The foods included in your diet and the nutrition you get on a regular basis can affect your brain health, as well as heart health, Type 2 diabetes risk and many other parts of your body. Lots of research has shown that whole foods high in antioxidants and other nutrients are crucial to protecting cognitive function as you age, from thinking and learning new things to memory.
In fact, a recent study found that even if you have a family history of dementia, following the Mediterranean diet can reduce your risk of developing the brain condition. The MedDiet is packed with foods like fresh berries, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fish and extra virgin olive oil. The study found that following a Mediterranean diet can reduce dementia risk by up to 25%.
The Mediterranean is also low in sugar, sodium, highly processed foods, refined carbs, saturated fats and fatty or processed meats, which can all increase the risk of dementia, research shows.
A recent study actually found that even small amounts of these foods can increase dementia risk: It followed 10,000 people with an average age of 51 for 10 years, and those that got 20% or more of their calories from ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of dementia. That's only 400 calories a day if you eat 2,000. Ultra-processed foods include sugar-sweetened beverages, frozen meals, processed red meat, potato chips, frozen French fries, store-bought cookies, sweetened breakfast cereals, refined grain pretzels and commercial bread.
And if you have trouble putting down these foods, it's not your fault. Sugary and fatty snacks can actually change your brain chemistry to make you like them more, research shows. That's because these types of foods can boost dopamine, which can make you feel rewarded when you eat them.
So, to break the cycle of snacking on foods that can harm your brain (and other parts of your body), try reaching for more nutritious items and feel the benefits as you age. These brain-boosting attributes of these snacks are scientifically backed.
Whole Grain Crackers
Scientists are studying how diet and nutrition can improve brain health, and the MIND Diet has delivered impressive results. The MIND Diet is a mash-up of the Mediterranean Diet and DASH diets, and there’s evidence that it may reduce dementia risk and preserve cognitive function as you age. The MIND diet includes three or more servings of whole grains daily because they play a role in protecting your brain. That’s what makes whole grain crackers are a great snack option.
When choosing whole grain crackers, look at the ingredient list to make sure that a whole grain (such as whole wheat or brown rice) is the first ingredient. You can tell that a packaged food — like crackers — is less processed if the other ingredients are foods you could shop for. For instance, Triscuits have just three ingredients: whole grain wheat, canola oil, and salt. Mary’s Gone Crackers is another solid option; the first two ingredients are brown rice and quinoa.
On the MIND Diet, cheese is limited to one serving per week, so pair your crackers with brain-healthy alternatives, such as hummus or guac.
Yup, popcorn is a whole grain and, therefore, a top snack for keeping your brain sharp. In one study that followed nearly 140,000 adults for six years, those above 80 who ate the fewest whole grains had the highest risk of memory loss.
Additionally, another study involving adults 50 and older found that those eating the most whole grains (about seven servings per day) were more likely to score higher on a measure of successful aging — including preservation of cognitive function — when compared to those eating the least whole grains. Whole grains were also associated with a lower risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. This reduction in disease risk is also likely to be a boon for brain health.
While popcorn itself is a nutritious snack, what you add to it can deter from its healthfulness, so lay low on butter and sweeteners. I love this lightly sweetened Maple Kettle Corn from Quinn, which satisfies salty-sweet cravings with a mere 2 grams of added sugar per serving. Another favorite is Skinny Pop, which comes in both microwavable and ready-to-munch options. If you’d rather make your own microwavable popcorn, try silicon popper.
Most people need from 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit per day, yet few people meet these recommendations. To help on that front, consider including pomegranate juice in your snack pack. Pomegranate juice can count toward one fruit serving — the others should come from another form of fruit, such as fresh fruit — and it may have a powerful payoff.
This ruby red drink contains phytonutrients that lower inflammation and protect your cells from damage that can promote brain aging. One small study among people with mild memory complaints found that drinking 8 ounces of pomegranate juice daily for a month was associated with improved memory and increased neuronal activity in the brain. A year-long follow-up study demonstrated that pomegranate juice drinkers retained the ability to learn visual information. In contrast, those drinking a pomegranate juice concoction stripped of polyphenol nutrients experienced a significant decline in that aspect of learning.
To make pomegranate juice a balanced snack, drink it with some nuts or use it as the liquid base in a fruit and veggie protein smoothie made with Greek yogurt, silken tofu, or another protein you love. When shopping, choose pomegranate juice with no added sugar, such as this one from POM Wonderful.
Among the nuts, walnuts may be the best for brain performance. In a review involving 22 studies and more than 47,000 people, researchers noted that nuts were beneficial among people at a higher risk for cognitive decline. However, among all nuts studied, walnuts were most consistently linked with better cognitive health. Another study found that women who consumed at least two servings of walnuts per week during their late 50s and early 60s were more likely to age healthfully — defined as having no reported memory impairment, among other things — compared to those who skipped this practice.
Some of the ways that diet can improve brain functioning involve improving blood flow, lowering inflammation, and protecting against oxidative stress — the phenomenon that occurs when you have more free radicals than antioxidants. This imbalance can result in cellular damage that raises your risk of cognitive impairment and other chronic health issues. That’s why walnuts may be so beneficial. Walnuts are the nut with the highest omega-3 ALA, which protects against inflammation, and they’re also rich in the antioxidants that defend against oxidative stress.
Plain walnuts make a delicious snack, but you can also season them at home or buy them in fun flavors, such as these Maple-flavored Crazy Go Nuts, which have a modest 5 grams of added sugar. If you like a little heat in your snack, opt for the Buffalo-flavored Crazy Go Nuts instead.
Blueberries are on the short list of foods to eat when it comes to preserving your memory and thinking skills. In studies, they’ve been associated with slower rates of cognitive decline and improved memory and executive functioning. Research has also revealed increased blood flow to certain areas of the brains of blueberry eaters. The benefits of blueberries start early in life. There’s evidence that kids whose diets are supplemented with blueberries experience improvements in memory, attention, and reading.
You can snack on blueberries in any form, such as fresh, frozen in a smoothie, dried, or freeze-dried, such as these Good & Gathered ones from Target. For a snack that does triple brain-boosting duty, add dried or freeze-dried blueberries to a trail mix with walnuts and popcorn. As always, when purchasing forms other than fresh blueberries, look for versions with no added sugars.
Just one serving of leafy greens per day–a little more than a cup of raw greens or ½ cup cooked–may help stave off memory decline as you age, according to a study. Compared to adults who rarely or never ate leafy greens, those who met this mark had the brain power of people 11 years younger. Scientists believe that phylloquinone, lutein, and folate–nutrients abundant in leafy greens–are the key to this protective effect.
You can make your own kale chips or buy them ready to eat. Rhythm Superfoods Kale Chips deliver the crunch you want in a snack. Kale chips are too delicate to dunk into dip, so pair them with some cottage cheese on the side to round out your snack and make it more filling.
Editor's note: The author has disclosed that she is a spokesperson for California Walnuts.