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6 Foods to Avoid When Trying to Keep Your Memory Sharp

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Have you ever entered a room and completely forgotten why? If you sometimes struggle with memory, it might be caused by what you eat! Our daily diet plays a significant role in our memory capacity — and certain foods may cause memory gaps.

Here are some foods to avoid if you want to help optimize your memory and keep it sharp and clear.

woman with hands up
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

1. Beverages High in Refined Sugars

spoon full of sugar and raspberry
Photo by Myriam Zilles

It's enjoyable to drink an ice-cold soda on a hot day, but it is healthier to drink more water than other beverages. This is because sugary drinks — sodas, concentrated fruit juices, and energy drinks — contain high amounts of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Consuming large quantities of HFCS and refined sugar can create memory problems and other potentially serious health risks.

In studying rats with a diet high in sugar consumption, scientists found that too much caused increased inflammation of the brain and memory loss. And a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that even mildly elevated blood sugar levels could result in brain atrophy, dementia, and memory problems.

In addition, too many sugary drinks can cause type 2 diabetes, a metabolic syndrome with a range of symptoms, including:

  • Obesity

  • Fatigue

  • Increased hunger

  • Lack of blood flow to the brain

In a recent study, this lack of blood flow to the brain was found to contribute to:

  • Tingling & cramping in feet and hands

  • Poor focus and concentration

  • Memory loss

And because caffeine can constrict the blood vessels in the brain, sugary and caffeinated drinks begin to decrease healthy blood flow to the brain, subsequently causing memory loss.

2. Refined Carbs

Photo by Heather Ford

Not all carbs are good. For example, refined carbohydrates — white bread and rice — can cause memory problems.

Refined carbs are usually made from processed grains and added sugars. They're considered high glycemic foods — when consumed, they can quickly elevate insulin and blood sugar levels. This high glycemic load can eventually lead to impaired brain function.

Additional research shows that even a single meal per day with a high glycemic load can cause impaired memory function. This is perhaps due to inflammation of the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

3. Foods High in Trans Fats

jar of butter
Photo by Megumi Nachev

Processed trans fat in foods can play a significant role in impairing functional memory. Also known as hydrogenated vegetable oils, trans fats are used in many different foods, particularly snack foods.

Some research indicates that eating foods with high amounts of trans fats causes poorer memory, lower brain volume, cognitive decline, and an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease. For example, in a group of 38 female test subjects, women who consumed higher amounts of trans fats performed worse in memory and recognition tests than those who had not.

Here are some foods high in trans fats:

  • Frosting

  • Shortening

  • Margarine

  • Some Cakes

  • Some Cookies

  • Most snack foods like chips

  • Frozen and canned foods

4. Foods High in Artificial Sugars

diet coke logo
Photo by Brett Jordan

Foods and drinks labeled "sugar-free" rely on artificial sugars to give them their sweet taste, but using artificial sugar instead of white granulated sugar isn't necessarily a good thing. Consuming high amounts of artificial sugars such as aspartame can cause a metabolic syndrome like diabetes, which again can spur memory loss and impair cognitive function.

Aspartame contains phenylalanine which disrupts the production of neurotransmitters, memory receptors in our brains. A study found that mice that repeatedly consumed high amounts of aspartame suffered from weakened memory. Mice are 60 times less sensitive to phenylalanine than humans, so it could be alarmingly worse for humans to consume excessive amounts of aspartame.

5. Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Photo by Svitlana

When you wake up the day after having a few too many drinks, you may find you have trouble recalling the previous day. Even occasional binge drinking can cause fuzzy or impaired memory and cognitive function, thanks to decreased blood flow to the brain.

Chronic alcohol abuse creates an even more dangerous situation. It can result in reduced brain volume, as well as metabolic changes. It can also disrupt those neurotransmitters that ensure our memory is working properly.

Studies have also determined that excessive amounts of alcohol increase your risk for dementia. Also, you may develop a vitamin B1 deficiency which, if left untreated, can quickly develop into Korsakoff's syndrome. This neurological disorder causes severe damage to the brain, impacting eyesight and causing confusion, unsteadiness, and memory loss.

6. Fish High in Mercury

plate of tuna
Photo by Big Dodzy

Fish is a nutritious food, typically high in healthy nutrients like omega-3s, vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and magnesium. But not all fish should be eaten in large amounts.

Some fish can contain high amounts of mercury, a heavy-metal contaminant and neurological poison stored in the tissue of the fish.

Consuming too much fish with mercury can begin to damage the brain, central nervous system, and neurotransmitters. Mercury is especially dangerous to pregnant women as it can negatively affect the development of the fetus.

Fish often found to be high in mercury include:

  • Swordfish

  • Tuna

  • King mackerel

  • Orange roughy

To consume these fish safely, eat no more than one serving per week. Try instead to eat fish like salmon or trout, which tend to contain lower levels of mercury.

Final Message

Eating the right foods can help us have a healthier body, but it can also be key to helping us maintain a strong, clear memory. Minimizing foods high in trans fats, artificial sugars, and refined carbs can help you upkeep your memory longer.

The next time you want to reach for a sugary soft drink or a snack high in transfats or refined sugars, try a refreshing glass of flavored sparkling water or non-concentrated fruit juice and organic trail mix instead.


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