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6 “Bad” Carbs to Support Your Brain Health


Keeping your brain health in tip-top shape is as crucial as maintaining your physical fitness, or perhaps even more so! Think of your brain as the command center for your entire body. It helps you process thoughts, memories, feelings and actions. If your brain isn’t functioning properly, you may run the risk of experiencing some unsavory effects, including memory loss. And while many factors impact brain health (with some being out of your control, like your family history), taking steps to take care of your brain may help reduce the risk of developing certain neurodegenerative diseases, too.

Supporting brain health involves a combination of healthy lifestyle habits. Regular physical exercise not only keeps the body fit but also increases blood flow to the brain, which can help enhance cognitive functions. Ensuring adequate sleep and managing stress through mindfulness or meditation may benefit brain health. And engaging in stimulating activities such as puzzles, reading or learning a new skill keeps the brain active.

Furthermore, including certain nutrients in your diet may impact brain health, too. Omega-3 fatty acids found abundantly in fish, walnuts and flaxseeds are crucial for brain development and function, potentially reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, help combat oxidative stress that can damage brain cells. B vitamins, particularly B6, B12 and folic acid, support the production of neurotransmitters and can mitigate the risk of brain aging and mood disorders.

However, when it comes to carbs and brain health, there are misconceptions about carbs being bad for your brain health. But is it true? 

In this article, dietitians reveal six carbs that could be more brain-health-supportive than you previously might have thought.

Are Carbs Bad for Brain Health?

Carbs get a bad rap when it comes to supporting your health, in part thanks to the popularity of low-carb diets like keto. But Maggie Moon, M.S., RD, a brain health nutrition expert and best-selling author of The MIND Diet, shares, “On a basic level, the brain needs carbs because they break down into glucose, the brain’s preferred energy source.” She adds that the brain has a high metabolism and uses up nutrients quickly. “Even though [the brain is] only about 2% body weight, it consumes up to 20% of our daily calories. When there isn’t enough glucose [sugar] in the brain, communication between neurons can break down, and cognitive functions including thinking, learning and memory can suffer.”

However, not all carbs support your brain health. Options with tons of added sugar (think baked goods, cookies, candies and regular soda) may increase the risk of chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, potentially harming brain cells and negatively impacting cognitive functions when consumed regularly. Yet, some carb-containing foods are considered “bad” for brain health, and they are actually not. 

Here are six sometimes-considered “bad” carbs that can help keep your brain sharp and healthy. 

1. Potatoes 

Potatoes may be best known as a must-have ingredient for crispy, deep-fried french fries. But Moon reminds us that “despite their indelible association with a deep fryer, there are other ways to enjoy potatoes.” 

She shares that spuds provide potassium, an essential mineral the brain requires for regulating electrical signaling between brain cells, which is necessary for learning, thinking and remembering. “Americans aren’t getting enough potassium, and it’s a nutrient of public health concern,” says Moon.

These Roasted Brussels Sprouts & Potatoes are a delicious dish to enjoy if you want to include potatoes in your diet. 

2. Prunes 

Dried fruits, like prunes, are sometimes thought to be “full of sugar.” But Moon shares that [much] “dried fruit is naturally sweet with zero added sugars.” She explained that “since they’re dried by definition, they’re a more concentrated source of nutrition, including fruit sugars.” That said, check the ingredients list and nutrition label when shopping for dried fruit, since many options do contain added sugars. 

Moon notes that prunes’ rich purple color indicates that these fruits are “full of antioxidant polyphenols that protect the brain from oxidative damage, soothe inflammation and improve blood flow.” The anti-inflammatory effects of prunes are a major plus in the brain-health department. 

Try our Ragout of Pork and Prunes for a surprising way to include this fruit in your mealtime. Of course, you can eat them on their own, too. 

3. Honey 

“Honey is a sweetener that offers phenolic antioxidants,” shares Moon. She likes honey for its bioactive potential, but also appreciates how it can make other brain-healthy foods even more palatable. Research has shown that honey has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that can support your overall health, especially when it replaces other sweeteners in the diet. More specifically to brain health, honey may help boost your memory and have neuroprotective effects (protect your central nervous system).

Moon explains that a honey glaze will keep omega-3-rich salmon from drying out in the oven: “A drizzle of honey into a thick and creamy plain yogurt makes for a fun fruit dip that provides B vitamins needed to make neurotransmitters.” Crispy Hot Honey Bites is a delicious recipe with brain health-supporting nutrients.

4. Whole-Grain Bread

Whole-grain bread is particularly beneficial for brain health because it is a rich source of complex carbohydrates, fiber and essential nutrients that support brain function. “[These] carbs require more time and work for our GI [gastrointestinal] system to metabolize, as they need to be broken down first,” explains Matthew Kulka, D.O., a board-certified family medicine physician based in Bucks County, Philadelphia. Due to this, whole grains provide a steady release of glucose, the brain’s primary energy source, unlike simple carbohydrates, which cause rapid spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. A stable energy supply helps maintain cognitive functions such as concentration and memory. Furthermore, whole-grain breads, particularly those that are enriched, are packed with B vitamins, including niacin, thiamine and folic acid, which play vital roles in neurological health and preventing cognitive decline.

5. Brown Rice

Kulka explains that brown rice is another carb that may surprise people as one that can support their brain health. He adds that it is 100% whole grain, providing energy, fiber and nutrients. 

Brown rice can be a fantastic addition to a balanced and healthy diet that supports brain health. Our Cilantro-Lime Brown Rice is a tasty dish with brown rice as a base, making it an ideal brain-healthy diet addition. 

6. Enriched Grains

Although whole grains should make up at least half of your daily grain choices, there is definitely space for enriched grains like enriched wheat, rice, pasta and cereal. Elana Natker, a dietitian and nutrition communications consultant, shares, “These are all fortified with folic acid, a B vitamin that prevents neural tube defects (NTDs) during early pregnancy.” Fortifying grains with folic acid has helped decrease the prevalence of NTDs by 35% since this fortification was first required in the U.S. in 1988.

This One-Pot Chicken & Rice is an easy-to-make dinner to increase your intake of B vitamins.

The Bottom Line

Carbs are not an enemy—especially when it comes to brain health. Along with more well-known foods that support brain health, like blueberries and pomegranates, leaning on some surprising carb sources, like rice, prunes and even enriched grains, may help keep your noggin sharp and functioning properly. 

While many factors to prevent brain-health-related conditions are out of your control, eating a variety of nutritious foods—including these carbs—can support your brain health.



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