Brain Nuts: The Top 5 Nuts for Brain Health

If you’re looking to give your gray matter a boost, it’s time to get nutty. Brain nuts are packed with an impressive array of vitamins, minerals, protein, and healthy fats that can boost your cognitive function and mental health. Here is a deep dive into the top 5 nuts for brain health.

This post was written by Lindsay Delk, RDN. It is for informational purposes and is not intended to replace medical advice or instructions given by your healthcare provider. 

This post may contain affiliate links. If you purchase through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Cartoon characters of a walnut and a brain with the title "Friends Forever"

What Makes These Brain Nuts?

Most nuts are good for you and your brain. A recent study found that regularly eating mixed nuts as part of a healthy diet increased blood flow in the brain and improved memory. But some nuts have higher levels of certain nutrients that give them the title of “brain nuts.”

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are the darlings of brain health discussions for good reason. Your brain is about 60% fat and is concentrated in omega-3 fats. They play a crucial role in brain structure and can affect its function in various ways. They help build cell membranes in the brain, and they have anti-inflammatory actions, which can help prevent cognitive decline and mental health disorders. A review study in 2022 found that eating omega-3 fatty acids increased learning, memory, cognitive well-being, and blood flow in the brain. Some nuts are great sources of omega-3 fats.

Antioxidants

Your brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress. Oxidative stress damages your brain cells over time. It can lead to the development of neurodegenerative diseases and a decline in cognitive function, memory, and mental health. Some nuts are especially rich in antioxidants, which can neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative stress.

Anti-Inflammatory Agents

Chronic brain inflammation is a hallmark of neurodegenerative disorders and some mental health disorders. The polyphenols, magnesium, selenium, and vitamin E in nuts have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to protect your brain cells from damage. Get a free printable of other anti-inflammatory foods here.

The Top 5 Nuts for Brain Health

1. Walnuts

A close up of whole walnuts with a few walnuts cracked open laying on top

I love that the #1 brain nut is shaped like a little brain! Walnuts are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid. A 1/4-cup serving of walnuts has a whopping 2,270 mg of omega-3 fats. They also provide a good dose of magnesium and selenium, which are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

Several studies suggest that walnuts may decrease the risk or progression of Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and depression. Walnuts seem to work by protecting against oxidative stress and inflammation in these diseases. Try these walnuts.

Walnut nutrition facts: 100 grams (about 1 cup) of walnuts provide 654 calories, 15 g protein, 14 g carbs, 65 g fat, 6.7 g fiber, 9,080 mg omega-3 fatty acids, 158 mg magnesium, 4.9 mcg selenium, and 0.7 mg vitamin E

2. Almonds

One of the top 5 nuts for brain health, almonds, in a white bag

Almonds don’t just have the highest fiber content among nuts; they also pack a healthy punch of vitamin E and magnesium. Their vitamin E content (about 6.4 mg in a 1/4-cup serving) is particularly noteworthy because it works as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent.

Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, often present with low magnesium levels, which cause brain inflammation. Higher magnesium levels can enhance neuron plasticity and memory. Almonds are a good source of magnesium.

Along with walnuts and hazelnuts, almonds were found to have nutrients that can help prevent or manage Alzheimer’s disease. Give these lightly salted almonds a try.

Almond nutrition facts: 100 grams (about 1 cup) of almonds provide 579 calories, 21 g protein, 22 g carbs, 50 g fat, 12.5 g fiber, 3 mg omega-3 fatty acids, 270 mg magnesium, 4.1 mcg selenium, and 25.6 mg vitamin E.

3. Pecans

One of the brain nuts, pecans, scattered on a wooden cutting board

Pecans are a good all-around nut for brain and mental health. It has a significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids and good amounts of fiber, magnesium, and selenium.

Pecans come in 2nd place for their level of omega-3 fatty acids. While they don’t come close to as much omega-3 fat as walnuts (986 mg in one cup of pecans vs. 9,080 mg in walnuts), they still have significantly more than most other nuts. Snack on these pecan halves.

Pecan nutrition facts: 100 grams (about 1 cup) of pecans provide 691 calories, 9 g protein, 14 g carbs, 72 g fat, 9.6 g fiber, 986 mg omega-3 fatty acids, 121 mg magnesium, 3.8 mcg selenium, and 1.4 mg vitamin E.

4. Hazelnuts

Green leaves behind a whole hazelnut, a shelled hazelnut, and a hazelnut cracked open

The buttery hazelnut contains many vitamins, minerals, phytosterols, polyphenols, and unsaturated fatty acids. Hazelnuts have an impressive amount of vitamin E. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that protects the body and brain from oxidative stress. It is also involved in immune function.

Due to their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities, eating hazelnuts may decrease your risk of neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease. Try these roasted unsalted hazelnuts.

