Any marathon runner, CrossFit devotee, or Spartan Racer can tell you that your mental game is just as important as your physical strength and your diet. Fortunately, you can plan out your nutrition to keep your mind sharp, improve your focus, and build muscle. Research has shown that these seven foods have mental benefits, particularly helping with help with cognition. Incorporating them into your training diet can keep your mind focused when your muscles start to fail. Plus, they taste good, have plenty of nutritional benefits, and are easy to incorporate into your everyday routine.
It’s pretty well-known that eating fatty fish like salmon gives your brain a boost. “Salmon is one of the richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are shown to improve brain health,” says Kristen Smith, M.S., R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines suggest eating fish at least twice a week, and many Americans fall short on this recommendation. Besides the cognitive benefits, fish is a fantastic source of protein, so it will help you hit your macros. Try adding salmon to your breakfast—it’s great with a side of eggs. Or top your lunchtime salad with some shredded salmon.
Whereas people used to fear eggs for their cholesterol content, eggs are now recognized as a healthy part of any diet. Eggs are a good source of protein, they’re easy to eat, and they have an important nutrient: choline. “Consuming choline helps to create a brain chemical called acetylcholine, which is important for many brain and nervous system functions,” says Smith. Nearly 90% of Americans don’t eat the recommended 550 milligrams of choline per day, according to recent research, but one egg offers about 20% of the daily recommended intake.
Eggs are good sources of B vitamins (B6 and B12), both of which work collectively towards healthy brain function, adds Mascha Davis, M.P.H., R.D.N., owner of Nomadista Nutrition and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Adding eggs to your diet isn’t difficult; you can go with the classic scramble or hard-boil them and eat as a snack. For something a little different, fry an egg in heart-healthy olive oil and add it to a sandwich.
Everyone should be eating their greens for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest factors is brain health. Eating just one serving of leafy greens per day may slow natural, age-related cognitive decline by up to 11 years, a recent studyfound. “The powerhouse of nutrients in green leafy vegetables, such as lutein and vitamin K, may help explain the brain health benefits,” says Smith. Make dark leafy greens the base of your salad, add them to stir-fry or blend them into a smoothie to reap the brain benefits.
Turmeric is the golden yellow spice that gives curry dishes their vibrant color. Most turmeric research focuses on the supplemental version of turmeric’s active compound, curcumin.
“Turmeric has been shown to have an antioxidant effect beneficial for brain function when combined with black pepper [which enhances its potency],” says Davis. Supplementing with curcumin twice a day for 18 months could lead to significant boosts in memory and attention, one studydemonstrated. Turmeric has a peppery taste, and goes well in everything from meat marinades to scrambled eggs.
You probably don’t need another reason to eat almond butter, but we’re going to give you one anyway. Eating more nuts is related to better cognition in older adults, research has shown. Plus, walnuts in particular have polyphenic (plant nutrient) compounds that reduce inflammation in the brain. Eating more nuts is as simple as snacking them throughout the day, adding them to a salad, or using crushed pistachios or almonds to crust a piece of fish.
Are you seeing a trend here? Foods high in “good” unsaturated fat, like avocados, are great for brain health. “Avocados are rich in beneficial fats and vitamin E, both of which have been associated with lowering the risk of brain function decline,” says Davis. People who consumed one avocado per day for six months experienced significant improvements in cognition and memory, recent research found. Plus, avocados contribute 20 vitamins and minerals to your diet. For a more traditional take on avocados, add them to toast with a drizzle of lime and salt. If you’re doing a low-carb diet, top an avocado with an egg and a drizzle of Tabasco.
This tangy cultured milk product tastes like a drinkable plain yogurt, and it’s loaded with probiotics. Scientists believe that probiotics in the gut may help slow cognitive declines. Furthermore, research in Alzheimer’s patients indicates that adding probiotics to the diet positively affects cognitive function. While the research is still early, you should still consider adding kefir to your diet. It’s a good source of protein and calcium—both of which help with joint health—and you can easily blend it into a smoothie or add it to your yogurt.