Food on the Brain: Top Brain Boosters and Brain Drainers

By Dr. Christopher Calapai

The foods you have in your pantry and fridge may be helping or hindering your brain. The foods we choose have a lot to do with how sharp, attentive, alert, focused and happy we feel after they are consumed.

Certain foods may taste great, but have additives in them that literally cloud our brains and leave us sluggish and dull headed. The opposite is also true. We can eat certain foods and feel a charge of mental energy and focus. Which ones should you add to and remove from your shopping list?

Brain Boosting Foods to Add!

Photo by PROrjp

Photo by PROrjp

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are great sources of vitamin E. Higher levels of vitamin E correspond with less cognitive decline as you get older. Eat an ounce a day of walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, or flax seed. Un-hydrogenated nut butters such as peanut butter, almond butter, and tahini are also healthy. Raw or roasted doesn’t matter, although if you’re on a sodium-restricted diet, buy unsalted nuts. Adding nuts to your diet can aid in decreasing levels of enzymes that lead to protein plaques, keeping them from forming and contributing to dementia. Nuts can also reduce brain inflammation, and keep blood pressure low — key for preventing stroke.

Photo by Jennifer C.

Photo by Jennifer C.


I eat these daily and encourage patients to add blueberries to as many things as possible. They’re great on their own, added to a shake, to oatmeal, or even to a salad. Blueberries are tasty and sweet and loaded with antioxidants. They’re packed with vitamins C, and K, and fiber. They contain high levels of gallic acid, making them especially good at protecting our brains from degeneration and stress. Studies show that eating blueberries can boost focus and memory for up to five hours.

Photo by Mike Mozart

Photo by Mike Mozart


Broccoli is one of the best brain foods out there. Thanks to its high levels of vitamin K and choline, a B vitamin known for aiding brain development, broccoli keeps memory sharp and protects the brain from later decline with age. It’s also loaded with vitamin C. Just one cup provides you with 150 percent of your recommended daily intake. Its high-fiber level makes you feel full quickly, too. People hear broccoli and roll their eyes thinking it’s bland and boring. Think of broccoli as a canvas ready to be painted with spices and flavors. Try stir frying with a bit of olive oil, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Add a spoonful of orange or lemon juice and it gets a nice sweetness to it.

Photo by e900

Photo by e900


Salmon, mackerel, tuna, and other fish are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA seems to be very important for the normal functioning of neurons in the brain. Eating more fish often means eating less red meat and other forms of protein that are high in artery-clogging saturated fats. People who are lacking in Omega 3 fatty acids can experience mood swings and feel edgy or negative. Omega 3 fatty acids are known to be mood boosters in addition to enhancing focus and memory.

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Photo by digipam


This creamy treat is also a rich source of the antioxidant vitamin E. Research suggests that foods rich in vitamin E are associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Brain Drainers to Drop!!!

Photo by Roberto Verzo

Photo by Roberto Verzo

Partially Hydrogenated Oils

There is zero reason to ever eat foods that list “partially hydrogenated oils” in their ingredients list. It is code for trans fats, which, in addition to increasing your risk for obesity and damaging your heart health, can cause serious brain drain. Diets high in trans fats increase beta-amyloid, peptide “plaque” deposits in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease. One study published in “Neurology” found that people who consumed high levels of trans fats had lower cognitive abilities and smaller brains later in life. Common culprits include fried foods, baked goods, and processed foods. So bake or grill chicken instead of frying it, go for sweet potatoes instead of French fries, and avoid anything wrapped in plastic that sits on a shelf for months at a time.

Photo by Coralie Ferreira

Photo by Coralie Ferreira

Added Sugars

The average American eats 79 pounds of added sweeteners per year. This can cause constant insulin spikes and inflammation, resulting in both vascular and neuronal damage. One study published in “Brain, Behavior and Immunity” found that large amounts of sugar cause the hippocampus, the brain’s memory control center, to become inflamed, meaning it can’t work at 100 percent. Meanwhile, one cross-cultural analysis found that high sugar intake is linked to depression. Sugar is a big trap because when you eat something sweet there is a high initially. It feels good at first taste but then once it starts to be processed in the body there is a heaviness that follows.

Photo by ih

Photo by ih irisphotos

Saturated Fat

A diet high in saturated fat can decrease the brain’s ability to fight the formation of Alzheimer’s, which is linked to brain plaque. An onslaught of saturated fat also hurts your brain in the short-term. Saturated fat impairs your brain’s ability to learn and form new memories within as little as ten minutes after chowing down. Processed meats such as pepperoni, sausage, or chorizo are examples of very tasty foods that are high in saturated fat. Look, we all like to indulge from time to time and that is fine, but when saturated fats are staples in your diet, then that’s going to take a toll.



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