The best foods to eat for attention, memory and mental health

Your mind is hungry. In fact, it is the hungriest organ in your body. Although it makes up only about 2 percent of your total body weight, your brain consumes about 20 percent of your body’s total energy needs. But it is a mistake to think that the brain only needs energy to function well; A full range of micronutrients in adequate amounts is essential for brain health.

Evidence is mounting that a deficiency in these nutrients contributes to poor brain and mental health. Moreover, there is not a single point in life, from pregnancy to old age, where nutrition does not play an important role in brain structure and mental health.

For example, we know that it is important for women trying to conceive to take folic acid (a B vitamin) to prevent neural tube defect conditions such as spina bifida. Of course, it’s not just folic acid that the developing brain needs. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are the building blocks of brain cell membranes.

One of these fats, DHA, makes up between 10 and 20 percent of the brain’s total fatty acid content. DHA promotes healthy neuronal morphology and cell signaling, allowing brain cells to communicate efficiently. During pregnancy, the accumulation of DHA in the brain and retina is essential for proper brain development and visual function.

The body is not able to manufacture adequate amounts of DHA, so it must come from the diet. Fortunately, they’re abundant in seafood and oily fish like sardines, mackerel, salmon and trout, and one 140-gram serving of mackerel provides enough omega-3s for a week.

Thus, increased maternal consumption of seafood during pregnancy is associated with improved brain development and cognitive function in children, including better scores on assessments of verbal intelligence and fine motor control. Low omega-3 blood levels in children are associated with poorer behaviour, worse verbal learning, and poorer reading skills.

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In adults, high levels of DHA in the blood are associated with a lower risk of developing dementia, which is the leading cause of death in the UK. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the age-related deterioration in cognitive function that can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, the predominant form of dementia.

A randomized controlled trial of elderly individuals with mild cognitive impairment found that supplementing with B vitamins along with higher blood omega-3 levels resulted in a 40 percent slower rate of neuronal atrophy.

The protective effect of omega-3 intake on neurodegeneration is good news, but the bad news is that fish consumption in the UK is below recommended levels. Less than 5 per cent of UK children consume adequate amounts of oily fish.

Polyphenols are another class of nutrients with profound beneficial effects on brain function. Foods rich in polyphenols include tea, coffee, dark chocolate, berries, herbs, spices, and wine. In placebo-controlled trials, foods rich in polyphenols increased brain blood flow and enhanced performance on tests of attention, memory, and processing speed.

There is even good evidence that improved nutrition can support emotional well-being. A prominent Australian study showed that increasing fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and oily fish in the diet reduced the severity of depression.

But what about foods to avoid? There seems to be no good news for sugar-sweetened beverages. In healthy young adults, these drinks quickly increase signs of inflammation. In animal studies, it appears to impair hippocampal function, which has negative effects on learning and memory.

Human studies have shown that a typical Western diet can have negative effects on the brain within a week. So we should try to think of sweets, refined grains, fried foods, fast food, processed meats, and sugary drinks as “extra foods” or “fun foods” and limit their consumption.

In conclusion, your brain is hungry and you cannot just feed it, for the sake of children’s brain development and adult mental health, it is imperative that you do so.

The best brain food

© Anson Chan

Try to eat it every week to keep your gray matter healthy.

Raw unsalted nuts

One serving per day

oily fish

At least 140g serving per week

all grains

Five to six servings a day


Three to four classes a week

Berries (fresh or frozen)

Half a cup at least three times a week

green leafy vegetables

A small daily salad bowl

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