Are you curious about how what you eat impacts your brainpower? Then you’ve come to the right place! Here we explore the best and worst foods for memory and your brain, and the science behind how they work.
From scrumptious superfoods that can help you remember where you left your keys to not-so-tasty culprits that might cause you to forget your own name, we’ve got it all covered. So, settle in and get ready to discover how to improve memory function.
Let’s get going!
The 10 Worst Foods for Memory
If you’ve ever felt an initial spike of energy followed by a brain fog-inducing crash after a sugary snack, you’re not alone! Sugar is one of the worst foods for your brain (and for the rest of you too!).
When we eat a lot of sugar, our blood sugar levels spike, prompting our bodies to produce a hormone called insulin. Too much insulin can cause inflammation in the body and brain, impairing our brain’s ability to form and store memories.
Consuming a lot of sugar over time can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can cause memory loss and impair cognitive function and learning ability. People with type 2 diabetes (a hallmark of insulin resistance) have a 50% increased risk of dementia (1) according to one study.
High sugar consumption has been linked to cognitive decline and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease (2). Women may be especially at risk. A recent study in Nutrition Neuroscience found that excessive sugar intake is significantly associated with increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (3).
Pro-tip: To keep your memory sharp, cut back on the sweets and opt for some brain-boosting power foods instead!
Processed Foods (Including Fast Food)
Ah, processed foods- they may be convenient, but are they really worth it when it comes to our brain health? Unfortunately, processed foods may significantly impact cognitive function and memory, and not in a good way.
Many processed foods are high in unhealthy fats, sodium, and sugar, which all contribute to inflammation in the body. Inflammation can create oxidative stress, a condition where there are too many harmful free-radicals causing damage to your cells and DNA.
Free radicals are unstable molecules linked to aging and disease. When they harm our brain cells, it can impair our ability to form and retrieve memories.
Brain inflammation (also called neuroinflammation) may occur when your immune system responds to harmful substances, such as pathogens (disease-causing organisms) or toxins. Your body may see the additives in processed foods as toxic, thus triggering an immune response and inflammation (4).
Pro-tip: To keep your brain sharp, limit your intake of processed foods and focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods instead. Your brain (and the rest of your body) will thank you!
A social beverage enjoyed by many, alcohol consumed in moderation may have some modest health benefits. But when it comes to alcohol, it is definitely possible to have too much of a good thing.
Excessive alcohol consumption can be quite harmful, especially to your brain. Alcohol is a neurotoxin, which means that it can damage brain cells and interfere with the brain’s ability to form and retrieve memories. Alcohol also interferes with the brain’s neurotransmitters, chemical messengers responsible for transmitting messages between brain cells.
Consuming excess alcohol can cause inflammation in the brain, which may damage brain cells and increase your risk of cognitive decline. Chronic brain inflammation can lead to the development of neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease (5,6).
A study looking at 36,678 healthy middle-aged and older adults found that even moderate drinking (1-2 drinks a day) is associated with brain shrinkage and impaired connectivity within the brain. These effects become stronger as the alcohol intake increases (7).
Pro-tip: While a glass of wine or a beer every now and then is probably okay, it’s best to avoid daily or excessive drinking if you want to keep your brain functioning at its best. Cheers to a healthy brain!
These not-so-healthy fats are often found in processed and fried foods. Unfortunately, they’re not just bad for our waistlines – they’re bad for our brains, too!
Trans fats are primarily found in partially hydrogenated oils, which are used in many processed foods to increase their shelf life and improve their texture. It’s important to note that many countries (but not the US) have banned the use of trans fats in food production due to their harmful health effects.
When we consume trans fats, they can build up in our cell membranes and interfere with normal cellular function. High levels of trans fats in the diet can lead to inflammation in the brain, which can damage brain cells and impair cognitive function.
Some studies have linked trans fats to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia (8). However, the data is limited and more studies are needed to fully understand the impact of trans fats on brain health.
When it comes to optimizing brain health and memory, it’s best to play it safe and avoid foods that are high in trans fats and opt for healthier fats like those found in nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados.
Pro-tip: Read the nutrition label and ingredients list when purchasing packaged foods to ensure that they don’t contain trans fats.
Fried Foods (Including French Fries)
Fried foods – they’re crispy, crunchy, and oh so delicious, but unfortunately they’re not doing our brains any favors. French fries and other fried foods are often high in unhealthy fats and can negatively impact memory and cognitive function.
Fried foods are typically cooked in oils that are high in saturated and trans fats. These fats can cause inflammation in the brain and negatively impact memory and cognitive function. Fried foods such as French fries are also high in acrylamide, a chemical that forms when starchy foods are cooked at high temperatures.
