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12 Healthy Foods That Improve Your IQ, Say Experts

Can food actually make you smarter? We asked the experts.
grilled seared salmon

While eating nutritious foods does take care of our physical body, it can also play a huge role in our cognitive health as well. Healthy foods create a mind and body connection that help with our overall health and longevity. But we had to ask ourselves—what are the best foods to have for our brains? We spoke with registered dietitians and doctors to learn the healthy foods to improve your IQ that we should incorporate into our daily diets.

Here's the brain food you need, and for more healthy eating tips, be sure to check out our list of The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.

1

Salmon

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"Salmon is the ultimate superfood. It is one of the richest sources of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which have incredible health benefits," says Rima Kleiner, MS, RD, and blogger at Dish on Fish. "Omega-3s help improve cardiovascular, brain health and cognitive function, as well as reduce inflammation and boost immunity. Salmon delivers a heart-healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids (essential for a healthy heart, brain, and eyes) and choline (for brain development and memory)."

"It contains B vitamins, which are essential for proper brain functioning," says Dr. Nicole Avena, Ph.D. and author of What to Eat When You're Pregnant. "It is also a great source of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which promote brain health. DHA decline has been linked to memory loss, so boosting DHA can help to improve your memory abilities. Opt for Chilean farmed over other varieties, as it contains no mercury."

Get inspired with these 21+ Best Healthy Salmon Recipes.

2

Fermented foods

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"The latest research shows that the bacteria in our guts and digestive tract can have a direct impact on our brains," says nutritionist Alicia Harper, founder of ProbioticReviewGirl.com. "Some scientists would go as far as calling our gut our second brain because of these studies.

The best foods for your brain are those that are high in good Probiotic Bacteria. Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir & miso are great options for taking care of your brain via your gut. They're also super tasty."

Here's The Best Way to Eat for Your Microbiome and Improve Gut Health.

3

Colorful Fruits and Vegetables

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"Antioxidants quench free radicals within our body and reduce inflammation. Inflammation in the brain can increase the risk of dementia, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's disease and it also increases the risk for depression," says Pam Fullenweider, RD, MS, and founder of Fully Mediterranean. "Fill your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables at each meal. 'Eat the rainbow' isn't just a catchy phrase. The color of different fruits and vegetables signifies their antioxidant content so when we eat a variety of different colors, we are getting in a variety of different antioxidants in our body, all of which have different health benefits."

Here's What Happens to Your Body When You Don't Eat Fruits & Veggies.

4

Chocolate

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"Aside from the energy, and endorphins or happiness you gain from eating chocolate, it also improves your learning and memory," says Jason Hughes, nutritionist and CEO of Vegan Liftz. "The dosage of caffeine found in chocolate keeps you alert and laser-focused, while the flavonoids it consists improve your brain functions. Furthermore, dark chocolate is a good example of chocolate that improves your brain and makes you smarter. Eating high-flavanol cocoa will boost your blood flow, and improve your brain's cognitive functions that can alleviate the effects of mental disabilities."

5

Turmeric

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"An ancient herb historically used in Indian cooking, turmeric is a plant member of the ginger family. It has become more mainstream in recent years as a cooking agent in many curry-based culinary dishes," says Vernon Williams, MD, sports neurologist and director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute. "Scientifically, studies have observed this versatile spice for health benefits from the reduction of arthritis inflammation to treatment for intestinal upset. But turmeric is also been praised for positively affecting molecules in the brain that support cognitive function."

Not sure where to add turmeric? Try one of these 21 Winning Turmeric Recipes.

6

Seafood

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"Eating a variety of seafood 2 to 3 times each week may help reduce the risk of heart disease and boost brain health in adults, children, and developing babies (for expectant mothers)," says Kleiner. "Seafood is the premier dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which can help combat the negative effects of stress by helping to reign in the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. EPA also helps to reduce inflammation in the brain cells—inflammation that may trigger stress and anxiety."

"From heart health to cholesterol regulation, [Omega 3 fatty acids] are essential for our bodies to function efficiently," says Williams. "They also deliver some major brain-health needs. Studies have suggested that Omega 3 fatty acids help provide the structure necessary to maintain brain cells. Additionally, they are crucial for the smooth delivery of information between those cells. On the other hand, foods that are devoid of nutrition, like those high in sugar and saturated fats, have been found to actually damage brain cell membranes.

Williams says it's best to consume Omega 3 fatty acids through food rather than supplements, which you can easily get from your favorite fish like wild-caught salmon, anchovies, tuna, lake trout, sardines, herring, mackerel, and sturgeon.

Here are 26 Best Omega-3 Foods to Fight Inflammation.

7

Matcha Green Tea

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"Matcha green tea is highly concentrated in bioactive compounds that have been linked to a number of health benefits, including improved cognitive performance in areas such as attention, memory, and alertness," says Jamie Mok, MS, RD, RYT. "I recommend choosing a high quality, organic matcha like Your Super's Power Matcha Mix to make tea lattes or blend into smoothies. Eating a minimally-processed, predominantly plant-based diet is correlated to a lower risk of age-related, chronic conditions including Alzheimer's disease. Green leafy vegetables, berries, walnuts, coffee and tea, fatty fish are some of the top studied foods for their brain-boosting benefits!"

Here's What Happens To Your Body When You Drink Green Tea.

8

Chickpeas

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"Chickpeas have a wide variety of nutrients that are beneficial for brain health," says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, and partner with Banza. "First, they are made up of complex carbs, which are the primary fuel source for the brain. They also contain magnesium, which relaxes blood vessels and sends more blood to the brain. More blood in the brain helps it work at its fullest capacity. I love eating chickpeas in grain bowls or veggie burgers or I cook up some chickpea-based Banza pasta for a simple weeknight dinner. [This pasta] has more fiber and protein than traditional pasta."

9

Vitamin C Rich Foods

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"Vitamin C-rich foods like orange juice and strawberries can help support brain health since maintaining healthy vitamin C levels can have a protective effect against cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease," says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, LD.

10

Leafy Greens

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"Leafy greens have been shown to help slow cognitive decline because they are so high in vitamin K and folate. These vitamins have been shown to prevent Alzheimer's Disease and slow cognitive decline," says Megan Byrd, registered dietitian and owner of The Oregon Dietitian.

11

Coffee and Tea

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"Caffeine can boost your memory, alertness, and cognitive function, and has been shown to help improve test scores and increase your ability to concentrate during tasks," says Byrd. "Coffee and teas can actually make you smarter!"

12

The Mediterranean Diet

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In general, the best foods for brain health mostly fall into the category of the Mediterranean Diet—a diet that has actually been proven to be the best diet for weight loss. Both Fullenweider and Williams say the Mediterranean diet is a great diet to follow for the brain since it is anti-inflammatory and has been proven to promote longevity and reduce the risk of disease, which includes Alzheimer's.

"The results of a study recently published by the American Academy of Neurology indicates that following a Mediterranean diet can have positive effects on the health of our brains, especially as we age," says Williams. "The Mediterranean diet is a term generally used in reference to diets that contain a larger amount of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, beans, and cereal grains (such as rice and wheat). Conversely, such diets contain moderate amounts of fish, dairy products, and wine and limited amounts of poultry and red meat. The subjects who followed this diet were studied over time and those who followed it less closely were shown to have a higher loss of brain volume. Brain volume loss can affect learning and memory, especially as we get older. But the components of the Mediterranean diet are shown to have protective benefits for the brain."

Try it yourself with these 13 Foods to Buy If You're on the Mediterranean Diet.

Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, specializing in recipe development, food, and diet coverage. Read more