The 5 Best Types of Fish for Brain Health

The 5 Best Types of Fish for Brain Health

Eating to boost your brainpower is a hot topic right now. Why? Because the brain is arguably one of the most complex and fascinating organs in the human body. When the brain is fueled with optimum nutrition, it works at its prime, allowing you to think quickly. However, if your diet is lacking essential nutrients, you may experience difficulty concentrating, memory loss or mood changes.

Thankfully, researchers have spent countless hours diving into learning about the important nutrients for brain health—and the omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), continue to reign supreme. Both EPA and DHA have demonstrated a crucial role in supporting cognitive health, yet our bodies can’t produce them on their own. We need to get them in our diets, and these omega-3s are plentiful in fish. Learn about why fish is key for your brain and which fish to focus on.

Why Fish Is Important for Cognitive Health 

One thing is clear: We’re not eating enough fish. A recent 2021 review published in Advances in Food and Nutrition Research pinpointed just how important fish is for brain health. Not only did scientists highlight how important fatty acids found in fish are for brain, eye and heart health, but they also discussed how under-consumed seafood truly is in the United States. In fact, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage Americans to consume seafood at least two times per week to reap the brain health benefits, but fewer than 1 in 5 Americans do. 

Why is it so important? Well, our brain is mostly made up of fat. “Out of the individual fatty acids in the brain, DHA, in particular, is found in high amounts. DHA plays an important role in the cell membranes in our brain tissue, and can also be important for nerve health, helping signals to flow smoothly across the body,” says Kaitlin Roke, Ph.D., a researcher and director of scientific communication and outreach at the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s. “EPA is also very important for brain health functions and metabolic processes,” she adds.

So, you’ll want to make a concerted effort to get these omega-3s in your diet, and if you’re a current (or future) fish eater, there are some seafood selections that are especially rich in these fatty acids.

The 5 Best Fish to Eat for Brain Health, According to Neuroscientists

1. Herring

There’s a huge plus to seeking out small fishes: “Since they are in the lower feeding chain, they are less contaminated by heavy metals and other contaminants. They are also richer in omega-3 fatty acids [compared to] a similar portion of other fish,” says Mélanie Plourde, Ph.D., a nutritional neuroscience researcher at Université de Sherbrooke in Canada. 

According to the USDA, a 100-gram (about 3.5-ounce) serving of herring contains approximately 909 milligrams of EPA and 1,100 mg of DHA. While currently there is no defined level of EPA or DHA that the USDA recommends Americans consume, the American Heart Association recommends at least 250 mg per day of DHA and EPA to prevent heart disease, according to a report in Circulation in 2022. New to herring? Try these Scandinavian Pickled Herring Bites. 

2. Mackerel

Similar to herring, Plourde is a fan of mackerel since it’s also a small fish that packs a high amount of EPA and DHA. A 100-gram (3.5-ounce) serving of mackerel contains approximately 898 mg of EPA and 1,400 mg of DHA, according to the USDA. Mackerel has a strong flavor profile and pairs great with a boldly seasoned glaze. Try it in our Gochujang-Glazed Grilled Mackerel.

3. Salmon

Salmon may be a more familiar fish, and it’s one that psychiatrist Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., recommends. According to the USDA, a 100-gram (3.5-ounce) serving of salmon contains approximately 862 mg of EPA and 1,100 mg of DHA. Whether you choose to enjoy salmon fresh, frozen or from a can, all forms count toward your EPA and DHA intakes. Consider trying one of our 28 salmon dinner recipes with 5 steps or less.

4. Sardines

Both Plourde and Hibbeln are proponents of including sardines in the diet. Sardines are a convenient tinned fish and come in a variety of flavors (like lemon and olive oil or peri-peri), making it easy to experiment with the different tastes until you find one you like best.

A 100-gram (3.5-ounce) serving of sardines contains approximately 473 mg of EPA and 509 mg of DHA, per the USDA. What’s more, sardines pack nutrients that are known to be anti-inflammatory and heart-protective, such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and zinc, which may help manage cardiovascular disease, according to a 2023 article published in Frontiers in Nutrition. Toss sardines into a salad for a protein- and omega-3-packed meal, like our Greek Salad with Sardines.

5. Tuna 

Canned tuna is an accessible, affordable and delicious option. A 100-gram (3.5-ounce) serving of canned tuna (in water) contains approximately 25 mg of EPA and 197 mg of DHA, according to the USDA. Pop open a can and make one of our 20 recipes prepared with a can of tuna tonight.  

Tips for Purchasing Fish 

Knowing what to look for can make picking up fish less intimidating and more budget-savvy. Follow these tips from registered dietitian Elana Natker, an omega-3 nutrition expert and consultant with GOED:

  • Seafood is required to have Country of Origin Labeling, which will tell you where the product came from. You might see “Made in the USA” or “Product of China.” Based on your location, this can help you identify the best choices for your family. 
  • Keep sustainable choices in mind. Natker advises to see if the fish has a sustainability certification, such as the blue-and-white Marine Stewardship Council logo, or the red, white and blue Friend of the Sea logo. Plus, you can also check to see which fish is in season or being overfished by going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch.org website.
  • Head to the frozen case to buy your seafood, where it might be cheaper. Almost all seafood is flash-frozen shortly after catching it in order to keep it fresh and to lock in nutrients. 
  • Canned, tinned or pouch seafood is also relatively affordable and supremely nutritious. With any packaged food, be sure to read the ingredients since special sauces, seasonings and salt may be added, which can affect its nutrition. Purchase brands that meet your individual health needs.

The Bottom Line 

Neuroscientists confirm you should be consuming fish regularly to support brain health. Unless you are vegan or have a food allergy, aim to include fatty fish—herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines and tuna—in your diet. These fish provide the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, that support cognitive health. Other seafood choices are also welcomed in the diet. “Consuming more seafood of any kind is good. Eat what you like,” says Hibbeln.