How Food Affects Memory & Learning + 3 Recipes to Supercharge Your Brain


If there’s ever been an elephant lurking under the living room rug, it’s the topic of memory, especially faulty memory. It wasn’t long ago that experiencing a fading memory as one aged was considered inevitable. But that notion is undergoing a critical review, driven by a concept called neural regeneration (a.k.a. neurogenesis). Scientist for decades believed that the adult brain was incapable of adding new brain cells, or neurons, to replace those that were damaged or had died off. Recent discoveries have many of them now thinking the opposite: that new cells can be produced, notably in parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, connected with learning. (Interestingly from the food viewpoint, the other area of the brain that appears to generate new neurons throughout life is in the olfactory bulb, which is where our sense of smell resides.)

Can we supercharge this regeneration process through food, and preserve our minds? Research is suggesting it’s possible. For example, consuming omega-3s is linked to greater activity of a chemical known as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). BDNF is believed to be responsible for kick-starting the growth of new neurons. The Spanish study found that, in addition to omega-3s, foods rich in vitamin D and flavanols (such as nuts and seeds, broccoli, and citrus fruits) increased BDNF levels, as did following a Mediterranean diet rich in walnuts and almonds. As to where you should get your vitamin E – pills versus food – Dr. Neal Barnard is adamant that you go with the latter. “Vitamin E is protective,” he says, “but in a pill it’s only generally one form, but if you eat walnuts, you get all seven forms.”

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of science surrounding the brain and food. Even I get dazed trying to wrap my head around all the studies and new information that seem to be coming out on an almost daily basis. My advice? Take the science with a bit of “gee-whiz!” approach as opposed to thinking, “I have to understand this all right now!

Now it becomes a matter of getting behind the stove and doing it, and I’ll be with you all the way.


Makes 4 servings | prep time: 15 minutes | cook time: 2 to 4 minutes, for variations 15 minutes

There’s fat, good fat, and great fat. Avocados fall into the last category—full of brain-boosting vitamin E and a monounsaturated fat that helps lower blood pressure, which can help lower the risk of cognitive impairment. The same fat also serves to signal the gut and brain that satiation is taking place, which keeps us from overeating. In this delicate salad, the avocado acts as a creamy bass note for the tart pop of the grapefruit and the perky citrus-ginger vinaigrette.

  • 1 medium grapefruit or blood orange
  • Freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon grated ginger
  • Sea salt
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 cups loosely packed arugula or mixed greens
  • 1/2 cup shaved fennel or celery
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
  • 1 avocado, sliced

Supreme the grapefruit. When all the segments are out, squeeze the remaining juice into a small bowl and add more grapefruit juice as needed to make 2 tablespoons. Add the zest, lemon juice, lime juice, honey, ginger, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and stir to combine. Slowly pour in the olive oil, whisking all the while, and continue whisking until smooth. Transfer to a small container with a fitted lid and shake well.

Mix the arugula, fennel, and mint in a large bowl. Add a tablespoon or two of the dressing and toss. Top with the avocado and grapefruit segments and drizzle with a little more dressing and a light sprinkle of salt.

VARIATIONS: Make this salad heartier by adding grilled shrimp or salmon. Coat 8 ounces of peeled, deveined shrimp or salmon fillet with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. On a grill or in a grill pan, cook over medium high heat until just cooked and opaque, about 2 minutes for shrimp or 3 to 4 minutes for salmon.

COOK’S NOTE: Oranges or tangerines will make a lovely substitution for the grapefruit.

PER SERVING: Calories: 307; Total Fat: 22 g (3 g saturated, 16 g mono-unsaturated); Carbohydrates: 21 g; Protein: 10 g; Fiber: 8 g; Sodium: 345 mg

STORAGE: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up 1 week.


Makes 4 servings | prep time: 5 minutes | cook time: 6 minutes

Scallops are an awesome brain food, full of the omega-3 fatty acid called DHA, which reduces plaque formations in the brain linked to cognitive decline. However, they’re a bit temperamental on the stove. They cook mighty fast, and can turn from tender to eraser-tough in a flash. Pay attention, and you’ll get a plateful of bliss. Here, they’re seasoned with curry and a little coconut and lime, which play beautifully off the scallops’ silky taste.

