular considerations. Chem Soc Rev. 2009;38(4):1152-61. PMID: 19421586
11. Shewale PB, Patil RA, Hiray YA. Antidepressant-like activity of anthocyanidins from Hibiscus rosa-sinensis flowers in tail suspension test and forced swim test. Indian J Pharmacol. 2012;44(4):454-7. PMID: 23087504
12. Xu C, Zhang J, Mihai DM, Washington I. Light-harvesting chlorophyll pigments enable mammalian mitochondria to capture photonic energy and produce ATP. J Cell Sci. 2014;127(Pt 2):388-99. PMID: 24198392 
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Comments

  1. Dr. Jockers,
    I’m a big fan!
    I’m seeing lots of info online that warns against palm kernel oil and supports palm (fruit) oil. What is your stance?

  2. Hi Dr. Jockers. Thank you for this wonderful news letter. I am not sure what is considered grains that should be avoided. I know, wheat, barley and rye. What about brown rice? I rarely ever have pasta anymore as I assume it is all wheat based. I do have quinoa as I have read this is a seed and not a grain. Thank you for any feedback and keep getting the word out in all these amazing docuseries that are being produced and that you are participating in!!

    1. Hey Linda! I would consider anything that can become planted and grown into another plant a grain to be avoided. This include nuts, seeds, beens, and grains like wheat. This would also include rice. White rice cooked in coconut oil or sprouted quinoa can be okay on occasion.

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