Acrylamide may impair long term learning and memory and is associated with lower cognitive function in older adults (9).
Moreover, eating r fried foods can contribute to the development of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, which further increase the risk of cognitive decline.
To keep your brain functioning optimally, it’s best to limit your intake of fried foods and focus on healthier, whole-food options instead.
Soda, the sweet, bubbly beverage that many people love, has a deep, dark side.
Like other sweet drinks, soda is high in sugar, which can lead to insulin resistance and inflammation in the body. Inflammation can then lead to oxidative stress, which can damage brain cells and impair our ability to form and retrieve memories (10,11).
Plus, many soft drinks are also high in caffeine, which can interfere with our sleep and further contribute to memory problems (12). Too much caffeine can lead to dehydration, which may cause headaches, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating, which can affect memory.
Caffeine in moderation, however, can help with focus and attention. So finding the right balance for you is essential. Choosing a caffeine source with health benefits (think coffee or tea) is a better choice than soda.
Pro-tip: Limit your intake of soda (or even better, skip it altogether) and opt for healthier hydrating options like water or herbal tea instead.
White Bread and White Pasta
White bread and pasta are made from refined grains, a carbohydrate that has been stripped of many nutrients and fiber. A diet high in refined carbohydrates has been linked to chronic inflammation. This may damage brain cells and impair cognitive function over time (13, 14).
Refined carbohydrates are quickly broken down into glucose, which can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. This spike is often followed by a crash, which can lead to fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and impaired memory.
Consuming refined carbohydrates can lead to insulin resistance and interfere with the brain’s ability to use glucose effectively. This can lead to memory impairment and cognitive decline.
Furthermore, a diet high in refined carbohydrates can alter the balance of bacteria in the gut (microbiome) because it doesn’t support the “good” bacteria. Studies show that a healthy microbiome can help protect against cognitive impairment and memory problems (15).
Pro-tip: Opt for whole grain breads and pastas that are rich in nutrients and fiber. Your brain (and your taste buds) will thank you!
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
You know those sugary cereals and commercially-made baked goods that we all love? Chances are they are loaded with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Unfortunately, consuming too much of this sweetener can have some pretty bad effects on your brain.
HFCS is high in fructose, which can lead to inflammation and insulin resistance in the body. And when your brain is inflamed, it can then cause oxidative stress, which may contribute to cognitive decline.
HFCS is often found in breakfast cereals, baked goods, flavored yogurt, and sugary beverages. HFCS can lead to weight gain and diabetes, which are also linked to an increased risk of dementia.
Pro-tip: Choose healthier foods with natural sweeteners including honey, maple syrup, monk fruit (my personal favorite!), or stevia.
A delicious source of protein, red meat can be part of a healthy diet. But it turns out that consuming too much of it is not good for our brains.
Studies have linked a diet high in red and processed meat to an increased risk of dementia (18,19). This may be because red meat is high in saturated fat, which can lead to inflammation in the body, ultimately damaging brain cells and impairing cognitive function.
Some studies suggest that red meat may contain a Neu5Gc, a sugar molecule that humans do not produce naturally. When we consume red meat, our immune system can react to Neu5Gc, causing inflammation and even promoting cancer growth (20).
Cooking red meat at high temperatures can produce advanced glycation end products (aptly called AGEs). These harmful compounds promote inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. AGEs may contribute to the buildup of amyloid beta proteins in the brain – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease (21, 22).
Pasture-raised Red Meat
Okay, so we know that consuming too much red meat can have some negative effects on our brain health. But what about pasture-raised red meat? Is it any better?
There may be some benefits to choosing pasture-raised red meat over conventionally raised meat. Pasture-raised animals are allowed to graze freely in open fields, which means that they are able to eat a more varied diet and get more exercise. Often this meat is lower in saturated fat, the type of fat that can contribute to inflammation.
Plus, pasture-raised meat is often free from antibiotics and hormones that are commonly used in conventionally raised meat. Antibiotics and hormones in meat may contribute to inflammation.
Of course, it’s still important to consume red meat in moderation, even if it is pasture-raised. But if you do choose to eat red meat, opting for pasture-raised options can be a healthier choice.
Maybe you’ve decided to give up sugar and switch to artificial sweeteners to help you lose weight or manage diabetes – but did you know that consuming too much of these sweeteners could actually be bad news for your brain?
Studies have linked the consumption of artificial sweeteners to an increased risk of neurodegenerative conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (23). This may be because some artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, contain compounds that can lead to the buildup of amyloid beta proteins in the brain – the same proteins that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Plus, artificial sweeteners can also disrupt the balance of healthy bacteria in our gut, which can then lead to inflammation in the body (24). Inflammation is one of the major contributors to neurodegenerative conditions, as it can cause oxidative stress and damage brain cells.
