10 foods to boost your brainpower

  • Improve concentration and focus
  • Promote healthy brain function
  • Boost short-term memory
  • Help delay age-related cognitive impairment
  • Support healthy brain aging
  • Reduce anxiety and stress
  • Enhance memory and boost mood
  • Improve brain power
  • Boost memory and concentration
  • Help protect healthy brain function

Find out more about healthy eating, from your nutritional needs whatever your age to healthy eating on a budget.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet that includes these brain-supportive foods may help to keep your memory, concentration and focus sharp.

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1. Wholegrains

May improve concentration and focus

Wholegrains with seeded bread and brown spaghetti

Like everything else in the body, the brain cannot work without sufficient fuel and its preferred form of fuel is glucose. This means that to maintain your concentration and focus you need to ensure an adequate, steady supply of energy (glucose). You can do this by choosing wholegrains – these have a low-GI which means they release energy steadily into the bloodstream, helping to keep you mentally alert throughout the day. Eating too few healthy carbs, such as wholegrains, or eating fast-releasing ones like processed grains and sugary snacks may lead to irritability, brain fog and affect your mood.

Choose wholegrain cereals, breads, rice and pasta in preference to the white, refined versions.

Find out all you need to know about carbohydrates.

2. Oily fish

May promote healthy brain function

Salmon fillet on slate

Essential fatty acids are just that – essential dietary inclusions – this is because they can’t be made by the body and must be obtained through the food we eat. The most potent form, found naturally in oily fish, are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fats are important for healthy brain function as well as for the heart, joints and our general well-being.

Although studies are in early stages, there is suggestion that adequate dietary amounts may help to relieve depression, and that low DHA levels in particular may be linked to an increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s and memory loss.

Useful plant sources include flaxseed, soya beans, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and their oils. However, the body has to convert this plant source into the active form and sadly that process is far from efficient. Oily fish on the other hand provide the active fats in their ready form, this means the body can use them more easily. Oily varieties of fish include salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards and kippers.

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you may wish to add seeds like flaxseeds, hemp and chia to your diet, or consider a plant-based supplement from micro-algae. It’s worth remembering that vegetarian or vegan mums-to-be, or those who are breastfeeding, should consider a supplement because of the important role these fats play in the development of the central nervous system of your baby.

If you are considering taking a supplement, speak to your GP first.

Learn more about the health benefits of salmon.

3. Blueberries

May boost short-term memory

Fresh blueberries

Evidence accumulated at Tufts University suggests the consumption of blueberries may be effective in improving or delaying short-term memory loss. The study examined the effects of including wild blueberry juice daily for 12 weeks. A similar effect may be achieved from including a variety of other dark red and purple fruits, like blackberries, and vegetables such as red cabbage in your diet. These colourful fruits and vegetables contain plant compounds called anthocyanins that have a protective and anti-inflammatory effect.

Read more about the health benefits of blueberries.

4. Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes

Animal studies suggest that lycopene, a carotenoid with protective properties found in tomatoes, may help protect against the development of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s. However, current evidence as it relates to humans appears less convincing. Nevertheless, fat-soluble lycopene is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and, as it’s a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, it appears to have therapeutic effects for the brain and central nervous system.

Favour cooked tomatoes and enjoy with a little olive oil to optimise your body’s absorption. Other foods that supply lycopene include papaya, watermelon and pink grapefruit.

Discover more: Which foods should you eat raw or cooked?

5. Eggs

May support healthy brain aging

Whisked eggs and egg shells

A natural metabolite called homocysteine tends to elevate as we age and increases our risk of stroke, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Certain B vitamins – B6, B12 and folic acid – are known to help manage levels of homocysteine in the blood.

A study of elderly patients with mild cognitive impairment found that after two years of intervention with high doses of B6, B12 and folic acid they presented with significantly less brain shrinkage compared to a subset who were given a placebo.

Other B vitamins including vitamins B1, B3 and choline play an important part in regulating normal brain function. Choline, which is rich in egg yolk, is needed for the formation of cell membranes and for brain function. It’s especially important during pregnancy and breast feeding, when an adequate supply is essential for your baby’s brain development. Choline is also a key component of the memory-boosting brain chemical, acetylcholine.

