Brain Food: Nutrition for Improving Cognitive Function

by Jeannie Versagli, RDN, CN 

Do you feel at times you are forgetful?  Did you know that poor nutrition could be contributing to your forgetfulness? A study published in July of 2014 by the Alzheimer’s Disease Core Center at New York University School of Medicine concluded that B12, Folate, beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids are considered Alzheimer’s disease-protective nutrients. Let’s take a look at how these nutrients positively influence our brain health.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These fatty acids are essential for brain health.  Omega-3 fatty acids are made up of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), both of which are necessary for rebuilding and producing new cells throughout the body. DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain. Studies have linked improved memory, learning ability, and reduced rates of cognitive decline with long-term consumption of DHA-rich foods. Eating salmon, bluefin tuna, sardines, or herring three times a week would assure adequate consumption of DHA.

Get your Omega-3’s from salmon, bluefin tuna, sardines, or herring

B Vitamins

Folate is necessary in the production of DNA and RNA as well as cellular detoxification in the brain. Research indicates that low levels of folate are found in individuals with cognitive decline, Dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Excellent sources of folate are green leafy vegetables and legumes.

Sauteed spinach atop hummus on toasted whole-grain bread — a great source of folate

B12 regulates homocysteine levels in the body.  Homocysteine is an amino acid found in your blood. Low levels of homocysteine are associated with a greater risk of Dementia and cognitive status.  Organ meats and sardines are the most concentrated sources of B12.

Both B12 and Folate are responsible for the production of neurotransmitters in the brain, such a as serotonin.  These nutrients regulate the use of energy in the brain. Therefore, not consuming adequate amounts can diminish cognitive brain function.


Beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, provides high sources of antioxidants, aiding in the reduction of oxidative stress.  Oxidative stress has been identified as a contributing factor to brain aging.  Foods high in beta-carotene are carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, spinach, kale, cantaloupe, and apricots.

Smoothies are a great way to load up on the beta-carotene: add fruit for sweetness and kale or spinach for substance


Antioxidants have been identified for their implications in the prevention of progressive cognitive impairments.  Berries provide an excellent source of antioxidants and flavonoids. Incorporating these foods daily into your diet may slow the progression of cognitive decline, improving your memory function.

Berries on oatmeal.jpeg
Top your oatmeal with a fresh assortment of berries for a burst of antioxidants

Growing evidence suggests that the Mediterranean diet can improve cognitive function, memory, and alertness.

Mediterranean Core Foods And Recommended Servings

The Mediterranean diet consists of the following foods. Strengthen the brain’s ability to function by following these nutritional guidelines daily:

  • Vegetables: Consume three servings a day to include dark green and yellow vegetables. One serving equals ½ cup cooked or 1 cup of raw vegetables.
  • Fruits: Consume three servings a day. Include berries such as blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries, as these fruits are rich in antioxidants and flavonoids. One serving of fresh fruit equals ½ to 1 cup or 1 medium piece of fruit.
  • Legumes: Consume three servings a week of beans, peas, or alfalfa. A serving is ½ cup.
  • Whole Grains: Consume three to six servings a day.  One serving equals ½ cup cooked grains, one slice of whole grain bread, or one ounce of whole grain cereal.  Chose oats, barley, brown rice, or quinoa, which provide an excellent source of fiber.
  • Spices: Add turmeric, cinnamon, saffron, ginger, and black pepper to your foods daily.
  • Nuts: Consume three servings a week; one serving equals ¼ cup or one or two tablespoons of nut butter.  Incorporate walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts. Walnuts contain high sources of omega-3 fatty acids; consider adding a handful of walnuts to your salad, vegetables, or as a snack three times per week. Walnuts have
    additional benefits in sustaining a healthy heart.
  • Extra virgin oil: Consume one to four tablespoons a day.

Mediterranean Diet

  • Fish/Seafood: Consume three servings per week (4 ounces each) of salmon, mackerel, bluefin tuna, herring, anchovies, or sardines.
  • Low-fat dairy: Consume one serving a day of regular yogurt and three servings of 4 ounces of cottage cheese weekly.
  • Wine: Red wine is an excellent source of resveratrol. Resveratrol is known for improving short-term memory and it’s anti-aging properties. One serving of wine is 5 ounces.  Males are to take no more than two servings daily and females are to consume no more one serving of red wine daily. Consume red wine if this is currently part of your dietary regime.
  • Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate (70 to 80 % cocoa) contains high levels of the antioxidant flavonoid. Consuming one to two ounces a day will aid in improving short-term memory.

Just as nutrition plays a significant role with brain health, lifestyle factors contribute to improving cognitive functions.  Studies indicate that maintaining a healthy body weight, engaging in regular physical exercise, maintaining good sleeping habits, reading, playing brain games, and interacting socially with others are all associated with maintaining brain health.

It is not too early to begin to make nutritional adjustments to your daily food intake for improving your cognitive function, alertness, and memory. After all, no one wants to be struggling with trying to remembering where they placed their car keys or cell phone, not to mention forgetting an appointment. Who knew nutrition played such a significant role in maintaining brain health.


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