Can What You Eat Impact Your Brain? Harvard Health Says Yes.

Woman holding beautiful, healthy salad greens

As a plastic surgeon, my work naturally requires peak brain health, and I observe healthy habits to ensure I’m giving my best to each and every patient. Good sleep hygiene, regular exercise, and healthy eating are all key.

As such, I was interested to see Harvard Health’s survey of foods linked to better brainpower. The article provides a nice summary, but I wanted to delve deeper into the science behind the statements. The good news is there have been a fair number of studies showing how specific foods can affect both short-term cognitive performance and longer-term brain health. Here’s what I found.

Proven cognitive performance boosters

Hoping to boost your near-term cognitive performance? Here are a few proven options.

Walnuts have multifold benefits

If you’re looking for the perfect snack to keep at your desk, consider walnuts. A 2015 medical study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging found “significant, positive associations between walnut consumption and cognitive functions among all adults, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.”

They are also well-known as a healthy protein and have high levels of antioxidants. That’s not all: walnuts contain other compounds shown to have “notable antitumor activity” (which have even been used in the development of antitumor drugs).

Caffeine for “attention, concentration, and vigilance”

This won’t be news to most of you, but caffeine does indeed make you sharper. The good news is only a moderate amount is required, so tea-drinkers also experience benefits. A medical study released in 2014 notes that the “beneficial impact of moderate caffeine intake by habitual coffee consumption on cognitive performance is principally due to direct enhancement of attention, concentration, and vigilance.”

Furthermore, a Mendelian randomization-based study published in 2018 in the journal Nature concluded that moderate, long-term caffeine consumption does not have negative effects on cognitive health.

Foods to support long-term brain health

While performing well at daily tasks is a worthy goal, thinking about the long game can benefit us as we age.

Green, leafy vegetables can help you be 11 years younger (!) cognitively

The National Institute on Aging recently highlighted the impressive benefits of consuming at least one serving of leafy greens per day. Remarkably, increased greens intake helped 80+-year-olds perform like people 11 years younger on cognitive tests when compared with cohorts who did not eat their greens.

Increased greens intake helped 80+-year-olds perform like people 11 years younger on cognitive tests.

The 2017 study, published in the journal Neurology, had “adjusted for age, sex, education, participation in cognitive activities, physical activities, smoking, and seafood and alcohol consumption” to be sure it was indeed the leafy greens providing the benefits. They noted beneficial nutrients available in leafy greens include phylloquinone, lutein, nitrate, folate, α-tocopherol, and kaempferol.

Omega 3 fatty acids—available in foods including fatty fish, flaxseeds, avocados, and walnuts—support the brain

Fatty fish have long been thought of as “brain food,” and a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine showed that having baked or broiled fish once per week was “positively associated with gray matter volumes.” A 2016 JAMA study reinforced the idea, stating that “moderate seafood consumption was correlated with lesser Alzheimer disease neuropathology.”

It is interesting to note that Omega 3 supplements were not necessarily proven to help with cognitive decline and, in fact, lower doses of these supplements were more likely to be associated with positive benefits. As such, food sources are likely the best way to boost your intake of Omega 3 fatty acids.


Thanks to being high in flavonoids, berries have excellent antioxidant properties and provide a number of significant nutritional benefits. A 2012 study published in the Annals of Neurology concluded that “higher intake of flavonoids, particularly from berries, appears to reduce rates of cognitive decline in older adults.” Furthermore, this 2014 study published in the journal Neural Regeneration Research notes “nutritional interventions rich in phytochemicals such as berry fruits may be a valuable asset in preventing against aging by reducing or delaying the development of age-related neurodegenerative diseases.”

The study also noted additional benefits conferred by specific types of berries. For instance, did you know blackberries can help normalize cholesterol and blueberries can inhibit inflammation?

Want to eat for brain health? Follow the science for proven benefits

While “brain food” is not a new concept, and overall healthy eating is important, it’s helpful to know which foods truly are effective when it comes to supporting our gray matter. I hope you’ve found this summary useful.

If you’d like to look youthful in addition to maintaining a sharp mind, feel free to contact me at Hess Plastic Surgery. I’d be glad to help you design a plan to address visible signs of aging.

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