If you are looking for healthy options you can eat at work or include in your employee wellness program's nutrition initiatives, here's a list of 9 healthy brain food snacks:
1. Egg sandwich with cheese and greens made with whole wheat bread
2. An omelet with some salad and whole wheat bread
3. Some peanuts or walnuts and some dried berries, prunes or a kiwi, an apple or plums
4. A sandwich with whole-grain bread, fish fillet, and greens
5. A salad with fish fillet and peanuts and dried berries and corn
6. A sandwich with whole-grain bread, soya or regular cheese, and greens
7. Yogurt with walnuts and apple, plums, or berries
8. Milk with oats and dried berries
9. Yogurt with whole wheat brans and apple or prunes or dried/ fresh berries
Now, let's see what science says about brain foods.
The brain, the spinal cord, and the neurons comprise the nervous system. The brain controls thoughts, memory, emotion, senses, and every process that regulates our body. Τhe brain sends and receives chemical signals (neurotransmitters) throughout the body with the help of the spinal cord and millions of neurons responsible for transferring the messages.
What are brain foods?
It's now evident that nutrition can influence the structure, function development, and health of the brain and maintain brain health in aging. Nutrients found in foods are used for energy or as building blocks for the brain to create and maintain connections or protect brain cells from damage, supporting its primary function to send and receive messages.
The brain uses carbohydrates for energy and omega-3 fatty acids for forming the cell structure. B vitamins are also crucial for brain function. In combination with folic acid, vitamins B6 and B12 contribute to manufacturing and releasing chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters. In this procedure, calcium also contributes by helping electrical signals circulate down axons in neurons. In addition, foods rich in antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamin C and vitamin E, and beta-carotene, help protect brain cells from free-radical damage caused by environmental pollution.
All the above have formed the basis for “brain foods,” foods that can help optimize mental performance.
1. Fruits, vegetables, soy and soy products, green tea, cocoa
Many studies have recently evaluated the possible beneficial effects of polyphenols on brain health. Polyphenols are abundant micronutrients in plant-derived foods and are powerful antioxidants.
Polyphenols have been reported to exert their neuroprotective actions through the potential to protect neurons against injury induced by neurotoxins, an ability to suppress neuroinflammation, and the potential to promote memory, learning, and cognitive function.
The largest group of polyphenols is flavonoids. Accumulating evidence suggests that dietary flavonoids are associated with better human memory and cognitive performance due to their ability to protect vulnerable neurons, enhance existing neuronal function, and stimulate neuronal regeneration.
There are six dietary groups of flavonoids: flavones, which are found in parsley and celery; flavanones/flavanonols, which are mainly found in citrus fruit, herbs (oregano), and wine; isoflavones, which are primarily found in soy and soy products; flavonols, which are found in onions, leeks, and broccoli; flavonols, which are abundant in green tea, red wine, and cocoa; anthocyanidins, whose sources include red wine and berry fruits. The non-flavonoid group of polyphenols may be separated into two different classes: the phenolic acids and the stilbenes. Caffeic acid is generally the most abundant phenolic acid and is mainly found in blueberries, kiwis, plums, and apples. Resveratrol, the main stilbene, can be found in grapes and wine.
Lipids consist of building material for the human brain. About half of them are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), either arachidonic acid (n-6 fatty acid) or DHA (n-3 fatty acid). They are essential for supporting intercellular signaling events and positively influence synaptic function. In contrast, DHA regulates the function of the glutamatergic synapses related to plasticity and cognitive ability, improves neuronal differentiation, and influences gene expression in the brain.
Eggs are naturally rich in vitamins B2, B12, D, A, folate, and choline found in the egg yolk. As mentioned above, vitamins B and folate are crucial for brain function. They participate in the formulation and release of neurotransmitters, the messages sent and received by the brain. Vitamin D has also been linked to better brain function as it is responsible for calcium absorption.
Peanuts are a good source of choline and resveratrol (a polyphenol). Choline is a nutrient required for the normal development of the brain, the maintenance of the structural integrity of its membranes, and the modulation of cholinergic neurotransmission.
Studies in humans have shown an association between walnut consumption with better cognitive performance and improved memory in adults. Walnuts have a high content of antioxidants, including flavonoids, phenolic acid, melatonin, folate, vitamin E, selenium, etc. In addition, walnuts contain a high amount of ALA, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid with a highly potent anti-inflammatory effect, and magnesium (11% daily value), supplementation of which has been shown to improve learning and memory.