Hazelnut nutrition facts: 100 grams (about 1 cup) of hazelnuts provide 628 calories, 15 g protein, 17 g carbs, 61 g fat, 9.7 g fiber, 87 mg omega-3 fatty acids, 163 mg magnesium, 2.4 mcg selenium, and 15 mg vitamin E.

5. Pistachios

Pistachios and shells scattered on a white surface

Pistachios have a combination of nutrients that benefit your brain. They are an excellent source of vitamin B6, which helps produce neurotransmitters in the brain. Pistachios also contain a decent amount of omega-3 fatty acids and selenium.

Selenium is vital for the brain and is involved in memory and cognition. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that selenium levels in the blood decline with age. Probably due to selenium’s antioxidant activity, low levels of selenium might lead to age-related declines in brain function. So making sure you eat foods with selenium is important for brain health. This is the brand of pistachios I snack on.

Pistachio nutrition facts: 100 grams (about 1 cup) of shelled pistachios provide 560 calories, 20 g protein, 27 g carbs, 45 g fat, 10.6 g fiber, 289 mg omega-3 fatty acids, 121 mg magnesium, 7.0 mcg selenium, and 2.9 mg vitamin E.

Tips for Eating the Top 5 Nuts for Brain Health

Integrating these brain nuts into your diet can be a delicious way to support your brain and mental health. Here are some tips to get the most out of these nutrient-dense snacks while keeping an eye on your overall health:

  • Eat Nuts in Moderation: Nuts are packed with nutrients but are also high in calories. If you want to avoid weight gain, limit your intake to a small handful (about 1 ounce or 28 grams) a day.
  • Enjoy a Variety: Each type of nut offers a unique blend of nutrients beneficial for brain health. Rotate between walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, and pistachios to reap the full spectrum of benefits.
  • Choose Raw or Dry-Roasted: Raw and dry-roasted nuts are less likely to contain added oils and salts compared to their fried counterparts. Choosing unsalted versions can help manage your sodium intake.
  • Incorporate Nuts into Your Meals: Beyond snacking, you can add chopped nuts to salads, oatmeal, yogurt, wraps, or baked goods for an extra nutrient boost.
  • Store Properly: Nuts can become rancid quickly due to their high fat content. Keep them in an airtight container and consider storing them in the refrigerator or freezer to maintain freshness.
Close-up of chocolate-covered pecans on parchment paper.

Creative Ways to Eat Brain Nuts

Incorporating brain nuts into your diet need not be a chore. Here are some creative ways to add these nuts into your day:

Nutty Breakfasts

  • Sprinkle chopped nuts on your morning cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt for a crunchy start to your day.
  • Spread almond butter on whole grain toast or add it to your smoothie for breakfast or a snack.
  • Layer Greek yogurt with granola, chopped nuts, and berries for a parfait.
  • Add chopped nuts to your omelet fillings for a surprising crunch. Pecans and walnuts work well with feta or goat cheese and spinach.
  • Add nuts to your overnight oats. Try this recipe for Pistachio Overnight Oats here.

Snack on a Variety

  • Mix and match the type of nuts you eat to ensure you benefit from a wide range of nutrients and flavors. Or make a batch of mixed nuts with your favorites to snack on.
  • Roast your favorite nuts with a sprinkle of herbs for a twist.
  • Combine your favorite brain nuts with dried fruits like cranberries, apricots, or raisins for a sweet and savory trail mix.

Lunch and Dinner Ideas

  • Add a handful of chopped nuts to your lunchtime salad or wrap for taste, texture, and nutrition.
  • Make a pesto sauce made from blended nuts, basil, and olive oil. Use the pesto sauce with pasta, grilled chicken, or roasted vegetables.
  • Experiment with nut-crusted proteins for dinner. Mix ground pecans or almonds with herbs and use them as a coating for fish, chicken, or tofu before baking.
  • Enhance your side dishes by sprinkling nuts over green beans, Brussels sprouts, or a quinoa salad.
  • Stir chopped nuts into your rice or couscous.

Nutty Desserts

  • Use crushed nuts as a crust for your favorite dessert or add them to your baked goods.
  • Make homemade granola bars with oats, nuts, and dried fruits. Try this recipe for Oatmeal Peanut Butter Squares here.
  • Substitute some or all of the all-purpose flour in baked goods with almond flour.
  • Drizzle honey over a bowl of mixed berries topped with a handful of toasted nuts for a perfect balance of sweetness and crunch.
  • Dip your favorite nut halfway in dark chocolate for a decadent treat. Try this recipe for Dark Chocolate-Covered Pecans (pictured above).

Bottom Line

Even when you’re super busy, adding brain nuts to your daily diet can be a simple way to make a difference in your cognitive and mental health. How are you including these top 5 nuts for brain health into your diet? I’d love to hear in the comments.

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