BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 14, 2021 (modified January 30, 2023)
Our brains are hungry. Although they represent only a small percentage of our overall weight (about two percent), our brains easily consume over twenty percent of daily calories. Our brains are central to most bodily functions, working behind the curtains of consciousness, prioritizing and budgeting energy for survival and growth. For proper functioning, the brain needs nutrients. When deprived of proper fuel, brain function is hampered. A better performing brain requires healthy consumption of nutrient rich foods.
Brain development, function, and resilience is highly nutrient sensitive. Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley suggest that even when early nutritional deficiencies are corrected in young children, the early malnutrition leaves a lasting mark. The emotional deficits often impact social interactions that impact the child's social development. They explain that "malnourished children may have temperamental characteristics such as hyper-alertness and distractibility" (2015, location 1635).
Nutrition expert and researcher Dawn Arda explains, "Anxiety, depression and more recently dementia have been linked to inflammation in the brain, also known as neuroinflammation. Luckily, we can influence the levels of inflammation in the body by the foods we eat" (2021).
What we eat matters for wellness, and especially for brain functioning and health.
Gabor Maté, a Canadian Physician, adds that "three environmental conditions absolutely essential to optimal human brain development are nutrition, physical security, and consistent emotional nurturing" (2010, location 3374).
Brain nutrition isn't just for young developing brains. What we eat influences brain functions throughout our lives. While there are no magic pills, no absolutes, an overall, well-rounded healthy diet boosts immunity to brain diseases as we age, and lifts day to day functioning.
Guy Harrison, an award winning journalist, wrote in his wonderful book Think that "good brains start with good nutrition. Bad eating habits can be devastating to the human brain. A brain is helped or hindered by the quantity and quality of its fuel, and this is true for human being" (2013 location 2746).
Two Critical Areas Impacted by Nutrition
Eating healthy impacts brain health in two critical areas. First, optimal nutrition improves brain function in the present by providing sufficient energy and nutrients for daily demands.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the leading researchers on brain science, explains, "your brain’s most important job is to control your body—to manage allostasis—by predicting energy needs before they arise so you can efficiently make worthwhile movements and survive" (2020, location 135). Our brain expends a lot of energy budgeting energy, managing and prioritizing daily energy expenditures.
"Eating certain foods (and avoiding others) has been shown to slow brain aging by 7.5 years, and lessen the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease." Mayo Clinic
Second, a healthy brain diet helps prevent or delay age related brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease. The gut and metabolism has recently been a focal point of interest in age related diseases. The guts integral role in cognition has made it a key target for improving cognitive health as we age (Minihane, 2021).
For both a healthy brain now and a heathy brain later nutrition is essential.
"Nutritionists emphasize that the most important strategy is to follow a healthy dietary pattern that includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains." Harvard Health Publishing
Which Diets are Good for the Brain?
Evidence from current research suggests that antioxidant and nutrient rich dietary patterns help maintain cognitive health. Three notable diets have shown encouraging results, boosting brain health and resilience. These diets are: the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the MIND diet.
The Mediterranean diet is a plant based, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory diet. The Mediterranean diet includes a high intake of fish, green leafy vegetables, legumes, fruits, cereals, and unsaturated fatty acids, primarily in the form of extra-virgin olive oil, limited dairy products, meat and saturated fatty acids and a moderate consumption of red wine with meals (Ross, 2018).
"Cook and eat fresh food, savor the taste, enjoy dining with family and friends. A Mediterranean regimen is more than just a diet. It’s a lifestyle, a way of living well." Cleveland Clinic
The DASH diet or the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension also has been scientifically found to slow cognitive decline.
The main characteristics of a DASH diet is high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean meats, fish, poultry, seeds and nuts, low or non-fat dairy. The DASH diet limits consumption of sweets, saturated fats, and sodium (Ross, 2018).
The MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. MIND diet also known as the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet shares foundational components of the DASH and Mediterranean diets.
The MIND diet emphasizes consumption of natural and plant based foods and limits animal and high saturated fat food types (Ross, 2018).
The MIND diet provides absolute levels of intake, with some allowances for less healthy food choices. The MIND diet suggest "less than one serving per week of unhealthy foods, except butter, in which case, less than one tablespoon a day of butter is permissible" (Volpe, 2018).
