When you’re a student trying to memorize and understand a lot of new information, it’s important to keep your health in top shape. Staying healthy can promote academic performance and help you reach your educational goals.
Although an overall healthy diet is most important for keeping your body and brain nourished and ready to take on difficult tasks, research shows that certain foods may be especially important for brain health and promoting mental performance.
The following foods have been linked to improved brain health and make excellent choices when you’re cramming for an exam.
Here are the top 9 brain foods for studying.
Berries are rich in a variety of compounds that may help promote academic performance and protect the health of your brain. Berries, including blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries, are especially high in flavonoid compounds called anthocyanins.
Anthocyanins are believed to improve mental performance by increasing blood flow to your brain, protecting against inflammation, and improving certain signaling pathways that promote nerve cell production and cellular processes involved in learning and memory (1Trusted Source, 2).
A number of human studies have demonstrated that berry intake positively affects brain function.
For example, one study in 40 people examined the effects of consuming a 13.5-ounce (400-mL) smoothie containing equal amounts of blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry.
It found that the smoothie led to quicker response times on attention and task-switching tests and helped participants maintain accuracy on these tests over 6 hours, compared with those in a placebo group (1Trusted Source).
Moreover, a review that included 12 studies in children, young adults, and older adults found that 8 of the studies reported improved mental performance, including on short-term, long-term, and spatial memory tests, after taking blueberry or blueberry supplements (3Trusted Source).
However, the researchers concluded that future well-designed studies are needed to confirm this possible benefit.
Several other studies including anthocyanin-rich berries have also reported improvements in mental performance (4Trusted Source, 5).
SUMMARYBerries contain compounds, including anthocyanins, that may enhance mental performance.
2. Citrus fruits
Citrus fruits are highly nutritious, and their intake has been linked to a variety of health benefits, including the promotion of brain health.
Similarly to berries, citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit are rich in flavonoids, including hesperidin, naringin, quercetin, and rutin, among others (6Trusted Source).
These compounds may have the ability to promote learning and memory, as well as protect nerve cells from injury, therefore warding off mental decline (7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
Studies show that drinking citrus fruit juice may help promote mental performance.
A study in 40 young adults showed that drinking 17 ounces (500 mL) of 100% orange and grapefruit juice enhanced blood flow to the brain and significantly improved performance on a test that involved matching symbols to numbers, compared with a control drink (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source).
Another study in 37 older adults found that drinking 17 ounces (500 mL) of 100% orange juice per day for 8 weeks significantly improved overall brain function, which was assessed via a number of tests, compared with a control beverage (11Trusted Source).
Although fruit juices are more concentrated sources of these potential brain-health-promoting compounds, whole citrus fruits are also rich sources of flavonoids and can be used as a snack when studying or preparing for an exam.
Pair citrus fruits and citrus juice with a source of protein and healthy fat, such as mixed nuts, to make your snack more satisfying.
SUMMARYStudies show that citrus fruit intake may help boost mental performance and improve overall brain function.
3. Dark chocolate and cocoa products
Cocoa has the highest flavonoid content by weight of any other food, which is why cocoa products like chocolate significantly contribute to dietary flavonoid intake. Consuming flavonoid-rich cocoa products may favorably affect brain health (12Trusted Source).
In one study, 90 older adults with mild mental impairment drank a cocoa beverage containing either 45 mg, 520 mg, or 990 mg of cocoa flavonoids per serving once a day for 8 weeks (13Trusted Source).
At the end of the study, people who drank the high flavonoid beverage performed significantly better on mental tests than those assigned the low flavonoid beverage (13Trusted Source).
Plus, the high and intermediate flavonoid groups had improved insulin sensitivity, which was suggested to be the primary cause of the improved brain function. Insulin is a hormone that helps move sugar from your blood into your cells, where it can be used for energy (13Trusted Source).
Other studies have shown that cocoa intake may help reduce mental fatigue, improve blood flow to the brain, and boost memory and reaction time on mental tasks (14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source).
Interestingly, flavonoids can cross the blood-brain barrier — a semipermeable membrane that protects your brain — and directly act on areas of the brain that control memory and attention (13Trusted Source).
SUMMARYChocolate and cocoa products are loaded with flavonoid compounds. Consuming cocoa products may help increase blood flow to your brain and improve your memory and reaction time.
Nuts are packed with nutrients that are essential for brain health, including vitamin E and zinc. They’re also portable and versatile, making them an excellent choice for study snacks (16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source).
Nuts are concentrated sources of healthy fat, protein, and fiber, and they can help keep you fueled throughout marathon study sessions. Plus, some research shows that snacking on nuts may even help improve certain aspects of brain function.
A study in 64 college students found that adding walnuts to the diet for 8 weeks led to a significant 11.2% improvement in interpreting verbal information, compared with a placebo (18Trusted Source).
Another study in 317 children found that nut intake was related to improved reaction time and performance on brain tests (19Trusted Source).
Additionally, a population-based study in 15,467 women showed consuming at least 5 servings of nuts per week was related to better overall mental status (20Trusted Source).
SUMMARYNuts are nutrient-dense and contain vitamins and minerals essential to brain health, including vitamin E and zinc. Eating nuts may help improve overall mental status.
Eggs are often referred to as nature’s multivitamin due to the variety of nutrients they contain. They’re particularly rich in nutrients that are necessary for brain function, including vitamin B12, choline, and selenium (21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source).
