The relationship between diet and brain health—from how to sharpen your mind and memory to starting Alzheimer’s prevention super early—has been getting lots of attention lately, and Rebecca Katz, MS, author of the new science-based recipe book The Healthy Mind Cookbook, is at the forefront of the movement.
“It used to be that scientists thought that as you grow older your brain cells die,” says Katz, who’s also the executive chef at Food As Medicine and founder of Healing Kitchens Institute in Bolinas, California. “Now, we’re actually seeing that our brain cells can regenerate—which is largely based on how we eat and exercise. If you’re eating a whole foods diet, of course you’re taking care of your body, but there are actually certain foods that are very important for the brain.”
Want to know what they are? These are the 11 foods Katz says you should be eating to strengthen your mental muscles now. —Jamie McKillop
According to Katz, lentils are full of brain-friendly B vitamin folate, which helps keep your mind sharp as you age, thiamin and vitamin B6, which give you more focus and energy, iron, which is important for cognitive functioning in women during childbearing years, and zinc, which is said to be a memory booster.
“Silicon Valley has promised us that, someday, little nanobots will act like tiny microprocessors in our brains, helping to make us smarter,” Katz says. “I say, why wait? We already have a teensy food that does that. It’s the lentil, the vegetable kingdom’s version of a Lilliputian flying saucer.”
Katz loves mint because it’s a good source of vitamin A, which can help boost learning skills and increase brain plasticity, vitamin C, which is said to protect against cognitive decline, and for other, unexpected reasons.
“There are fascinating studies out there about how the scent of mint affects brain functioning,” Katz says. “In one study, the aroma of mint helped boost alertness and memory. In another, it helped test subjects perform better on basic clerical skills, such as typing and memorization. Just the scent of mint has been shown to increase alertness.” Maybe start by taking a big whiff of your toothpaste in the morning?
Pumpkin seeds, AKA pepitas, deliver generous helpings of iron in addition to a mineral trio of potassium, magnesium, and calcium, which Katz says has shown to delay cognitive decline. “For this reason, I call pumpkin seeds nature’s smallest antidepressant,” she says.
“Some foods just look like they should be good for the mind,” Katz says. “Take cauliflower. Kind of like walnuts, it visually reminds you of the brain. And sure enough, cauliflower is a brain-boosting superstar.” It’s a great source of vitamin K, which is said to keep your mind sharp as you age and boost memory, as well as folate.
“It also helps in liver detoxification, and a happy liver—the body’s vacuum cleaner for toxins—makes for a happy brain,” she adds. Not to mention cauliflower makes a killer grilled cheese.
Even if eating them isn’t totally appealing, your brain loves these tiny fish. In fact, Katz refers to them as “Prozac in a can,” since sardines are loaded with vitamin B12, which has been shown to boost memory and ward off depression. They’re also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help keep your brain sharp, and are high in niacin, which can boost mental energy.
According to Katz, almonds may help your body fight inflammation in ways that can boost mood and slow the mental decline that comes with age, as well as raise levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is “associated with fewer down moods and less depression,” she says. Which is awesome since they’re also delish.
“Beets are a brain food of the first order,” Katz says. “They are high in nitrites, which have been shown to increase blood flow in parts of the brain related to executive functioning, have got lots of vitamin B9, which may aid cognitive functioning and delay a descent into dementia, and are rich in carotenoids, which may help boost brain functioning and stave off depression.” Remember to order a salad the next chance you get?
“Cashews are a great source of two brain-boosting minerals, zinc and magnesium,” Katz explains. “Zinc is important because low levels of the mineral are associated with depression, and it may improve memory as well, while magnesium has been shown to help better regulate sleeping patterns and may improve learning skills.”
Cashews also contain the B vitamin thiamin, which Katz says has been linked to more mental energy and better moods in women, plus vitamin E, which in low levels is linked to poor cognition. Not to mention their creamy, amazing taste.
“Cinnamon delivers some anti-inflammatory benefits, which may well boost overall brain functioning,” Katz explains. “It also unleashes in the brain some special proteins called neurotrophic factors, which can help the brain generate new neurons and keep old ones healthy.”
Similar to mint, researchers found that the aroma of cinnamon can improve memory and focus on cognitive tests, says Katz, so don’t forget to sprinkle a little on your coffee in the morning.
“The cocoa that gives dark chocolate its haunting, addictive flavor is loaded with the memory-boosting antioxidant power of flavonoids,” Katz says. “In two recent studies, cocoa consumption has been linked to higher scores on cognitive tests. Dark chocolate is also a boon to the cardiovascular system, and a healthy heart helps keep the brain sharp.”
Be warned, though: Katz says that milk seems to interfere with the body’s ability to access the power of flavonoids, so these benefits don’t apply to milk chocolate, and it might even be best to steer clear of milk while you’re enjoying dark chocolate.
“Many women can experience a loss of mental sharpness as they get into middle age, but ginger has been shown to help keep that from happening,” Katz says. “Another study on postmenopausal women showed ginger boosting memory skills and ability to focus.” Stir-fry for dinner, it is.