  • 12 dry-packed sea scallops
  • Sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, butter, ghee or coconut oil
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon snipped fresh chives, or 1 minced scallion, for garnish

Rinse the scallops, then pat very dry with paper towels. This step is very important, especially if you’re using frozen scallops; if they aren’t dry, you’ll be steaming instead of searing them. Season both sides of the scallops with salt and sprinkle the curry powder over both sides of the scallops. Give each one a pat so the curry becomes evenly distributed over the surface.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add the scallops to the pan one at a time in a single uncrowded layer. Cook them in two batches if necessary. Let cook undisturbed, until deep golden-brown on the bottom, about 2 minutes. Turn and sear the other side until golden and the internal temperature registers between 150°F and 155°F, another 2 minutes. The scallops should be almost firm to the touch. Transfer the scallops to a serving plate and keep warm.

Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the grated ginger to the pan. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the coconut milk to deglaze the skillet, scraping any loose bits stuck to the pan. Cook the sauce until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Stir in the lime juice and any accumulated juices from the scallops. Taste; you might want to add a pinch or two of salt. Spoon the coconut sauce over the scallops, garnish with the chives, and serve immediately.

PER SERVING: Calories: 191 Total Fat: 17 g (4 g saturated, 11 g mono-unsaturated); Carbohydrates: 5 g; Protein: 6 g; Fiber: 0.5 g; Sodium: 465 mg

STORAGE: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.


Makes about 20 truffles | prep time: 15 minutes | cook time: 2¼ hours (photograph above)

My dad, Jay, had this delightful habit; whenever you told him something that struck his fancy, he’d roar, “That’s FANTASTIC!” and gleefully clap his hands for emphasis. This was doubly true if you told him he was getting chocolate for dessert. Jay never met a piece of chocolate he didn’t like, and I have a feeling that just hearing what’s in these truffles—dates, cherries, and walnuts, smothered in chocolate, rolled in coconut and curry—would’ve given him cause to offer up a standing ovation. Studies suggest walnuts may boost memory, while chocolate, as we all know, is the ultimate mood-boosting agent. One bite of this dessert and you’d be hard-pressed to feel any stress.

  • 2 tablespoons boiling water
  • 2 ounces dark chocolate (64 to 72% cacao content), very finely chopped
  • 1½ cup walnuts
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 cup pitted and halved Medjool dates
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Sea salt
  • 1/4 cup finely diced dried cherries
  • 2 tablespoons shredded coconut
  • ¼ teaspoon curry powder

Stir the boiling water into the chopped chocolate and let it stand for 30 seconds. Using a small whisk, stir until the chocolate is completely melted and glossy.

Coarsely grind the walnuts in a food processor, then add the cocoa powder, dates, vanilla, and 1/8 teaspoon of salt, and process for a minute. Then add the chocolate mixture and process until smooth, another minute. Transfer to a bowl and stir the cherries into the chocolate mixture. Cover and chill for approximately 2 hours, until firm.

On a plate, mix the coconut, curry powder, and a pinch of salt. Scoop up approximately 2 teaspoons of the chilled chocolate mixture and roll it into a smooth ball between your palms, then roll it in the curried coconuts to coat. Repeat with the remaining mixture, then place the truffles in an airtight container and chill thoroughly before serving.

COOK’S NOTE: If you want to give the truffles a golden hue, toast the coconut in a 300°F oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

PER SERVING: Serving Size: 1 truffle; Calories: 72; Total Fat: 4 g (1 g saturated, 1 g monounsaturated); Carbohydrates: 9 g; Protein:1 g; Fiber: 1 g; Sodium: 16 mg

STORAGE: Store in an airtight container for 2 days

Reprinted with permission from The Healthy Mind Cookbookby Rebecca Katz, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint  of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography copyright 2016 by Maren Caruso. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rebecca is an accomplished author, chef and national speaker who has worked with the country’s top wellness leaders, including Andrew Weil, MD, Deepak Chopra, Michael Lerner, and Dean Ornish, MD. She is the author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook, the award-winning The Cancer Fighting Kitchen and three other cookbooks that bring the science of nutrition to the everyday plate. She is the founder of Healing Kitchens, a company dedicated to showing people how to translate nutritional and culinary science into delicious, healthy meals. Rebecca’s nonprofit, Healing Kitchens Institute teaches healthcare professionals how to incorporate healthy cooking into their practices to benefit patients with cancer and chronic illnesses. Visit for more information.


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