Food as Medicine: Supporting Brain Health

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Taking care of your child’s brain can support sleep, communication, focus, coordination, social relationships, and other functions.

A healthy diet is one way you can help to:

  • Support brain development.
  • Prevent development of chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

A foundation for brain health: The Anti-Inflammatory Diet

  • The Anti-Inflammatory (AI) diet is based on two traditional patterns of eating:
    • Asian diet.
    • Mediterranean diet.
  • The combined pattern is thought to be one of the healthiest ways to eat. This diet:
    • Encourages eating fresh foods.
    • Reduces the eating of processed foods.
    • Includes foods that provide nutrients necessary for brain function.
  • Speak with your health care provider or dietitian if you would like to learn more about this eating pattern.

Brain boosting foods

Fruits and vegetables

  • Examples: Dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, beets, berries, pomegranates, apricots, rhubarb, tomato, celery, radishes, grapes, cabbage, broccoli, and seaweed
  • Key nutrients: Antioxidants, B vitamins, iron, vitamin K (dark leafy greens); iodine, dopamine, and omega 3 fats (seaweed)
  • Tips:
    • Dice vegetables to add to scrambled eggs and omelets.
    • Add spinach and frozen berries to a smoothie.
    • Stir berry preserves or chopped dried fruit into hot cereal.
    • Add thin slices, shavings, or curls (use a vegetable peeler!) of crunchy vegetables like carrot, celery, radish, cabbage, and beets to salads and sandwiches.
    • Toss fruit like pomegranate, sliced citrus, and grape halves into a salad.
    • Use tomato soup as a dip for a grilled sandwich.
    • Try seasoned roasted seaweed sheets as a snack or crumble and sprinkle as a garnish.
    • Soak seaweed and mix into stir-fry and noodle dishes.

Whole grains

  • Examples: Whole grain bread, cereal, pasta, cooked grains
    Gluten-free choices: amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rice, sorghum, teff, and wild rice
  • Key nutrients: Riboflavin, magnesium, zinc, iodine, iron, B vitamins
  • Tips:
    • Create a hot or cold grain salad by stirring quinoa, farro, buckwheat, or millet with colorful chopped vegetables, olives, beans, and your favorite herbs and spices.
    • Try grains you have never tried in place of rice and pasta shapes in your favorite meals.
    • Make toast and French toast with whole grain and multi-grain breads.
    • Try replacing part of the flour in recipes with whole grain flour (or use a new recipe that has already tested this for you).
    • Wrap sandwich fillings in a whole-wheat tortilla instead of stacking between slices of bread.


  • Examples: Beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas, soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy nuts), peanuts
  • Key nutrients: Riboflavin, iron, antioxidants, dopamine, zinc
  • Tips:
    • Make a dip or spread: Mash canned or soft-cooked beans or peas with lemon, lime, or vinegar with herbs and spices.
    • Replace part of the meat in your burger with mashed beans or lentils.
    • Mix crumbled tempeh with tomato-based sauces over pasta or with barbecue sauce on a whole grain bun.
    • Try flavored crunchy chickpeas and soy nuts as a snack.
    • Bake marinated tofu on a cookie sheet and add to stir-fried vegetables and rice.

Nuts and seeds

  • Examples:
    • Nuts: almond, pistachio, walnut, cashew
    • Seeds: chia, hemp, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower, flax
  • Key nutrients: Magnesium, iron, zinc, B vitamins, antioxidants, dopamine
  • Tips:
    • Add ground chia or flax seeds to a smoothie.
    • Stir together dried fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grain cereals, and dark chocolate pieces for a snack or as a topping for yogurt or hot cereal.
    • Sprinkle seeds or chopped nuts on salads.
    • Try new nut or seed butters with berry preserves on toast.

Fatty fish and healthy fats

  • Examples: Salmon, black cod, tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines, omega-3 enriched eggs, avocado, wheat germ, extra virgin olive oil, walnut oil, flaxseed oil, expeller-pressed canola oil
  • Key nutrients: Iodine (fish), B12 (fish) iron, omega 3 fats (including DHA and EPA), Magnesium (avocado), vitamin E, antioxidants, vitamin D (fatty fish)
  • Tips:
    • Try salmon lox on your sandwich or with eggs and toast at breakfast.
    • Use mayonnaise made from avocado oil or make guacamole. Mash avocado with lemon or lime. Add garlic, cilantro (option: dash of hot sauce or minced jalapeno for added heat).
    • Make your own salad dressing with olive oil, lemon/lime juice, and your favorite herbs and spices.

Lean meats and eggs

  • Examples: Egg, skinless poultry, extra-lean beef, lean pork, lean fish (bass, bluefish, catfish, cod, flounder, grouper, haddock, halibut, tilapia, trout)
  • Key nutrients: Choline (egg yolks), riboflavin, zinc, iodine (eggs), dopamine
  • Tips:
    • Make a batch of hard-boiled eggs to store in the fridge for easy snacks, or slice and add to salads and sandwiches.
    • Shred chicken thighs and mix with salsa for tacos
    • Use lean ground meats in meat sauces and add olive oil.
    • Bake lean meat or fish with potatoes and other vegetables in a sheet pan for dinner.


