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Top 10 Worst Foods for Your Memory and Brain Health

brain food brain health Mar 06, 2023
Bowl of brain healthy fruits and nuts beside a bowl of ultra-processed foods.

What you eat matters for your brain.

A diet rich in brain healthy foods has the power to boost your focus, improve your mental health and memory function. A diet loaded with ultra-processed or inflammatory foods can have the opposite effect.

Fortunately, replacing these foods with brain healthy options can mitigate your risk of cognitive decline or disease, beginning with your very next meal.

In this article, we’ll uncover the 10 worst foods for your memory and cognitive function (and what to eat instead).

Let’s dive in.

What are the 10 worst foods for memory and brain health? 

1. Foods with High Levels of Trans Fatty Acids

Trans fatty acids (aka trans fats) are the worst when it comes memory problems, at any age.

Trans fats can be both naturally occurring, such as in animal products like meat and dairy, or artificial, as in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The latter being extremely harmful to your health.

Studies indicate that a diet high in trans fatty acids negatively impacts functional memory recall and new learning, even in women age 25-45 years of age.

Additionally, trans fatty acids increase your risk of cognitive disorders, including Mild Cognitive Impairment, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.  

You can find trans fats in highly processed foods such as:

  • Margarine, shortening.
  • Packaged, shelf-stable baked goods such as doughnuts and cookies.
  • Processed snack foods such as frosting and crackers.

Regular consumption of these unhealthy fats is associated with smaller brain volume and cognitive decline.

2. Sugary Drinks

Excessive intake of sugary drinks like fruit juice, soft drinks, and energy drinks is bad for your health.

Not only can consuming these sugar-sweetened beverages lead to weight gain and diabetes but regular consumption of sugary beverages can negatively impact your brain and lead to cognitive impairment.

Many of these drinks are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, which is linked to higher incidence of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure – all of which can lead to memory loss.

It’s no secret that diabetes is a risk factor for dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is being dubbed “Type 3 Diabetes” for this very reason. There is a strong correlation between cognitive function and insulin levels.

Sugary drinks increase all these risks and are best replaced by water.

But what about diet soda?

3. Artificial Sweeteners

The truth is out… and so is diet soda.

Diet drinks are loaded with artificial sweeteners, like aspartame. While it was previously thought to be less harmful to your health than sugar, studies prove that artificial sweeteners can be just as, if not more, damaging to your health – and your dementia risk.

4. Refined Carbs

Foods that cause sudden blood sugar spikes are bad for your memory.

High glycemic foods, such as white bread and pasta, create a surge of insulin that can cause diet-induced cognitive deficits and memory problems. This happens because your hippocampus, or the memory and learning center of your brain, is highly susceptible to the negative effects of a poor diet.

Refined carbohydrates, or refined carbs, are grain products that have been processed enough that the whole-grain is no longer intact. This process strips the foods of natural fiber and other nutritional benefits.

Refined carb foods include:

  • Pasta
  • White bread
  • Muffins
  • Bagels
  • White rice
  • Buns
  • Cakes

Basically, processed snack foods, pastries, and pasta products. Instead, swap these refined carbs for complex carbohydrates, which offer more whole grains and fiber to keep you full and satisfied. Examples of complex carbs include whole-wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice, barley and farro.

5. Inflammatory Oils

Canola oil, safflower oil and vegetable oil may sound healthy, but these oils contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which is harmful to your body and brain.

But wait, aren’t omega fatty acids good for your brain?

While omega-3 fatty acids are good for your brain (like those found in salmon and walnuts), omega-6 fatty acids consumed in excess, are not. Consuming too many foods with omega-6 fatty acids can cancel out the therapeutic benefits of consuming their healthier, omega-3 counterparts.

Studies demonstrate that diets with excess omega-6 fatty acids affects brain composition, Alzheimer's risk and cognitive function.

Whenever possible, opt for olive oil instead.

6. Fried Foods

It’s no secret that French fries aren’t good for your health.

Fried foods are generally high in fat, cooked in inflammatory oils and depleted of any nutrients. These foods take up space in our diet without adding nutritional benefits, ultimately stealing space from other neuroprotective and nutrient rich-foods like olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts.

Try swapping fried foods for healthier alternatives. Even choosing a side salad over a side of fries can make a difference. Small habits add up over time for big change.