Choose B-rich foods such as eggs, as well as chicken, fish, leafy greens and dairy. If you’re vegan, look to fortified foods, including plant milks and breakfast cereals or consider a supplement. Other useful vegan sources of B vitamins, including B6, include fortified nutritional yeast as well as avocado, soya, nuts and seeds.

Learn more about vitamin B12, and discover more about the health benefits of eggs.

6. Blackcurrants

May reduce anxiety and stress

Blackcurrants on a vine

Optimal vitamin C levels are thought to increase mental vitality, and some research suggests that a deficiency may be a risk factor for age-related brain degeneration including dementia and Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, interesting studies demonstrate that vitamin C may be useful for managing anxiety and stress.

One of the best sources of this vitamin are blackcurrants. Other useful sources include red peppers, citrus fruits including oranges as well as broccoli.

Discover more about why we need vitamins.

7. Pumpkin seeds

May enhance memory and boost mood

Pumpkin seeds in a bowl

Rich in zinc, a mineral needed for enhancing memory and thinking skills, pumpkin seeds are also a useful source of stress-busting magnesium, B vitamins and tryptophan, the precursor to the good mood chemical serotonin.

Other useful food sources include beef, oysters, chickpeas and nuts including cashews and almonds.

Read more about the health benefits of pumpkin seeds.

8. Broccoli

May improve brainpower

Broccoli florets

Broccoli is a useful source of vitamin K, which is known to enhance cognitive function and improve brainpower. Researchers have also reported that because broccoli is high in compounds called glucosinolates, it helps slow the breakdown of the brain chemical, acetylcholine, which we need to keep our brains and memories sharp.

Other cruciferous veg rich in these compounds include cauliflower, kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, whilst you can obtain vitamin K from liver, hard cheeses and prunes.

Discover more about the health benefits of broccoli.

9. Sage

May boost memory and concentration

Fresh sage leaves

Sage has long had a reputation for improving memory and concentration. Although most studies focus on the essential oil derived from sage, it may still be worth consuming fresh sage too. Add at the end of cooking to protect the beneficial oils.

Put sage to good use in these healthy recipes; butternut soup with crispy sage, pearl barley & sage risotto and veal escalopes wrapped with proscuitto, sage & lemon.

10. Nuts

May help protect healthy brain function

Mixed nuts in a bowl

A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that an adequate intake of vitamin E may help to prevent cognitive decline, including memory loss particularly in the elderly. Nuts are a valuable source of this vitamin, along with leafy green vegetables, asparagus, olives, seeds, eggs, brown rice and wholegrains.

Learn more about the health benefits of nuts.

What else can I do to support my brainpower?

Healthy behaviours that support your heart and reduce your risk of chronic disease also benefit your brain and may help delay cognitive decline.

Here are some examples:

1. Keep active

Don’t forget that as well as a healthy diet, physical activity including exercise helps to keep your brain sharp. Research suggests that regular exercise improves cognitive function, slows down the mental aging process and helps us process information more effectively.

Get inspired with our guides on how to workout at home and read the health benefits of walking.

2. Quit smoking

We all know that quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health, including that of the brain.

3. Get adequate sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep is important to keep us energised throughout the day, but also for our brain to work well. A good night’s sleep improves our brain’s ability to adapt – it helps us learn better, process memories, develop healthy brains and clear our brain’s waste products more efficiently.

How much sleep you need will depend on your age and life stage. Read more about this in our expert sleep guide.

4. Balanced nutrition

Although research linking diet and dementia is still in its infancy, there are a few important relationships between nutrients and brain health that are worth exploring. Having a nourishing, well-rounded diet gives our brain the best chance of avoiding disease. If you know your diet to be unbalanced for whatever reason, you may want to consider a multivitamin, a mineral complex and an omega-3 fatty acid supplement to help make up some of the essentials.

If you are considering taking a supplement it is best to discuss this with your GP or qualified healthcare professional.

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This article was last reviewed on 10 January 2024 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a BANT Registered Nutritionist® with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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