What are brain foods? Brain foods are largely considered foods that can help stimulate an ideal amount of cognitive functioning within the inter-workings of the brain. A great example of a food that can help improve brain functioning is salmon. Salmon is a type of oily fish that contains omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) which in turn help with mental performance and mood. When looking at foods, in order to determine whether they are good for the brain, it is important to determine which foods are thought to help brain cells operate at a peak level of functioning.
Eating fresh wild salmon is just one particular example of what qualifies as a “brain food.” There are many different foods that are great for your brain. To put them in the form of “ranking” or hierarchy would be wrong because each food has specific nutrients that the others may not contain. If we are talking scientifically, most of the best brain foods are considered “complex carbohydrates” which include things like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Complex carbohydrates aren’t broken down or “processed” by our body as quickly and they allow for our brain to utilize their nutrients over a lengthier period of time. Simple carbohydrates like cupcakes on the other hand would result in the brain to “binge” then “crash and burn.” Below is a list of over 80 foods that you can include in your diet to help improve cognitive functioning. It is important to understand that various high protein, lower carbohydrate foods can also be extremely beneficial for mental performance.
Best Brain Foods List
- All-bran cereal
- Baked beans
- Brewer’s yeast
- Brown bread
- Brown rice
- Brussels Sprouts
- Collard greens
- Dark chocolate
- Dill Pickles
- Dried Apricots
- Garbanzo beans
- Granary bread
- Kidney beans
- Lean beef
- Multi-grain bread
- Navy beans
- Oat bran bread
- Oat bran cereal
- Peanut butter (natural)
- Pinto beans
- Porridge oats
- Pumpernickel bread
- Pumpkin seeds
- Read meat
- Shredded wheat
- Skim milk
- Soy milk
- Split peas
- Turnip greens
- Whole barley
- Whole grains
- Wild rice
Why are these considered good brain foods?
The best answer is that they are all considered to be either “complex carbohydrates” or “high proteins” that contain essential amino acids, or substances that cannot be obtained through other foods. For example, most leafy vegetables aren’t going to be able to provide us with Omega-3 fatty acids – an important amino acid found in fish. On the same token, eggs provide us with choline, a substance that cannot be obtained from many other foods.
When examining the structure of complex carbohydrates, you will see that they have a longer molecular structure. Due to this lengthier structure of molecules, it takes our intestines a longer period of time to digest and fully “break-down” these foods into simple sugars for our body to use. This longer digestion process is ideal because it provides our brains with steady, consistent, and stabilized energy over a period of time. Simple carbohydrates basically give our brain energy for a short period of time, and then we experience a “crash.” This is not ideal.
Considering the glycemic index (G.I.) and foods
The glycemic index (G.I.) ranks foods on a scale of 1 to 100 based on how they impact our blood-sugar levels. Foods that are ranked with a higher number on the index cause our bodies to create more overall insulin. Foods that are ranked lower, obviously cause our bodies to create less insulin. This index is especially important when it comes to diabetics, but foods listed with a high glycemic index rating can also affect your brain functioning.
When you eat foods that are ranked high on the glycemic-index, these could affect your body, brain, as well as hormones. These put a huge strain on the pancreas and this in turn can cause your body to feel “stressed” or totally zapped of energy. This is why people who eat unhealthy may complain that they don’t have much energy. Foods high on this index cause our body and brain to get flooded with a surge of energy via insulin spike, but then everything crashes.
By giving your brain “complex carbohydrates,” the body doesn’t need to compensate with an insulin spike. Instead your blood sugar levels remain pretty steady and your brain is given a constant, stable supply of energy. In other words, these foods are less likely to cause psychological “burn out.”
Glycemic Index: Brain Food Examples
Keep in mind that these are foods being listed that are good for your “brain” specifically, not necessarily for your physique.
- Cereal: Bran and oatmeal are among the best for your brain. Something like Corn Flakes would be considered to have a high G.I. rating and would not be recommended.
- Dairy: Milk has a pretty low glycemic index. It is ranked higher than legumes, but lower than fruits.
- Fruits: Apples, blueberries, and cherries are a few examples of fruits that are ranked pretty low on the G.I. Whole fruits tend to rank lower on the G.I. than do “fruit juices” because they contain fiber – slowing the breakdown of simple sugars.
- Grains: Spaghetti and rice are pretty low on the G.I. chart. However, something like white bread is considered less healthy – ranking higher on the index.
- Vegetables: Chick peas, kidney beans, legumes, lentils, and soybeans rank highest on the G.I. Veggies that rank higher on the index include: carrots and potatoes. As a whole, most veggies rank pretty low and should be considered healthy for your brain.
How to prepare the brain foods
Food preparation can play an important role in determining whether you get all the food’s nutrients and how it affects your mental functioning. For example, if you overcook various starches, it can significantly affect the way in which they are digested and absorbed by your body. What was a “complex carbohydrate” may act more like a “simple carbohydrate” if it isn’t properly prepared. It should also be noted that when you choose to eat certain foods can also play a role in how they affect your body and brain.
Low carbohydrates speed the brain up, high carbohydrates calm activity
Various low carbohydrate, high protein foods such as eggs and seafood tend to speed up brain activity. On the other end of the spectrum, higher carbohydrate, lower protein foods such as almonds, sunflower seeds, and legumes have a tendency to calm brain activity. The degree to which this occurs is totally dependent on a number of individual physiological factors. Foods can affect people differently.
Do you notice a difference when you eat higher carbohydrate foods vs. lower? Do you notice a crash and burn effect when you eat simple carbohydrates? Feel free to share your experiences in relationship to mental performance below.