Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Have You Fed Your Brain Today?

Fire up your gray cells with proper nutrition

One of the easiest ways to recognize nutrition deficiency is not from a change in body activity but from a change in mental functioning. This is because the frontal lobes, the area of the brain that acts like the CEO of you, are particularly sensitive to falling glucose levels, while brain areas regulating vital functions like breathing, heartbeat, and liver function are more hardy. Researchers at Roehampton University in England noted that, "When your glucose level drops, the symptom is confused thinking, not a change in breathing pattern." Another early sign of a glucose drop is a change in mood, irritability, and overall grumpiness. Keeping your brain well fed keeps it happy!

It doesn't take a neuroscientist to deduce that what you eat plays a vital role in how well your brain functions and how it continues to grow. In fact, the food choices you consume affect virtually every cell, organ, and system in your body. A healthful diet provides your cells with everything they need to function well, reproduce, and repair damage. Unhealthy food choices not only make every cell work harder, they can outright damage your body, and your brain.

Choose Your Carbs Carefully

To function properly, your brain relies on glucose as its principal source of fuel. Your brain doesn't store glucose, and thus needs a fresh batch each day to fire it up. Glucose is a simple sugar, which is most easily broken down from carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates are your body's main source of energy, especially for your brain and nervous system. The healthier the carbohydrates you give your body, the better your body will be able to stabilize blood sugar levels and elevate brain function.

Carbohydrates are classified into two different categories: simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates (starches). Sugars are carbohydrates in their simplest forms (table sugar, raw sugar, corn syrup, honey, molasses, maple syrup, agave, jams, candy, syrup, and soft drinks). Sugar causes your blood sugar to spike rapidly, followed by a nasty crash that can leave you feeling depleted. The problem with all simple sugars is that they contain zero nutritive value and way too many calories.

Some simple sugars, such as naturally occurring sugars, are found in more nutritious foods (fruit and the lactose in dairy products). Complex carbohydrates are basically many simple sugars linked together and can be found in foods such as grains, pasta, rice, vegetables, breads, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Whole grain breads and pastas, and nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables are a better choice of carbohydrate to stabilize blood sugar levels and elevate brain energy. A diet rich in complex carbohydrates, particularly those that are nutrient-rich, will keep your brain running in tip-top form.

Always Eat Breakfast

Breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day. After a good night's rest, your body-and your brain-needs to replenish its blood sugar stores, which (as noted above) are your body's main source of energy. Because breakfast is the best way to ingest the complex carbohydrates that will fire up your gray cells, tests have shown that breakfast eaters tend to experience better concentration, problem-solving ability, strength, and endurance.

Here are a few healthy suggestions:

  • Dry, vitamin-fortified cereal with sliced fruit and skim milk
  • Low-fat or nonfat yogurt with fruit or low-fat granola cereal
  • Peanut butter on a small whole-wheat bagel and orange juice
  • A small bran muffin, a banana, and low-fat or skim milk
  • Oatmeal with raisins or berries or walnuts (or all three!)
  • A breakfast smoothie (blended fruit and skim milk)
  • A hard-boiled egg, half a grapefruit, and a slice of whole-grain bread
  • Cottage cheese and peaches

As a bonus, eating a healthy breakfast can help regulate your appetite throughout the day, and even more importantly, research has shown that a high-fiber, low-fat breakfast may play a major contribution in reducing your fat intake for the day.

Make Sure You Choose Whole Grains

Whole grains contain various beneficial vitamins, including folate, thiamine and vitamin B6, all of which are good for your brain. They also promote healthy blood flow, and more blood flow to your brain gets nutrients there quicker and allows your brain to make the best decisions possible.

When buying bread, pasta, rice, crackers, and cereals, always look for the words "whole grain" or "whole wheat" to make sure the product is made from 100 percent whole-wheat flour. To increase your intake of whole-grain foods, look on the ingredient list on the food label and make sure words such as "whole grain," "whole wheat", "rye," "bulgur," "brown rice," "oatmeal," "whole oats," "pearl barley," or "whole-grain corn" appear as one of the first words.

Whole-grain foods supply vitamin E and B vitamins such as folic acid as well as minerals like magnesium, iron, and zinc. Whole grains are also rich in fiber and higher in other important nutrients. In fact, eating plenty of whole-grain breads, bran cereals, and other whole-grain foods can easily provide half of your fiber needs for an entire day. Fiber is also considered a carbohydrate and is important to health. However, fiber is not considered a nutrient because most of it is not digested or absorbed into the body.

Whole grains are usually low in fat, unless fat is added in processing or preparation, but for maximum benefit, choose grains that are rich in fiber, low in saturated fat, and low in sodium.

Eat Lots of Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are loaded with essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Daily requirements for several vitamins-including vitamin C, folic acid, and beta-carotene, the precursor for vitamin A-can be met almost exclusively from fresh vegetables and fruits.

