Diet and Your Brain

We’re all, at whatever level, aware that what we eat and drink has an impact on our physical health. However, there is now very strong evidence that those foods that are good for our body are also good for our brains. So, what we eat and drink also helps to determine the quality of our thinking.

girl eating sandwichThe research evidence indicates that both under-eating and over-eating are bad for the brain. When there is too much or too little nutrition, your brain’s ability to make new connections decreases, and consequently your ability to learn and to remember will also decrease. It’s clear that your ability to learn is affected by how much you eat.

What’s also apparent is that the relationship between food and your brain is two-way. So, for example, when you’ve eaten a meal your stomach sends signals to the hypothalamus in your brain to let it know this has happened. The hypothalamus responds by sending signals back to the stomach to make you feel full. The hypothalamus also sends signals to the limbic area of your brain, creating the sense of pleasure that eating the food creates. This reward has the effect of increasing the function of the immune system and reducing stress. It also provides signals that encourage the creation of more connections in your brain, so promoting more learning and improved memory.

BUT – the balance of your system can be very easily disturbed if you eat too much, either in general, or particularly by eating too much of the wrong foods.
Foods to be especially wary of are those rich in saturated fats. Your body and your brain require some saturated fats to work effectively, but excessive amounts have been shown to have a negative effect on learning and memory. Foods particularly high in saturated fats include, red meat, full fat milk, butter and cream.

fruit veggiesIn a study of people with depression, those who ate less junk food and more fruit and vegetables, fish and legumes saw a nearly 33% improvement in their depression, as opposed to an 8% improvement for those who didn’t change their diet.

Older adults at risk for depression who received nutrition advice and help with preparing menus and shopping lists developed fewer episodes of major depression.

Fast Food and Depression

A long -term study showed that eating fast foods is linked to depression.
The significant foods were:

  • Hot dogs
  • Pizza
  • Hamburgers
  • Commercial baked goods such as cakes, croissants and doughnuts

People who ate these showed a 51% increase in risk for depression, compared to those who did not. And, the more they ate, the higher the risk.

Eating foods that are not good for us can lead to inflammation in brain cells, and eventually to cell death. However, by consuming foods containing anti-oxidants, foods such as cocoa, red fruits, wine (especially red wine) and dark chocolate, you can help to repair damaged cells.

Foods that are good for your brain are sometimes referred to as “functional foods”, and examples of these include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These natural omega fatty acids not only increase your brain’s ability to make new connections, it’s also been suggested that they help to improve mood and reduce the incidence of depression.

Vitamins B,C, D and E and elements such as calcium, zinc, selenium, copper and iron have all been shown to improve learning and memory. Curcumin (found in turmeric) has also been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s disease.

Sources of Functional Nutrients

Nutrient Food Source
Omega-3 fatty acids Fish (salmon), kiwi fruit, walnuts
Curcumin Turmeric
Flavinoids Cocoa, green tea, citrus fruits, berries, wine, chocolate
Vitamin B Spinach, orange juice
Vitamin C Citrus fruits, many vegetables, calf and beef liver
Vitamin D Fatty fish, mushrooms, milk, soy milk, cereal grains
Vitamin E Asparagus, avocado, nuts, olives, seeds, spinach
Calcium Milk
Zinc Oysters, beans, nuts, almonds, whole grains, sunflower seeds
Selenium Nuts, cereals, meat, fish, eggs
Copper Oysters, beef / lamb liver, Brazil nuts, cocoa, black pepper
Iron Red meat, fish, poultry, lentils, beans
Saturated fats Butter, suet, lard, coconut, dairy products

Make it Mediterranean

A healthy plate – 22 studies showed that that people who followed the Mediterranean diet reduced their risk for depression as well as for cognitive impairment.

Why Mediterranean works

Nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet, such as antioxidents, omega 3 fatty acids, and B vitamins, are important to healthy brain function, which helps to explain how that diet aids cognitive function and mental health

On the menu

veggies saladA study compared the outcomes of particular diets showed that the risk of depression could be reduced by eating these specific foods:

  • Nuts – almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews
  • Legumes – black beans, chickpeas, soybeans
  • Fruits – oranges, apples, grapes
  • Vegetables – carrots, cabbage, spinach

Recent research highlights the fact that the impact of these foods is significantly increased when you exercise in addition to eating healthily. So, your brain gains even more benefit when your lifestyle is also healthy – what makes you look and feel great is also going to have a positive effect on your brain!

But what about drink?

young man drinking waterJust like our food intake, our fluid intake also needs to be balanced. While it’s commonly heard that we need to drink 8 glasses of water per day, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim, provided you’re healthy and not strenuously exercising. Instead of depending on a set formula, we need to be aware of, and pay attention to our own internal mechanisms. That is to say, drink when you’re thirsty.

Consuming the right amount of fluid is important, as dehydration of as little as 2% can reduce your cognitive function, but equally, drinking too much can also result in a such a reduction. Remember though, the fluids the brain require don’t have to come exclusively from water. Much of our food is water based, and this counts towards our fluid intake. So too will coffee (in moderation), tea, juices and even beer and wine – though once again, in moderation. The one type of drink that is absolutely clearly bad for your health, is carbonated sugary drinks.

Not so sweet – A study found that men who consumed more than 67 grams of sugar daily from sweetened foods and drinks were 23% more likely to develop anxiety, depression, and other common mental health disorders after 5 years.

Interestingly, the research also found that people with mental health disorders did not tend to eat any more sugar than people without, so the mental health disorder was not causing the high sugar intake.



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