Sometimes we need reminding that food has powerful impacts on our health. What if I told you that blueberries can make you have a better memory? What if I told you dark chocolate could improve your concentration?
And what if I told you that to date, 99.6% of pharmaceutical drugs developed to combat neurological diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease [AD] have failed? I think I have your attention.
This article will give you a rundown of the nutrients and foods with the strongest evidence for neuroprotection, and for improving cognitive function.
(Side note: understanding how to fuel your mind and body starts with a proper intake, our macro calculator is a great starting point.)
The strongest evidence for any nutrients protecting against cognitive decline lies with the marine omega-3 fatty acids, EPA & DHA; as little as 1 oily fish meal per week is associated with less incidence of AD and dementia (1; 2; 3).
The primary benefit appears to derive from the fatty acid DHA, the main fatty acid in brain tissue that is found highly concentrated in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, herrings and anchovies (3).
A consistent feature of this research is that the effects of marine omega-3 fatty acids are preventative, and intake throughout the lifespan is the strongest association with protection against cognitive decline (4; 5). At a minimal intake of 1-2 meals per week, this is a simple dietary addition to any IIFYM strategy.
Your Dose: 3 x 90-120g servings of oily fish per week.
2. Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
Several nutrients vital for cognitive health are provided by this broad food group, which encompasses foods like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, rocket, cabbage, broccoli etc. In particular, vitamin E and vitamin B9.
Next to the omega-3 fish oils, high dietary intake of vitamin E is strongly associated with lower risk of neurodegenerative disease (6).
An interesting feature of vitamin E research worth paying attention to is supplementation in controlled trials has failed to improve cognitive function (7; 8). Vitamin E thus appears to be a nutrient where dietary intake comes first.
Our client’s macronutrient intakes allow for plenty of Vitamin E consumption with their Macro Blueprint.
Vitamin B9 is another nutrient abundant in dark green leafy vegetables, and the B-vitamin family has been implicated in neurological disease, due to their multiplicity of roles in neurological processes (9).
Additional Cognitive Benefits to Dark Leafy Greens
The mechanism may be through lowering homocysteine levels; traditionally considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, high homocysteine levels have been associated with risk of AD (9). Recent controlled trials have found improvements in cognitive function with supplementation of vitamins B6, B9 and B12, via reducing homocysteine levels (10; 11).
Vitamin K is also abundant in vegetables of the dark green variety and is an oft-overlooked nutrient in brain health. Higher circulating vitamin K levels are associated with less cognitive decline with ageing (12).
Dark green leafy veggies serve another purpose for our IIFYM coaches: adding bulk to clients diet plan’s during fat loss phases.
With that said, it’s nice to able to eat a lot of something during a diet, and with this low- calorie food group, you not only get density for your diet but nutrient density for your brain and overall health.
Your Dose: 1 large greens salad – about 2 cups chopped vegetables – daily.
Specifically, blueberries and strawberries have been singled out as particularly beneficial for cognitive health (13). The reason lies in a group of non-nutrient compounds known as flavonoids. Flavonoids are a diverse group of plant chemicals that are highly concentrated in berries, grapes (yes, this includes red wine), cacao and teas, and high dietary intake of flavonoids are associated with lower risk of dementia and AD (14; 15).
Citrus fruits are home to another member of the flavonoid family, namely the compounds hesperidin and narirutin, both of which have been shown to result in boosted brain function.
Anthocyanins, a subtype of flavonoid, have been shown to improve cognitive function across the lifespan. Supplementing elderly adults suffering mild cognitive impairment with anthocyanin-rich concord grape and blueberry juice, respectively, improved their cognitive function when consumed daily over 12-weeks (16; 17).
In otherwise healthy children aged 7-10yrs, supplementing with blueberry anthocyanins – equivalent to 120-240g fresh berries – improved memory performance acutely assessed 6-hrs after ingestion of blueberries at breakfast (18).
Eating blueberries, strawberries, and dark-skinned berries daily is a simple, low-calorie and carb, easily IIFYM-compliant way to boost your memory and cognitive function.