Some studies have suggested a possible link between artificial sweeteners in diet soda and memory problems. A 2017 study published in the journal Stroke found that people who consumed at least one diet drink per day had almost three times the risk of developing dementia or stroke compared to those who consumed less than one diet drink per week (25). However, this study was observational, meaning it cannot prove cause and effect, and it did not specifically look at the effects of artificial sweeteners on memory.
Overall, more research is needed to fully understand the potential effects of artificial sweeteners on memory and cognitive decline. While some studies suggest a possible link, others have found no significant association.
The 11 Best Foods for Memory
Blueberries are often referred to as a “superfood” because they are packed with antioxidants and other nutrients with a wide variety of health benefits.
The antioxidants found in blueberries, such as anthocyanins and flavonoids, may help improve memory and cognitive function by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. One comprehensive review of 11 studies found that consuming blueberries on a regular basis may improve memory and executive function, which is the ability to plan, focus, and juggle multiple tasks (26).
Additionally, the flavonoids in blueberries may increase blood flow to the brain and help improve communication between brain cells (27). This is important because as we age, communication between brain cells can become less efficient, which may contribute to cognitive decline.
Pro-tip: Add blueberries to oatmeal, yogurt or smoothies to boost brain power.
Fatty fish is often recommended as part of a healthy diet because it’s a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids have been linked to a variety of health benefits, including improved brain health. They are found primarily in fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, as well as in certain plant sources like flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Omega-3 fatty acids help build cell membranes in brain cells, improve blood flow to the brain, and enhance memory (28).
The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of omega-3 fats reduce inflammation in the brain and damage caused by harmful molecules called free radicals. This can help prevent the death of brain cells and protect against cognitive decline.
Pro-tip: Don’t like the taste of fish? Consider a fish oil supplement.
Pro-tip: Are you vegan or concerned about the sustainability of fish? Consider algae oil as a plant-based, sustainable option.
Green Leafy Vegetables
Leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and arugula, are packed with nutrients that are important for brain health. Several studies have suggested that consuming leafy greens may help prevent cognitive decline and improve memory. For example, one study found that older adults who ate one serving of leafy greens per day had the cognitive ability of someone 11 years younger than those who rarely or never ate leafy greens (29).
Additionally, leafy greens are a good source of vitamin K, which is important for cognitive function. Vitamin K helps build and maintain the fatty membranes that surround brain cells, and it also helps activate proteins that are involved in brain cell communication.
Leafy greens are also a good source of folate, which is a B vitamin that helps produce and maintain new cells in the brain. Folate also helps regulate the levels of an amino acid called homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine have been linked to cognitive decline, so getting enough folate is important for brain health.
Finally, leafy greens are a great source of dietary nitrates, which have been shown to improve blood flow to the brain. Improved blood flow can help provide the brain with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function properly.
Overall, adding more leafy greens to your diet is a simple and delicious way to potentially improve your brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. So, next time you’re at the grocery store, consider picking up some spinach or kale and give your brain a boost!
Pro-tip: throw some leafy greens into a smoothie for a delicious morning brain boost.
Nuts are a good source of healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids. These fats support brain structure, and may reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which can contribute to cognitive decline.
Omega-3 fats, polyphenols and other antioxidants in nuts help protect brain cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals can cause oxidative stress, which may cause cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
Polyphenols also help improve blood flow and thus may promote blood flow to the brain (32).
Pro-tip: Add nuts to oatmeal, salads, and yogurt or spread nut butter on toast or apples.
Pro-tip: Mix it up! Each type of nut offers unique benefits, so cover your bases by eating a variety of nuts.
Eggs are a popular breakfast food that can be scrambled, boiled, or baked and may be paired with a variety of vegetables and other healthy ingredients.
Egg yolks contain choline, a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in memory and learning. Dietary choline intake has been shown to help protect against cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease in older adults (33, 34).
Older adults who consumed 1-3 eggs a week had an 18% decrease in risk of cognitive impairment (35).
Pro-tip: If you don’t like eggs, or are allergic, choose these foods rich in choline: liver, beef, fish, poultry, and soybeans. Choline supplements are also available.
Avocado is a popular fruit that is known for its creamy texture and delicious flavor.
Several studies have suggested that consuming avocado may help improve memory and support brain health. One study looked at over 2800 people aged 60 and over and found that people who consume avocado or guacamole have better cognition than those that do not eat avocados (36). Another study found avocado consumers had improved attention and efficiency in problem solving (37).
