Written by : Dr. Drew Ramsey

4 Foods to Build a Better Brain

Dr. Drew Ramsey is a psychiatrist and brain science expert who often prescribes kale and almonds for his patients instead of medication. Find out why.

A bowl of nuts

Eat to Boost Your Mood—and Your Mind!

In my work as a physician who focuses on mental health, I get to help people become healthier and happier. By cultivating gratitude, mindfulness, good sleep habits and getting regular exercise, people can build more joyful lives. And increasingly, the evidence shows that what you eat directly impacts how happy—or unhappy—you are.

Over the past decade, researchers have repeatedly found that a junk-food diet is strongly correlated with the risk of mental health problems, particularly depression, dementia and attention deficit disorder. The converse is also true. For example, a large study from the University of Navarra in Spain followed healthy university students for more than four years and reported a 42 percent decreased risk of major depression for those who most closely adhered to a Mediterranean diet (rich in seafood, leafy greens and whole grains).

Feed your brain

This makes a lot of sense. Your food contains the building blocks of brain cells. A brain cell creates electricity and reaches out to connect and communicate with thousands of other cells. Because these cells are the most specialized ones in your body, your brain demands more energy and nutrients than any of your other organs—20 percent of everything you eat!

It might sound a bit sensational to say that food can give you a bigger brain, but that is exactly what Australian researchers have found. The area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in learning, memory and emotions was significantly smaller n individuals who ate a “Western diet” (full of processed and fried foods and simple sugars) in the study of 255 individuals ages 60 to 64 who were followed over four years and assessed with MRI brain scans.

Read more: 4 Great Ways to Use Your Superfoods

Food is the best medicine

My favorite foods to prescribe combine to make a little rhyme: seafood, greens, nuts and beans…and of course a little dark chocolate. These foods form the core of the recipes in my new book Eat Complete: 21 Nutrients to Fuel Brain Power, Boost Weight Loss, and Transform Your Health. They contain a key set of nutrients that your brain needs to run optimally: B vitamins, long-chained (complex) omega-3 fats, minerals and phytonutrients (nutrients from plants).

Let’s spend a moment thinking about “psychofarmacology” and the benefits of my favorite foods: Kale and other dark, leafy greens exemplify the rule of nutrient density: A cup of raw kale delivers 684 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin K, 206 percent of vitamin A, 134 percent of vitamin C, more iron per calorie than beef and a form of calcium that is more absorbable than that in milk, all for 33 calories.

Read more: 3 Steps to Better Eating

Mussels and other bivalves (clams, scallops, oysters) illustrate the attributes of seafood, offering an excellent source of long-chained omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, and numerous minerals. Six oysters deliver 509 percent of the RDA for zinc, 272 percent of vitamin B12, and 522 mg of combined omega-3 fats for just 57 calories. They are also high in protein and offer a third of the RDA of iron, selenium and vitamin D.

My favorite foods to prescribe combine to make a little rhyme: seafood, greens, nuts and beans…and of course a little dark chocolate."

1. Almonds and nuts show us the importance of “good fats” and healthy snacks. Almonds are the top source of vitamin E, low levels of which are highly correlated with depression—a concerning fact, since 96 percent of Americans don’t meet the recommended daily allowance.

2. Lentils, beans and other legumes offer plant-based sources of protein and add more fiber to our diet—two important ingredients for happiness. One cup of lentils contains 90 percent of your daily need of folate, a B vitamin used to make serotonin and dopamine, two key brain molecules involved in mood, focus and cognition.

3. And now dessert! Dark chocolate possesses some magic molecules. In a recent study from Columbia University, researchers reversed age-related memory decline using extracts of cacao.

4. Go fermented. We are beginning to understand that the bacteria in your gut dictate much about your physical and mental health. So get some fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut into your diet. Plus, swap out simple sugars and refined carbohydrates for complex carbs found in whole foods (an apple versus apple juice).

Eating for happiness means voting for brain health with each bite. These tips will help you get more of the brain-essential nutrients you need to feel your best.


Dr. Drew Ramsey is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Drew uses the latest findings in brain science to help people live their healthiest, happiest lives. His forthcoming book, due out in April, is Eat Complete: The 21 Nutrients that Fuel Brain Power, Boost Weight Loss, and Transform Your Health.
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