Foods designated as unhealthy in the MIND diet are:
"A brain healthy diet can minimize inflammation and insulin resistance, as well as nourish brain cells (neurons) and connections (synapses)." Pacific Brain Health Center
Individual Foods for Brain Health
Some prefer the structure of a diet plan, others prefer to personalize a diet utilizing the healthy components of particular diet, fitting healthy foods into their meal plans.
Either adherence to a structured plan of a personalized incorporation of healthy foods (and elimination or limiting of unhealthy foods) can contribute to brain health.
The best plan is the one that works for us individually. Something we can incorporate and continue throughout weeks, months and years.
Spinach, kale, broccoli, collard greens and other leafy green vegetables are rich in nutrients. These dark green vegetables contain nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene. Research suggests that these plant-based foods may help slow cognitive decline (Harvard Health Publishing 2021).
Fat-soluble vitamin K is essential for forming sphingolipids, a type of fat that’s densely packed into brain cells (Ferland, 2012).
"Greens are packed with nutrients linked to better brain health like folate, vitamin E, carotenoids and flavonoids. And one serving a day has been shown to slow brain aging." Mayo Clinic
A 2017 study found that people with high levels of omega-3s had increased blood flow in the brain. The researchers also identified a connection between omega-3 levels and better cognition, or thinking abilities.
Fatty fish are an excellent source of omega 3s.
Examples of oily fish high in omega-3 are:
Adding fatty fish to the menu once or twice a week is a large step towards a healthy brain diet.
"People can also get omega-3s from soybeans, nuts, flaxseed, and other seeds." Lana Burgess | Medical News Today
In a twenty-year longitude study following 16,000 older adults, researchers found that those who consumed the most blueberries and strawberries had the slowest rate of cognitive decline. The scientists credit the high level of flavonoids in berries for the cognitive benefits (Mayo Clinic, 2019).
Add berries to your smoothie, toss them in a salad, or eat them as a sweet snack.
Nuts and Seeds
A 2014 review found that nuts can improve cognition and prevent neurodegenerative diseases.
Peter Pribis and Barbara Shukitt-Hale wrote that "there is growing evidence that the synergy and interaction of all of the nutrients and other bioactive components in nuts and berries can have a beneficial effect on the brain and cognition" (2014).
Nuts contain several nutrients that contribute to the health of the brain. Nuts and seeds contain healthy fats, antioxidants and vitamin E.
Whole grains are first harvested as a whole grain kernel consisting of layers of bran, germ and endosperm. Processing of grains strips the grain of these healthy layers.
These outer coverings contain healthy vitamins, minerals and fiber as well as carbohydrates, some protein and healthy unsaturated fats. When you have a choice, always opt for 100% whole grain over refined or enriched.
"Whole grains, such as oats, barley, and quinoa are rich in many of the B vitamins that work to reduce inflammation of the brain, potentially preserving your memory (Cleveland Clinic).
Other Foods Found to Improve Brain Health
A healthy diet isn't a mystery. Most of the foods healthy for the brain are also healthy for the heart and gut. If eating healthy is a chore, and following a strict diet a nightmare, simply choose a few healthier choices to add and a few nasties to avoid. Over the days, months and years our bodies begin to thrive in the rich nutrients and our wellness flourishes. Make a few changes today.
Amen D. G., Harris W.S., Kidd P.M., Meysami S., Raji C.A. (2017) Quantitative Erythrocyte Omega-3 EPA Plus DHA Levels are Related to Higher Regional Cerebral Blood Flow on Brain SPECT. J Alzheimers Disease
Arda, D. (2021) Healthy Eating for the Brain and Mental Health.
Barrett, L. F. (2020) Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Ferland G. (2012). Vitamin K and the nervous system: an overview of its actions. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 3(2), 204–212.
Harrison, G. (2013). Think: Why You Should Question Everything. Prometheus; Illustrated edition
Maté, G. (2010). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. North Atlantic Books; Illustrated edition
Minihane, A. (2021). Nutrition and Brain Health. Nutrition Bulletin, 46(1), 8-11.
Karr-Morse, R.; Wiley, M.S. (2014). Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. Atlantic Monthly Press; 1st edition
Ross, S. (2018). The Nutrition-Brain Connection: Nutritional Status and Cognitive Decline. Holistic Nursing Practice, 32(3), 169-171.
Pribis P, Shukitt-Hale B. (2014) Cognition: the new frontier for nuts and berries. Am J Clin Nutr.
Volpe, S. (2018). Nutrition and Brain Health. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, 22(5), 49-50.