For example, selenium is involved in coordination, memory, cognition, and motor performance, while choline is needed for brain development and the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is necessary for memory storage and muscle function (22Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source).
Vitamin B12 also plays important roles in neurological health, and having low levels of this vitamin impairs brain function (25Trusted Source, 26Trusted Source).
What’s more, eggs contain lutein, a carotenoid pigment that has been associated with improved visual and mental function (27Trusted Source).
However, you need to eat whole eggs — not just egg whites — to reap their potential brain-function-promoting benefits.
One study in 19 children and adolescents found that eating egg yolks was associated with higher short-term learning, memory scores, and attention, compared with egg whites. However, this study was funded by the Egg Nutrition Center, which may have influenced the study (28Trusted Source).
SUMMARYEating whole eggs may help boost brain health due to the concentration of nutrients, including vitamin B12, choline, and selenium, found within the yolk.
Avocados are versatile fruits that can be enjoyed in several ways, including mashed into guacamole, spread on toast, or simply enjoyed whole with a bit of salt. As a convenient study snack, they may also help boost your brain function.
They’re an excellent source of lutein, a carotenoid that accumulates in your brain and eyes and may positively influence brain function (29Trusted Source).
A study in 84 adults demonstrated that those who ate a meal containing fresh avocados for 12 weeks had increased blood levels of lutein and experienced improvements in accuracy on mental tests (30Trusted Source).
However, the study was funded by the Hass Avocado Board, which may have influenced the study (30Trusted Source).
Regardless, blood lutein levels and lutein intake have been associated with better mental function in general (31Trusted Source, 32Trusted Source).
SUMMARYSome research has shown that eating carotenoid-rich avocados may help improve mental performance.
Omega-3s are essential fats that play important roles in brain health. They’re concentrated in fatty fish, which are also excellent sources of other brain-health-promoting nutrients like vitamin B12 and selenium.
It’s no surprise that a number of studies have linked fish intake to enhanced brain function.
One study in 76 Japanese adults linked higher fish intake with better memory performance and brain health (33Trusted Source).
Another study in more than 17,000 schoolchildren found that an intake of 8 grams of fish per day was significantly associated with better grades in German and mathematics, compared with no or limited fish intake (34Trusted Source).
However, the study also noted that this association declined in the highest category of fish intake, which the researchers suggested may be due to the higher intake of mercury and other harmful pollutants found in seafood (34Trusted Source).
Many other studies have linked fish intake to better mental performance and slower mental decline, which is attributed to the concentration of important nutrients, including omega-3 fats, in fish (35Trusted Source, 36Trusted Source).
SUMMARYAdding fish and seafood to your diet may enhance memory and boost overall brain health. Eating fish may also help slow mental decline.
Beets and beet products are rich in nitrates, which your body converts into a molecule called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide plays many important roles in your health, including proper nerve cell communication, blood flow, and brain function (37Trusted Source).
Consuming nitrate-rich beets and beet products has been associated with improvements in brain function in some studies.
A study in 24 younger and older adults found that drinking 5 ounces (150 mL) of beet juice significantly increased blood nitrate concentration and improved reaction time on mental tests in both age groups, compared with a placebo (37Trusted Source).
Another study in 40 adults found that drinking 15 ounces (450 mL) of beet juice improved blood flow to the brain and performance on a subtraction test, compared with a placebo (38Trusted Source).
You can increase your dietary intake of nitrates by enjoying roasted beets with a meal before an exam or sipping on fresh beet juice while studying.
SUMMARYBeets are rich in nitrates, which may help improve blood flow to the brain, nerve cell communication, and overall brain health. Studies have linked beet juice consumption to improved performance on tests.
9. Red, green, and orange vegetables
Vegetable intake in general is associated with better brain function and the promotion of overall health (39Trusted Source).
Red, orange, and green vegetables, including peppers, carrots, and broccoli, contain a variety of beneficial plant compounds, including carotenoid pigments, that have been shown to benefit mental performance.
The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin accumulate in your retinas. This accumulation is referred to as macular pigment optical density (MPOD).
A study in 51 children between the ages of 7 and 13 found that MPOD was significantly related to brain function and intellectual ability (40Trusted Source).
Another study in 56 children between the ages of 8 and 9 also found that MPOD was positively associated with academic performance (41Trusted Source).
Alternatively, low MPOD has been linked to reduced mental performance. A study in 4,453 adults demonstrated that lower MPOD was associated with poorer performance on mental tests, poorer memory, and slower reaction time (42Trusted Source).
The vegetables richest in lutein and zeaxanthin include kale, parsley, spinach, basil, peas, leeks, lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and green and red peppers. Eggs and pistachios are also good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin (43Trusted Source).
For a satisfying pre-study-session meal rich in brain-health-promoting carotenoids, top a large spinach and herb salad with chopped red pepper, sliced carrots, and hard-boiled eggs.
Dress the salad with a drizzle of olive oil and vinegar and small handful of chopped pistachios for extra protein and healthy fats.
SUMMARYIncreasing your intake of carotenoid-rich red, green, and orange vegetables can help improve your overall nutrient intake and may help boost your brain health.
The bottom line
Following a healthy dietary pattern is important when you’re studying and taking exams.
Although an overall healthy diet and lifestyle is what’s most important, research shows that certain foods may help enhance mental performance, making them an excellent choice for students.
If you’re looking to enhance your mental performance and improve your overall health, try adding a few of the foods listed above into your diet.