What Are Brain Foods?

Brain foods consist mainly of fruits and vegetables containing nutrients that are good for brain function.  The brain is a complex organ that has special nutritional needs. The good news is that the same foods that are good for the brain are also good for the rest of your body.

Unlike the rest of the body, however, the brain needs excessive amounts of energy to run properly but has no local energy stores. Instead, the brain depends on the body to deliver a steady stream of glucose from the foods we eat. Only in situations of very severe deprivation will the brain use fat energy to function.


The brain needs energy to control myriad functions in the body. It works by transmitting electrical impulses from one neuron to the next, like a line of firefighters once did, passing the water bucket down the line. As they pass on signals, the nerve cells in the brain need certain nutrients and neurotransmitters to complete the exchange.

The three most important neurotransmitters are acetylcholine, dopamine and serotonin. You are probably familiar with the later two brain chemicals. Dopamine makes us feel excited, maintain focus and keep our balance. Low levels of this chemical is associated with schizophrenia. Serotonin helps to balance our moods, keep healthy sleep patterns and feel pleasure. Depression is often attributed to low levels of serotonin.

The lesser-known acetylcholine is responsible for boosting memory, controlling involuntary muscles, and behavioral inhibition. Because those with Alzheimer’s often have low levels of this chemical, they are more prone to forgetfulness and inappropriate behavior.

The brain cannot produce acetylcholine without the B-vitamin called choline. This vital nutrient is found in protein-rich foods like egg yolks, wheat germ, peanuts, meat (especially liver), fish and dairy. You can also find it in some vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. With proper amounts of choline in your diet, you can boost your memory, alertness and reaction time. It may even improve your athletic performance allowing you to run further faster.

Foods for Better Brain Function


The same foods that provide choline are often rich sources of dopamine as well. These include meat, milk products, fish, and nuts. Beans and soy products are also good sources of dopamine. Eating 3-4 ounces of protein each day should provide sufficient amounts to keep your brain running well.

Serotonin on the other hand, comes from carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta, cereal, bread and starchy vegetables. The carbohydrates in these foods help the body absorb tryptophan and convert it into serotonin. This is why you often feel calm and relaxed about 30 minutes after eating a spaghetti dinner.  These carbohydrates also help produce the glucose need by the brain for optimal functioning.

Not just what you Eat…

How you manage your carbohydrates can also affects your brain. By eating small frequent meals, you provide a steady stream of energy to the brain. This prevents mood swings and reduces bodily stress, both of which can affect your thinking. Complex carbohydrates are preferable because they provide a slow and steady stream of energy. They come from whole grain foods, often high in fiber. Simple carbohydrates like sugar and white bread can boost brain performance temporarily, but the resulting “crash” or drop in energy will later result in moodiness and unclear thinking.

Other Helpful Nutrients

Other nutrients that help your brain include Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, antioxidants, folate and happily, moderate alcohol consumption. Each of these nutrients works in a different way.

Fatty Acids

Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are the “healthy fats” you may have heard about. They are good for your heart, your blood pressure and your brain. They are powerful nutrients that help protect brain tissues and promote healthy brain cell generation. Because the brain is more than 60% fatty cells, eating the enough fats is crucial. These fatty acids are found primarily in salmon, walnuts and flax seed.  If you are not partial to salmon, you can try tuna, trout, herring, mackerel or anchovies.


Antioxidants help your brain by fighting free radicals. These damaging elements are the natural result of metabolism. Free radicals bounce around your system, striking health cells and turning them into more free radicals. Without antioxidants, the damage done by this process can lead to premature aging throughout the body and brain. You can find the maximum concentrations of these important nutrients in very dark chocolate, blueberries, strawberries and citrus fruits.


Like choline, folate is a B-vitamin, essential to proper brain function. This same nutrient helped form your spinal cord while you grew in your mother’s womb. Insufficient folate during fetal development can lead to spinal bifida, a condition where the spinal cord fails to develop completely. AS an adult, folate is important for reducing the risk of stroke and breaking down homocysteine, an amino acid that damages nerve cells.

Moderate Drinking

Studies on those who drink one or two alcoholic beverages a day show that the practice increases blood flow to the brain resulting in a healthier heart and a brain less susceptible to cognitive decline. In the short run, alcohol will slow your thinking. In the end, it will keep you thinking clearly, assuming the absence of health conditions adversely affected by alcohol. For example, women with increased risk of breast cancer may worsen the risk if they consume alcohol. In most cases, the benefit should outweigh the risk.

You should understand that each of us has a unique chemical makeup in our brains. For this reason, some foods may affect your brain performance differently than expected. It is best to eat a well-rounded diet and pay attention to how certain foods make you feel about one half hour after eating them. You should also be certain to get enough sleep and nap during the day if you can.