Avocados are a good source of healthy fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats are important for brain health, as they help build and maintain the membranes that surround brain cells. Consuming healthy fats may help reduce inflammation in the brain, which may reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
Avocados are also a good source of vitamin E, which is an antioxidant that can help protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals. Antioxidants help neutralize these free radicals, reducing the risk of damage.
Finally, avocados are a great source of dietary fiber, which can help regulate blood sugar levels and support overall brain health. Additionally, they are also a good source of potassium, which can help improve blood flow to the brain.
Pro-tip: Add avocado to salads, smoothies, or sandwiches. They are also delicious drizzled with olive oil and a dash of sea salt and pepper.
Dark chocolate is not only delicious, but it’s brain-healthy too!
Rich in substances called flavanols, dark chocolate been shown to improve cognitive function. Flavanols have been linked to improved memory and learning, as well as a reduced risk of dementia. Additionally, flavanols may improve blood flow to the brain, which can also help support cognitive function (38).
Dark chocolate may also help improve mood, which can indirectly support brain health (39). Eating chocolate can trigger the release of endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that help improve mood and reduce stress.
Pro-tip: Look for chocolate that has a cocoa content of at least 70% for the most benefit.
Pro-tip: Enjoy a square or two of dark chocolate or drizzle on strawberries for dessert. Dark chocolate chips may be added to a nut mix for a delicious and brain-boosting treat.
Turmeric or Curry
The spices turmeric and curry both contain curcumin, a compound that can improve cognitive function and enhance memory.
Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. Inflammation and oxidative stress are two factors that can contribute to cognitive decline, so curcumin’s ability to reduce inflammation and neutralize free radicals can help protect the brain from damage.
Additionally, curcumin has been shown to increase the levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is important for the formation of new connections between brain cells. Low levels of BDNF have been linked to cognitive decline, so increasing BDNF levels may help protect against cognitive diseases (40,41).
Finally, curcumin has also been shown to improve memory and attention in some studies. It has been suggested that curcumin may help improve blood flow to the brain, which can improve cognitive function (42).
Pro-tip: Next time you’re cooking up a curry or other dish that calls for turmeric, consider adding a little extra and give your brain a boost!
Pro-tip: Add turmeric to your morning eggs for a double-boost in brain power.
Green tea contains a group of compounds called catechins, which are powerful antioxidants that can help protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals. Regular consumption of green tea may help improve mood, memory and cognitive function (43). Additionally, the predominant catechin in green tea (epigallocatechin-3-gallate or EGCG) has been shown to help reduce the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, which are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease (44).
Green tea contains a small amount of caffeine, which can help improve focus and concentration. However, green tea also contains an amino acid called L-theanine, which can help promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. The combination of caffeine and L-theanine may help improve cognitive function without causing the jittery side effects that can be associated with caffeine alone (45).
Finally, green tea has also been shown to have a calming effect on the brain. Some studies have suggested that green tea may help reduce stress and anxiety, which can indirectly support brain health.
Pro-tip: While all green tea is beneficial, matcha green tea is higher in bioactive compounds than regular green tea.
Whole grains contain complex carbohydrates (as opposed to the refined carbohydrates in white bread and pasta). Complex carbohydrates are broken down slowly by the body and provide a steady source of energy. This can help regulate blood sugar levels and provide a steady supply of glucose to the brain, which is the brain’s primary source of energy.
Whole grains are a good source of phytochemicals, which are plant compounds that have been shown to have cognitive benefits. For example, whole grains contain phenolic acids, which have been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can help protect the brain from damage (46).
Pro-tip: Add whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal to your diet to enhance cognitive function and improve memory.
Tart Cherries/Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherries are high in antioxidants, including anthocyanins and polyphenols. These antioxidants help to reduce inflammation in the brain, thus helping to prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (47).
Consuming tart cherry juice can improve cognitive function, including memory and reaction time, in middle-aged and older adults (48, 49). This may be due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of tart cherries.
Tart cherries are a natural source of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. Consuming tart cherry juice has been found to improve sleep quality and duration, which can benefit overall brain health (50).
Pro-tip: Tart cherry juice is a great way to gain the benefits of tart cherries. Unlike many other juices, tart cherry juice has a relatively low glycemic index. This means it is less likely to cause blood sugar spikes.
Here’s some important information you won’t want to forget- your diet significantly impacts your memory and overall brain health!
By being mindful of what you eat, and incorporating foods that are packed with antioxidants, healthy fats, and other key nutrients, you will help your brain stay sharp and your memories remain intact.
Pam is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Master’s of Public Health and a Certificate in Integrative and Functional Nutrition. Passionate about the science of health and nutrition, she loves to share her knowledge to help others live healthy, vibrant lives. When not working, Pam can be found hiking, traveling, and enjoying great-tasting, nutritious food.