Food Pairing May Have Benefits for Brain Health

  • Article
  • April 13, 2017

A nutrient-rich diet and exercise contribute to overall health as well as brain health, which can influence cognitive function and affect our quality of life as we age.

The effects of food on cognition is an intriguing area of evolving research that shows what we eat can be linked to how well our brains function.

Though many factors can influence the brain, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a menu for brain function can include many of the same foods that are important for heart health (many studies are conducted in older populations): cruciferous and dark green vegetables, berries and cherries, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish and walnuts. In addition, a couple of studies have explored links between dairy foods (milk, cheese and yogurt) and brain health.  

Here is a sampling of what research is showing about the links of milk, berries, walnuts and dietary pattern to markers of cognitive health:

Dairy foods

study among 60 healthy older adults found that daily servings of dairy foods (e.g., milk, yogurt and cheese), milk alone or daily consumption of calcium were significantly associated with increased concentrations of glutathione in the brain, a naturally occurring antioxidant. These antioxidants can help with oxidative stress. 

A systematic review and meta-analysis of seven observational studies showed an inverse association between the highest milk consumption and cognitive disorders. Although the associations were statistically significant, the data were limited to specific groups, indicating that large prospective studies are needed to confirm associations in a variety of populations.


A study in healthy, mobile older adults ages 60-75 found that eating freeze-dried blueberries (the equivalent of 1 cup of fresh blueberries) per day for three months resulted in reduced repetition errors during word list recall and increased accuracy when switching mental tasks than those who ate a blueberry placebo. There were no improvements in motor control such as gait/balance or other cognitive functions tested.


Walnuts contain polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids that are important for brain health. A cross-sectional study using data on adults ages 20-90 surveyed by NHANES (1988-1994 and 1999-2002) found higher walnut consumption was associated with significantly better scores on cognitive tests among all adults, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.

According to Barbara Shukitt-Hale, Ph.D., at Tufts University Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, “Individual foods, such as blueberries, strawberries or walnuts, may act on different parts of the brain or influence different aspects of cognition. Therefore, eating a combination of whole foods with cognitive benefits has the potential to enhance overall brain function and health.”

As an emerging area of study, more research is needed to understand the role of these foods in cognitive health.

Dietary Pattern

A prospective cohort study among more than 16,000 women over age 70 who were enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study found that long-term adherence to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet was associated with maintenance of global cognitive function, verbal memory and higher scores in the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status (TICS) at older ages.

We don’t have to wait until we are older adults to improve our eating pattern. In fact, research shows overall diet quality has been associated with cognitive performance in children

As the science of food and cognition continues to unfold, we can be assured healthful foods that are good for overall health may also support the brain.