6. Whole grain products
Grains are the seeds of cereals (e.g., wheat, rye, barley). Whole grain kernels have all three parts of the seeds, namely bran (outer shell), endosperm (middle layer of the grain), and germ (inner layer). Grains can be rolled, crushed, or cracked. However, if all these three parts are present in their original proportion, they’re considered whole grains. Whole grain products consist of whole grains, such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta or bread, corn, quinoa, and oats. Whole grain products are high in B vitamins. Also, cereals are rich in carbohydrates, an energy source for the brain.
Calcium helps the message (electrical signals) be transferred from one neuron to the other, thus reaching the whole body by triggering synaptic terminals to dump their cargo of neurotransmitters into synapses (the space between two neurons). Dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt) is the primary dietary source of calcium. Other good sources are sesame seeds and broccoli.
Water, hydration, and brain health
Water accounts for about 60–70% of human body weight and 75% of brain mass. As it contributes to many body functions, humans need to maintain the balance of their input and output. When the water input is less than the output, people may be dehydrated.
Among other adverse effects, dehydration may also affect cognitive performance. Even though there are limited research data, some show that dehydration can impair cognitive performance in terms of short-term memory, vigilance attention, choice reaction, or working memory.
Originally published March 29, 2022 - 10:32 AM, updated June 17, 2022
- Arab L, Ang A. A cross-sectional study of the association between walnut consumption and cognitive function among adult US populations represented in NHANES. J. Nutr. Health Aging. 2015;19:284–290.
- Bekdash RA. Choline and the Brain: An Epigenetic Perspective. Adv Neurobiol 2016;12:381-99.
- Cian C, Barraud PA, Melin B, Raphel C. Effects of fluid ingestion on cognitive function after heat stress or exercise-induced dehydration. Int. J. Psychophysiol 2001;42:243–251.
- D’Anci K.E., Vibhakar A., Kanter J.H., Mahoney C.R., Taylor H.A. Voluntary dehydration and cognitive performance in trained college athletes. Percept. Mot. Skills 2009;109:251–269.
Ganio M.S., Armstrong L.E., Casa D.J., McDermott B.P., Lee E.C., Yamamoto L.M., Marzano S., Lopez R.M., Jimenez L., Le Bellego L., et al. Mild dehydration impairs cognitive performance and mood of men. British Journal of Nutrition 2011;106:1535–1543.
- Jequier E., Constant F. Water as an essential nutrient: The physiological basis of hydration. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2010;64:115–123.
- Kitajima K, Sinclair AJ, Weisinger RS, et al. Effects of dietary omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on brain gene expression. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2004;101:10931–10936.
- Langelier B, Linard A, Bordat C, et al. Long chain-polyunsaturated fatty acids modulate membrane phospholipid composition and protein localization in lipid rafts of neural stem cell cultures. J Cell Biochem 2010;110:1356–1364.
- Nurk E, Refsum H, Drevon C, et al. Intake of flavonoid-rich wine, tea, and chocolate by elderly men and women is associated with better cognitive test performance. Journal of Nutrition 2009;139:120–127.
- O’Brien J., Okereke O., Devore E., Rosner B., Breteler M., Grodstein F. Long-term intake of nuts about cognitive function in older women. The Journal of nutrition health and aging. 2014;18:496–502.
- Pivarnik J.M., Palmer R.A. Nutrition in Exercise and Sport. CRC Press; Boca Raton, FL, USA: 1994. Water and electrolyte balance during rest and exercise; pp. 245–262.
- Pribis P., Bailey R.N., Russell A.A., Kilsby M.A., Hernandez M., Craig W.J., Grajales T., Shavlik D.J., Sabate J. Effects of walnut consumption on cognitive performance in young adults. British Journal of Nutrition 2012;107:1393–1401.
- Shukitt-Hale B, Lau FC, Carey AN, et al. Blueberry polyphenols attenuate kainic acid-induced decrements in cognition and alter inflammatory gene expression in rat hippocampus. Nutr Neurosci 2008;11(4):172–182.
- Slutsky I, Abumaria N, Wu LJ, et al. Enhancement of learning and memory by elevating brain magnesium. Neuron 2010;65:165–177.
- Su HM. Mechanisms of n-3 fatty acid-mediated development and maintenance of learning memory performance. J Nutr Biochem 2010;21:364–373.
- Valls-Pedret C, Sala-Vila A, Serra-Mir M, et al. Mediterranean diet and age-related cognitive decline: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Internal Medicine 2015;175:1094–1103.
- Vauzour D. Dietary polyphenols as modulators of brain functions: biological actions and molecular mechanisms underpinning their beneficial effects. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity 2012.