How to Eat to Keep Your Brain in Optimal Shape

Healthy lifestyle habits help maintain and improve brain health.

Posted Nov 15, 2019

Eat better, think better.
Source: Mediamodifier/Pixabay

Health and nutrition experts now know that we can take steps throughout our lives to ensure better brain health as we age. These include getting enough exercise, getting enough sleep, and following a healthy diet. Though we read and hear over and over again about the importance of developing healthy habits to help ensure good physical and mental health, making lifestyle changes and incorporating new practices into your everyday life can still be a challenge.

Members of a group known as the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine (ACRM)—specifically the ACRM Culinary Medicine Task Force and Neurodegenerative Diseases Networking group, comprising a dietitian, medical doctor, doctor of osteopathic medicine, and other health care professions—published a summary of dietary recommendations for the aging brain in the August 2019 issue of Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Their recommendations, drawn from recent studies, professional references, and proven diets that advocate following specific eating patterns and including specific types of foods in your diet on a regular basis in order to prevent cognitive decline, include:

  • Eat whole grains at least three times a day (at every meal) to provide your brain with constant energy sources in the form of complex carbohydrates.
  • Eat a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables every day, including berries at least twice a week and leafy dark green and cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts at least six times a week.
  • Eat legumes, such as beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts, at least three times a week.
  • Eat red meat only once or twice a week and in its place, eat other sources of protein such as poultry, seafood, and legumes. 
  • Choose foods and ingredients that contain healthy fats, including extra-virgin olive oil, nuts and nut butters, omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish (such as sardines, herring, salmon), avocados, and olives.
  • Instead of salt, use herbs that may contribute to brain health—turmeric, cinnamon, cayenne pepper—to add flavor to foods.
  • Enjoy a small square of dark chocolate (70% or more cocoa content) two or three times a week.
  • Drink six to eight glasses of water or other caffeine-free beverages over the course of each day.
  • Drink caffeinated beverages, if you like, to improve your mood and attention, but limit to three cups a day, earlier in the day to avoid negative effects on sleep.
  • If you drink alcoholic beverages, up to one glass of red wine with an evening meal can provide antioxidants that protect the brain.
  • Avoid overeating by eating balanced meals and protein-rich snacks.

Not only did the ACRM group provide general advice on how to eat to keep your brain healthy, but they also provided a cookbook-style list of useful preparation, cooking, and storage tips and reminders for keeping healthy foods on hand and ready to eat at any time. Their helpful advice includes cooking an entire package of grains at once and storing what you don’t use in the freezer for another time and mashing or pureeing leftover fish with a little olive oil or tahini to use as a sandwich spread the next day (on whole-grain bread, of course!).

Want to get more nuts into your diet? The group recommends adding a handful to soup and pureeing in a blender for more thickness and flavor in addition to all those brain-boosting nutrients. While this may not be the type of list you normally find in an article published in a medical journal, these types of tips are exactly what you need to help you make small (and easy) behavioral changes that put the results of science and research into action.


Philippou E, Polak R, Michunovich A, York M, Fait JM, Hirsch MA, Heyn PC. Food for Thought: Basic Nutrition Recommendations for the Mature Brain. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. August 2019; 100 (8): 1581-1583.