Leafy green vegetables are brain powerhouses because of all the B vitamins they contain, especially folate. Broccoli, collard greens, brussels sprouts, kale, and spinach are all superb sources of folate (as are carrots and yams). A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that eating leafy green vegetables helps keep your brain sharp well into old age.

Cruciferous vegetables contain cancer-preventing antioxidant properties (as well as other healthful benefits). The most potent cruciferous vegetables include bok choy (Chinese cabbage), broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, rutabagas, turnips, and watercress. Also high in nutrition are carrots, celery, potatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes (which contain a cancer-fighting compound known as lycopene).

Go for Color

When it comes to fruit, eating a variety ensures a greater intake of these essential nutrients, and choosing different types and colors is a good way to go. Fruit is full of healthy substances such as vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, folic acid, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and fiber, just to name a few. Citrus fruits, berries, and melons are excellent sources of vitamin C. Dried fruits are available all year long and are an excellent source of many nutrients including fiber. Apples, bananas, berries, citrus fruit, and melons are nutrient and fiber rich.

Dark green spinach, broccoli rabe, brilliant orange pumpkin, red pomegranates, deep-red raspberries, bright yellow peppers, and other high-intensity, brightly colored fruits and vegetables are packed with highly desirable phytochemicals, while dark-colored fruits and vegetables (dark green, red, and purple foods like spinach, blueberries, eggplants, and purple cabbage) contain antioxidants. That makes these fruits and vegetables powerhouses for your brain.

Focus on Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are great for mental clarity, concentration, and focus. They play an essential role throughout your life and should be at the top of your shopping list in terms of positive value for your brain. However, they are fattening so maximizing the sources in terms of benefits as opposed to caloric content is a wise move. Certain foods containing omega-3 fatty acids are especially good for your brain. These include:

  • Certain cold-water fish (bluefish, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout, salmon, sardines, tuna, and whitefish)
  • Olive oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Canola oil

Studies have revealed that Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for maintaining normal cognitive function, have additional advantages in the brain. For example, DHA and EPA, the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, particularly salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, and swordfish, are vital for a sharp mind.

Now that we've discussed basic nutrition, let's discuss food choices that will specifically improve your brain's ability to function, repair, and rejuvenate.

Memory Boosters

Foods rich in antioxidants may improve memory by fighting against free radicals, which can damage neurons in your brain. Research studies have shown that people with higher blood levels of the antioxidants vitamins C and E, in particular, have fared better on memory tests.

  • Nuts (hazelnuts and almonds in particular), sunflower seeds, and vegetable oils are rich in Vitamin E.
  • Citrus fruits, guava, papaya, strawberries, bell peppers, tomatoes and broccoli are all excellent sources of Vitamin C.
  • Blueberries, which are also rich in Vitamin C, heighten brain function and have significant memory-improving properties.

The Bs Have It

B vitamins also play important roles in cognitive function. An amino acid, known as homocysteine, is associated with clogged arteries, which result in decreased brain blood flow, causing impairment of mental functions. B vitamins, such as folate, Vitamin B6 and B12, seem to assist in lowering homocysteine levels, while B vitamin deficiencies have been linked to high levels of homocysteine. B12 is essential for an astute mind, as a B12 deficiency is associated with cognitive problems such as memory lapses. B6 also bolsters memory.

  • Folate can be found most abundantly in leafy green vegetables, especially spinach, broccoli, beans, orange juice, and avocados.
  • B12 can only naturally be found in animal products, particularly salmon, beef, shrimp, yogurt, milk and cheese, but it is often fortified in foods such as soy milk and cereals.
  • B6 is found primarily in animal sources like poultry, pork, beef and seafood, and in smaller amounts in legumes, such as black beans, leafy green vegetables, nuts, and whole grains.

Get Plenty of Vitamin D

Vitamin D receptors are found throughout the brain and especially in the hippocampus, and low Vitamin D levels have been linked to poor memory and cognitive function. Vitamin D also aids in the growth of new neurons and neurotransmitter synthesis. Your manufactures Vitamin D when it is exposed to the sun for at least ten minutes a day, but many people can have a Vitamin D deficiency. Milk, yogurt, and cheese, in particular, provide protein and many essential vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, riboflavin, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin A and D. Unfortunately, dairy products also contain saturated fat and cholesterol, so choose the lowest fat you can bear and keep portions small.

The USDA suggests consuming two to three servings from the milk group each day. Keep in mind that one serving is likely much smaller than you imagine. They equate one serving to:

  • 1 cup low-fat or fat-free milk
  • 1/3 cup dry milk
  • 1½ ounces natural cheese
  • 2 ounces processed cheese
  • 1 cup low-fat yogurt
  • 3/4 cup low-fat cottage cheese

There are, of course, many other foods that can benefit your brain (and some that can have negative effects), and we'll be discussing additional nutrition topics in upcoming posts. Meanwhile, if you follow the suggestions offered in this article, you will be giving your brain the superior nutrition it needs to function at peak capacity-and both you and your brain will be happier.

More from Susan Reynolds
More from Psychology Today