  • Examples: Milk, yogurt, cheese; vitamin D-fortified almond, coconut, hemp, oat, yellow pea, soy milks
  • Key nutrients: Magnesium, iodine, vitamin D (fortified foods), B12
  • Tips:
    • Cut cheese into cubes and serve with cut fruit and veggies for extra protein.
    • Use sliced cheese in meat or tortilla roll-ups.
    • Use yogurt as a base for a smoothie or parfait. Freeze and make popsicles.
    • Replace all or part of the water with milk or an alternative when you make hot cereals and blended soups.
    • Use Greek yogurt as the base for dips by adding herbs and spices or honey.

Herbs and spices

  • Examples: Basil, cinnamon, clove, dill, garlic, ginger, mint, onions, oregano, paprika, parsley, black pepper, rosemary, sage, scallions, thyme, tea, turmeric
  • Key nutrients: Iodine (salt), vitamin K, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients
  • Tips:
    • Make a dip or spread: Mash canned or soft-cooked beans or avocado with lemon, lime or herbs and spices.
    • Herb butter: Chop or grind herbs like oregano, thyme, rosemary, and sage and blend with butter as a spread.
    • Pesto: Grind herbs with nuts or seeds, lemon, garlic, and olive oil.
    • Add fresh herbs, like basil, dill, parsley, and mint to your greens for salads and sandwiches.
    • Flavor your water by adding fresh herbs like mint and basil. Try golden milk (see recipe at:
    • Make your own salsa by dicing or food processing: parsley, fresh or canned tomatoes, onions/red onions, chives, garlic, lemon/lime juice, and your favorite spices (cumin). For sweeter flavor: add sweet red peppers or mango. For a kick, add green chiles.

Sweet treats

  • Examples: Dark chocolate, maple syrup, honey, blackstrap molasses, dried fruit
  • Key nutrients: Antioxidants (chocolate), B12 (molasses), iron
  • Tips:
    • Drizzle maple syrup, honey, or blackstrap molasses on hot cereals, toast, yogurt, and fruit salad.
    • Add cocoa powder to milk or a milk alternative and sweeten with honey for a warm beverage on cold days.
    • Use maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, or honey in homemade barbecue sauce, marinades, and vinaigrettes.
    • Enjoy a square of dark chocolate or chocolate covered almonds and dried apricots for an after meal treat.

Choose a healthy lifestyle for a healthy brain

  • Drink enough: The amount a person should drink varies by their age and weight. Ask your child’s healthcare provider or dietitian to give you a daily fluid goal.
    • Beverages are not the only source of fluids. Soup, yogurt, popsicles, fresh fruits and vegetables, and other liquid-containing foods can also count toward your child’s fluid goal.
    • Look for clear or very pale urine. This is a sign of good hydration.
    • Ways to encourage water intake:
      • Carry a refillable water bottle during the day.
      • Flavor water with fruits, vegetables, and herbs. For example, try adding sliced cucumber and mint, strawberries and lemon slices, or lime and basil to a pitcher of water. Keep the pitcher in the refrigerator for a few hours.
      • Make iced or hot herbal teas (such as mint, ginger, chamomile, or hibiscus).
      • Warm broth and soups.
      • 100% fruit popsicles
  • Follow a regular meal and snack schedule. Try to eat meals that include lean or plant protein, healthy fats, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, every 3 to 4 hours.
  • Create mindful mealtimes: Relaxed mealtimes promote better digestion, and meals can be an opportunity to practice mindfulness and gratitude.
  • Get enough sleep: 10 hours is the goal for school-age children, 9 hours for adolescents.
  • Make time for social activity: Spending time with friends and family increases self-esteem and provides a support network.
  • Try yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises to help manage stress.
  • Spend time outside and in nature. This can help children to relax, feel calm, and focus.

Try to limit or avoid causes of brain distress

  • Refined sugar (table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.) can damage cells and cause blood sugar swings. Choose sugars from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, instead.
  • Caffeine and guarana: Natural stimulants that can cause anxiety, jitters, dehydration, and sleep problems. Sources include coffee, some teas, chocolate, and some energy drinks and fortified foods.
  • Artificial ingredients (such as artificial colors, sweeteners, and preservatives): Small amounts can affect your child’s focus and attention.
  • Harmful fats: Trans-fat and too much saturated fat can cause inflammation. Limit red meat, butter, margarine, pastries, and deep-fried and fast foods.
  • Excessive calories: Overeating can lead to obesity and related health conditions that impact brain function, like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, headache, and sleep apnea.
  • Skipping meals: Waiting too long to eat can cause blood sugar levels to fall, which limits brain function and attention.
  • Screen time: Light emitted from screens can impact sleep. Too much screen time prevents your child from getting enough exercise, which protects brain function.

For more information on these topics, contact your IH health care provider.

Additional resources

November 2022