Your Dose: 120g blueberries daily.
4. Citrus Fruits
Alarmism over the fruit sugar, fructose, may have chased orange juice away from your breakfast table. Your brain may be calling it back. Citrus fruits are home to another member of the flavonoid family, namely the compounds hesperidin and narirutin, both of which have been shown to result in boosted brain function.
In a randomised, placebo-controlled crossover design trial [the gold-standard in research], consuming 500ml orange juice with 549mg hesperidin and 60mg narirutin [total 45g sugars, FYI] for 8 weeks improved executive function – the brain tasks which regulate attention, focus and organisation – an effect that had not been measured in other flavonoid studies (19).
From an IIFYM perspective, commercially available orange juice may be a bit of a waste of your macros. 45g of carbs in OJ could be 300g of potatoes, and you’ll be fuller for a lot longer on a fat loss diet with the latter.
Setting up your diet for satiety and adherence is a common issue our IIFYM coaches work through with clients. With the main resource being aMacro Blueprint to alleviate these issues.
The positive feature of the studies into flavonoid-rich citrus is that they used otherwise healthy adults, without any cognitive impairment, and found improvements in global assessments of brain function (19; 20).
Cognitive Benefits with a Caveat
These studies do, however, come with a caveat: it would be hard to find a commercially available orange juice with the same hesperidin content (circa 500mg). Citrus fruits contain an average of 15mg/100g fruit flesh, and analysis of commercially available orange juices has shown a range of 12-15mg/100ml (21).
Thankfully, then there is a solution from Chinese researchers to obtain an equivalent dose of hesperidin used in studies: sun-drying tangerine peels, which contain the highest concentration of hesperidin at 50-100mg/g (22). 5-10g of sun-dried tangerine peels will give you an equivalent dose of hesperidin used in the research.
Your dose: 5-10g sun-dried tangerine peels daily or regular citrus fruit consumption.
5. Dark Chocolate
Need an excuse to eat chocolate? Your brain health is one. The caveat here is that it is dark chocolate [min.70% cacao] that we’re talking about, as the benefit is derived from cocoa flavonols [see a theme with these foods?].
Cocoa also contains caffeine and another brain-boosting plant chemical known as theobromine. The synergistic effect of these phytochemicals has led to some interesting results; improvements in visual acuity, working memory, attentiveness and response time (23).
And if you need that mid-afternoon cognitive lift, without the over-stimulation or sleep-disrupting effects of caffeine late in the day, then dark chocolate may give you the lift you need. In a randomised, placebo-controlled trial in healthy adults, consumption of 520mg cocoa flavonols – equivalent to around 20g dark chocolate – reduced subjective mental fatigue, where subjects underwent a battery of cognitive test performed 2-minutes apart (24).
All in all, this happens to be both a delicious and, from an IIFYM perspective, minimally invasive means of boosting cognition.
Your Dose: 20-40g dark chocolate containing 80-90% cacao daily.
6. Cruciferous Vegetables
I know, I mentioned some of these – kale, cabbage – in no.2 above, but the reality is that the Brassica family of veg deserve their own slot, due to the presence of a family of compounds known as glucosinolates. In particular, a compound known as sulforaphane looks particularly promising for brain health.
Brain inflammation is gaining recognition as a cause of depression, and sulforaphane has demonstrated similar efficacy to pharmaceutical anti-depressants, an effect mediated through its potent anti-inflammatory action (25).
The effects of sulforaphane may convince you never to pass on the Brussels sprouts again at Thanksgiving: the highest food sources of sulforaphane are Brussels sprouts, broccoli sprouts, cabbage and raw broccoli.
The point from no.2 also applies here: this food group count minimally against your carb and calorie goals from yourMacro Blueprint, and are easily incorporated in the recommended doses daily.
Sulforaphane protects against the accumulation of amyloid-β, the plaque which builds up in AD, and oxidative damage to the brain (26; 27).
