These are the best foods to support brain health, from salmon to strawberries

A large bowl of strawberries.
Eating strawberries at least once a week reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s by 34%, according to one study. (Getty Images)

Although there are some things we can’t control when it comes to our brain health, such as the fact that older age and being female top the risk factors for Alzheimer’s, it’s not all out of our hands. As Dr. Annie Fenn, physician, chef and author of The Brain Health Kitchen: Preventing Alzheimer’s Through Food, tells Yahoo Life: “What we eat really matters for brain health, both now and in the future. The Global Council on Brain Health even includes ‘eating right’ as one of the six pillars for brain health, along with social connection, mental stimulation, stress management, physical activity and good sleep.”

According to Fenn, the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet is a brain-specific spin-off of the Mediterranean diet created just for the purpose of seeing if it can lower Alzheimer’s risk — and it appears to be working. “Eating this way reduces the risk by as much as 53%,” she states.

Research shows that eating healthy fats, carotenoids (which give many fruits and vegetables their colorful hues), vitamin E and choline promotes cognitive and brain health and delays brain aging. On the flip side, experts recommend limiting foods high in saturated fat, like fried foods and processed meats, as well as those high in sugar, like sweetened beverages and candies. A small study found that higher sugar intake in older adults is linked to twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, with each 10% rise in calories from total sugar increasing dementia risk by about 40%.

Maggie Moon, a brain health nutrition specialist and author of the newly updated The MIND Diet: 2nd Edition, tells Yahoo Life, “Brain health is important at every age and stage, but when considering the risk of Alzheimer’s, the critical time to cement healthy habits is midlife since there are 15 to 20 years of silent brain changes before signs of Alzheimer’s are clinically detectable.”

Though the brain is only 2% of our body weight, it consumes 20% of our calories and oxygen, she adds. As the most complex part and control center of our body, eating foods that protect brain health should be a top priority, according to experts.

Here’s what experts say are the top seven foods that can help support your brain:

Strawberries are rich in flavonoids, anthocyanins and vitamin C — all of which provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. In a 2019 observational study, researchers found that eating strawberries at least once a week reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s by 34%.

Another study — this one a randomized clinical trial in the British Journal of Nutrition — discovered that healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 75 who consumed 2 cups of strawberries a day for 90 days improved learning and memory. “Two cups of any food may seem like a lot, but when you consider there are only eight medium strawberries per cup, you can imagine how easy it’d be to polish off 2 cups,” says Moon.

With strawberries peaking in ripeness during the summer, now is the perfect time to try adding them to your oatmeal, yogurt and salads, or simply enjoy them as a sweet snack. Moon recommends including a variety of berries to maximize the benefits from a wide range of protective phytonutrients.

The cold water fish is one of the best sources of marine-based omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which can help lower the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, according to the Cleveland Clinic. A 4 oz. serving of cooked salmon provides more than 1,000 milligrams of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, far exceeding both the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommendation of 250 milligrams a day of omega-3 fatty acids from seafood and the American Heart Association’s suggested 1,000 milligrams daily for heart health.

Salmon is also “a surprising source of antioxidant carotenoids, which have been linked to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions."

Moon adds that the FDA recommends salmon “as one of the top choices for minimizing exposure to mercury from fish that provide brain-healthy omega-3’s, vitamin B12, selenium, iron, zinc, iodine, choline, and lean protein too.” She also highlights Alaskan salmon as a sustainable option, especially in the summer. The American Heart Association recommends including two to three servings of fatty fish in your diet per week.

“The simple act of eating walnuts has the power to reduce oxidative stress, inflammation and other risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease,” says Moon. Walnuts are the best source of nuts for the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which protects the brain by repairing the blood-brain barrier — something that’s critical for keeping the brain healthy.

Just a quarter cup serving of walnuts provides 2.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids — exceeding the daily recommended amount — and is loaded with antioxidants, magnesium and B vitamins, all vital for brain health. “I toss them into smoothies, love them in salads with strawberries and arugula and can always count on them for a simple snack too,” notes Moon.

“Eggs are one of the best and more easily accessible food sources of choline,” says Amanda Sauceda, a dietitian and creator of the Mindful Gut approach. Choline is an essential nutrient that plays a role in the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that supports memory and brain health, especially in early brain development.

In the Offspring Cohort of the Framingham Heart Study, researchers found that in adults without dementia, consuming less than 215 to 219 milligrams of choline a day was associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and incident dementia, while those with higher intakes were linked to better cognitive and memory performance.

One large egg has 147 milligrams of choline. “Don’t skip eating the yolk because that is where most of the choline is,” advises Sauceda. According to the American Heart Association, one to two eggs a day can be part of a healthy diet.

Two large prospective studies deemed leafy greens as one of the best vegetables for brain health, and found that having one to two servings of leafy greens a day slowed older adults’ brain aging by 11 years compared to those who rarely or never ate leafy greens. Many of the nutrients found in leafy greens, including folate, beta-carotene, the carotenoid lutein and vitamin K (phylloquinone) have neuroprotective effects.

Keep in mind a serving of leafy greens is 2 cups raw or 1 cup when cooked. “Baby arugula is one of my favorites because it’s easy to toss into salads and cooked dishes, adds an exciting peppery flavor and is often found prewashed, which means there’s no reason not to grab a handful and add it to your next meal,” says Moon.

Eating higher amounts of whole grains, which includes barley, is linked with a lower risk of all-cause dementia and Alzheimer’s, per the Framingham Offspring Cohort study. Another study found that African Americans, comprising about 60% of the 3,326 study participants, who ate more than three servings of whole grains per day experienced slower global cognitive decline and improved episodic memory (the ability to form and recall memories of specific past events) — a key predictor of Alzheimer’s risk — compared to those who ate less than one serving a day.

Moon suggests adding barley to your diet for its pleasantly chewy texture and exceptional microbiome-boosting fiber, whether it’s whole or pearled. “That’s because fiber, which is generally in a grain’s outer bran layer, is actually found throughout the barley grain,” she explains. Try substituting rice with barley, adding it to your soups or tossing it into salads for extra carbohydrates, fiber and texture.

“A cup of green tea is an easy drink to sip on for better brain health,” says Sauceda. It’s packed with antioxidant polyphenols, including EGCG, which are neuroprotective, inhibit proteins linked to Alzehimer’s, and support a healthy gut-brain connection by promoting good gut bacteria. Green tea is also rich in the amino acids theanine and arginine, which research suggests can have stress-reducing effects and slow down the aging of the brain when consumed daily.

Consider drinking 1 to 3 cups of green tea a day to reap the benefits. While Moon recommends a matcha latte made with soy milk or a toasted brown rice green tea for flavor, she emphasizes that any green tea will offer brain health benefits.

Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board-certified health and wellness coach.