If you continuously make small, but mighty little changes, you’ll feel so much more focused and energetic that you’ll want to do it even more.

7. Processed Meats

Did this one surprise you?

Processed meats such as, bacon and deli meats, have been shown to increase health risks like heart disease, cancer, and dementia. These foods are typically high in saturated fat, loaded with sodium and preservatives.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a 2021 study indicating that meat consumption increases the incidence of dementia. Results of this study found that for every 25 grams of processed meat consumed per day, the risk of developing all-dementias increased.

Aim to replace processed red meat with other forms of lean protein, like organic locally sourced chicken, wild caught salmon or plant-based foods like tofu and tempeh.

8. Fast Food

Combine fried foods and processed meats and what do you get? Fast food.

Fast food is high in saturated, loaded with sodium and often cooked or fried with inflammatory oils. It should come as no surprise that fast foods make the list of the top 10 worst foods for your memory.

Not only is fast food bad for your brain but consuming it regularly can also lead to hypertension, or high-blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease.

If you’re used to grabbing food in a pinch, aim for the healthier items on the menu. Many fast food joints feature salads, which is a good place to start. Even making this simple swap a few times a week can make a big difference.

9. Excessive Alcohol

While an occasional glass of red wine won’t hurt, consuming too much alcohol isn’t good for your brain.

Even moderate alcohol intake can shrink your hippocampus, or the memory and learning center of your brain. Additionally, alcohol alters your mental state. Consuming too much alcohol can impact your decision-making, problem-solving and your memory. Regular alcohol intake is toxic for your brain.

To protect your brain, limit your alcohol intake. While dietary guidelines suggest 1 drink a day for women and 2 for men, reducing this further can only help you.

If you are going to drink, keep serving sizes in mind. One drink equals a 5oz pour of wine, a 12oz glass of beer or 1.5oz of liquor. That’s generally a fraction of what you’ll get when you order a drink at restaurant or bar.

10. Fish High in Mercury

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that can wreak havoc on your brain. The primary source of human exposure to high levels of mercury is through seafood consumption.

While consuming fatty fish can be good for your brain and provide you with essential nutrients like vitamin B12, zinc and omega-3s, it’s important not to overdo it.

Not all fish are high in mercury. Some examples of high-mercury fish include tilefish, tuna, swordfish, and king mackerel. Generally, a good rule of thumb to keep your mercury levels safe is to limit fish intake to 2-3 servings per week of lower-mercury seafood, like salmon and shrimp.

Quick Recap on The 10 Worst Foods for Your Memory

Here’s a quick overview of the top ten worst foods for your memory and brain health.

  • Trans fatty acids
  • Sugary beverages
  • Artificial Sweeteners
  • Refined carbs
  • Inflammatory oils
  • Processed meat
  • Fast food
  • Excess alcohol
  • Fish high in mercury

While I don’t believe in hard and fast-food rules, try to limit these foods from your diet as much as possible. As you now know, a poor diet can have a major negative effect on your future health, leading to conditions like mild cognitive impairment (MCI), memory loss and dementia.

Which diets improve cognitive health? 

Research continuously demonstrates that the Mediterranean diet or the Mediterranean - Dash Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (also known as the MIND diet) are full of the best foods for protecting your brain and memory function against decline from age or disease.

Picture a diet full of dark leafy green vegetables, olive oil, lean proteins and nuts. These diets are rich in fruits and vegetables that help protect your brain. Want to know more about the MIND diet? Read more about the #1 diet for improving memory here.

Bottom Line

Your diet has a big impact on your brain and your memory.

Eating inflammatory foods that are high in sugar, laden with sodium, and full of saturated fats will contribute to memory problems. These same diet patterns will increase your risk of dementia, depression, neurodegenerative decline and reduce your overall quality of life.

Choosing a brain healthy diet will help you think clearly now, protect your brain function reduce your risk of cognitive diseases that can steal years from your life.

If you enjoyed this article, share it with a friend. Then read this article for more information on the very Best Brain Healthy Cookbook for 2023.

Questions? Contact Francine Here

Meet the Coach

Hey there! I'm Francine, a speech-language pathologist turned memory health coach with a passion for helping you overcome your memory problems.

In my practice, I help women just like you trade memory problems for confidence and clarity everyday so you can think clearly and remember easily, without constant self-doubt weighing you down. 

If you're struggling with poor recall and foggy thinking, you're in the right place and I want to help you!


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