Food and Nutrition

The 7 Best Breakfast Foods for Brain Health, According to Dietitians

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You already know you should be eating breakfast every day—and that doesn’t mean ordering an oat milk latte and calling it good. Hear us out: Putting actual food into your body every morning is not only about refueling your energy tank. Eating a high-quality, nutrient-filled breakfast will actually help you perform better at work (and at play) and boost your overall brain health, according to research. "Emphasis on the words 'high quality' and 'nutrient-filled' is key," says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, author of The Family Immunity Cookbook.

For instance, an April 2021 study published in the journal Nutrients found that adolescents who ate a nutritious breakfast had better cognitive performance at school compared with those who didn’t. A small 2016 study in Neuroscience & Medicine showed that specific areas of the brain experienced significantly higher activation when young adult participants consumed a nutritionally-balanced breakfast over a sugar-filled one. And a 2019 study published in Journal of Psychophysiology concluded that skipping breakfast can negatively affect short-term cognition, specifically disturbing the attentional process (i.e. one's ability to pay attention).

If that isn’t convincing enough, take it from a registered dietitian: Amidor says eating breakfast daily should be “top priority.” (Not to mention the fact that eating breakfast can improve your mood and emotional well-being, too.)

While there is no official time you should eat breakfast, Amidor recommends eating within an hour or so of waking up, even if it’s just something small—like a yogurt with fruit or a slice of whole-wheat toast with peanut butter. “You don’t need a complicated breakfast, but it should include several food groups with nutritious foods,” she adds.

Keep in mind, however, that eating for optimal brain health and cognitive function isn’t just related to your morning meal. “It will always be more about the total pattern of what you eat and drink in a day, in a week and so on, versus any single food,” says Maggie Moon, MS, RD, author of The MIND Diet.

That said, there are some breakfast foods that are better than others when it comes to specifically boosting cognitive function and overall brain health. Read on for two dietitians’ top recommendations for brain-friendly breakfast foods.

The 7 best brain-friendly breakfast foods, according to RDs

1. Salmon

Crave smoked salmon when you wake up? Ooh, you fancy-like. But you’re in luck—this fish provides tons of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA, says Amidor. Salmon is an excellent breakfast choice specifically because DHA makes up a significant portion of fat in your brain, so it’s critical for brain development, she adds. Research shows that DHA, either alone or combined with EPA, contributes to improved memory function in older adults. Amidor recommends topping a slice of seedless rye bread with whipped cream cheese and an ounce of smoked salmon and sliced vegetables, or incorporating smoked salmon and veggies into an omelet. You can also try smoked salmon on a mushroom bagel or Better Bagel, or add it to a salad for the best at-home brunch.

2. Eggs

Speaking of omelets… as it turns out, the humble egg is one of the best brain-friendly foods, too. “Easy to cook yet making everything more decadent, an egg contains both choline and lutein, two vital nutrients that help the brain develop in our early years, then protect it against cognitive decline in mid-life,” says Moon, citing a 2018 review of egg benefits published in Journal of the American College of Nutrition.

Learn seven ways to eat eggs without scrambling. Don’t feel like dirtying a pan? Pop premade egg bites like Appleton’s Market Power Veggie Bites into the microwave for the next best option.

Eggs are so nutritious, this dietitian actually refers to them as nature's multivitamin:

3. Oatmeal

We get it—another dietitian recommending oatmeal for breakfast doesn’t come as a big surprise. There’s a reason that oats are so popular among nutrition experts, though: As a whole grain, they’ve been linked to improved cognitive functioning such as higher reading comprehension and verbal fluency. Moon says she prefers steel-cut oats, which are closer to the whole-food form of oats and offer a pleasantly chewy texture.

In a rush in the morning? Try a packaged, protein-rich oatmeal (without all the added sugar) like Mush or Oats Overnight.

4. Turmeric

Incorporating a sprinkle of this yellow spice into the first meal of your day can boost brain health. It contains a chemical called curcumin, which has been shown to have memory and cognitive benefits in both healthy adults and those with Alzheimer’s disease. Try this breakfast smoothie recipe from Amidor: Blend carrots, orange juice, cinnamon, and plain Greek yogurt in a high-powered blender, then sprinkle with turmeric. Or, try topping oats with a handful of turmeric-containing trail mix like Toodaloo for crunch and brain benefits.

5. Berries

Who doesn’t love fresh berries with breakfast? A simple morning meal of plain Greek yogurt topped with fresh strawberries, blueberries, and chopped almonds is a brain-boosting way to start your day, says Amidor. A Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry review showed that anthocyanins, the pigment in berries that gives them their rich color, can help protect your brain cells from oxidation and boost communication between brain neurons. (BTW, pomegranate is another fruit that’s amazing for brain health.)

If you can’t get your hands on fresh, stock up on Sow Good freeze-dried fruit with the same nutrition and no added ingredients. Freeze-dried fruit can be a lifesaver snack for those traveling, too.

6. Coffee

Hallelujah! You better believe that coffee makes the list (but beware: Drinking too much has the opposite effect). Research suggests that a morning cup of joe (black) sharpens reaction time, improves alertness, and helps us to think more clearly. According to Moon, this is possibly due to the combination of caffeine and antioxidants, as well as coffee’s ability to enhance the brain’s functional connectivity—i.e. how well various regions of the brain talk to each other to complete tasks.

Skip the coffee shop and make it at home. Brands like Explorer Cold Brew Co. and Copper Cow Coffee make it more interesting and easy to be your own barista.

7. Water

OK, so this is totally not a food—but hydrating with H20 is critical when you wake up to jumpstart your day and your mind. “In our house, we call it ‘brain water’ because that’s how important it is to brain health,” says Moon. Our brains are almost 75 percent water, meaning even mild dehydration can dull cognitive performance and negatively affect your mood, too.

Really in a time crunch? In a pinch, grab a protein bar specifically formulated with nutrients to boost brain health, like Mindright or Mosh.

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