This is yet another example of the preventative effects of nutrition in relation to brain health, as a diet rich in sulforaphane in youth protects against later cognitive impairment (28).
Your Dose: 50g broccoli sprouts; 100g Brussels sprouts; 250g broccoli; daily intake. NB: consume raw, or lightly steamed – never boil.
7. Green Tea
You can drink your way to a better brain, too. For green tea, not unlike dark chocolate, the effect is a result of a combination of compounds, namely green tea catechins, caffeine, and the amino acid theanine, which is unique to tea (29).
Recent evidence has shown that catechins and theanine improved cognitive function over a 16-week period (30). Neuroimaging shows green tea significantly increases calmness, shown through increases across alpha brain bandwidths, which is the brain frequency associated with relaxed attention (31).
Caffeine positively impacts mood and cognitive processes and interestingly can promote neuroplasticity
Green tea consistently shows improvements in mood, alertness, and attention in healthy adults (29). Interestingly, these effects appear to be dependent on interactions between caffeine, theanine and catechins, as the compounds in isolation are less potent (29). The good news? No need to consider green tea within your IIFYM framework: the drinks, my friend, are free.
Your Dose: 3 cups per day (each containing 3-5g leaves dry weight)
The concern over diet and cholesterol is a concern our IIFYM coaches hear regularly. However, they also have the evidence-based answer: the evidence no longer supports associations between eggs, dietary cholesterol, and blood cholesterol levels (32).
This has been put to bed in dietary fat research, but still, hasn’t trickled down to the lay public. Even in obese subjects, consumption of 3 eggs per day improved their lipid profile – there was no change in LDL-cholesterol and increased HDL-cholesterol (33).
So, with that aside, what do eggs do for your brain? Provide the richest dietary source of choline, the raw material required to synthesize the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is responsible for learning and memory.
Higher dietary choline intake is associated with better memory performance and reduced risk of neurodegenerative disease (34). From an IIFYM standpoint, a 4-egg omelet may take up a lot of macros. Our coaches at IIFYM, in this case, will recommend smaller servings for a client, but more regularly.
It truly depends on your allotted fat intake, which you can find out with a Macro Blueprint.
Your Dose: Up to 12 eggs per week (average 2 per day, 6-days a week).
I know you were waiting with bated breath to see if it made the list, and it deservedly does, due to the presence of multiple compounds which exert beneficial effects on cognitive function. Coffee contains caffeine, cholinergic compounds [i.e. boosting acetylcholine] and other plant compounds like theobromine [which you’ll recall from dark chocolate/cacao].
Where our coaches at IIFYM notice, many clients tripping up on fat loss diets is a cognitive dissonance toward liquid calories: “coffee” does not mean the 200kcal Grande Starbucks caramel latte.
With that said, there is strong evidence that habitual coffee consumption protects against Parkinson’s Disease (35). Caffeine positively impacts mood and cognitive processes and interestingly can promote neuroplasticity i.e. the ability of the brain to change and develop new connections (35).
Evidence suggests caffeine reduces inflammation in the brain, providing a protective mechanism against depression and neurodegenerative disease (36). As with green tea, the drinks are free: just remember that from both the cognition perspective and the “free” IIFYM standpoint, we are talking about black coffee.
Your Dose: 1-2 cups per day.
You may have noticed that a theme of much of the research in this area is preventative effects of consumption. Ultimately, the earlier your diet includes a consistent intake of the doses of these foods – or more particularly the beneficial compounds within them – the better.
From an IIFYM perspective, one of the uniform benefits of these foods, perhaps except for eggs and oily fish, is that they come with minuscule caloric weight. Berries, greens, and cruciferous veg can all be included daily without detracting much from your diet plans and weight loss goals.
Green tea and black coffee are free, but if your weakness is the matcha latte or pumpkin-spiced frap, obviously, the purpose of the IIFYM framework is that you can have it – just make sure to plug it into your macro tracker, liquid calories still count.
Nutrition is vital to cognition, so be sure to take this aspect of your brain health seriously, as prevention remains the only cure.