Eating for a Healthy Brain

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Health care providers and wellness experts often talk about how your diet impacts the physical health of your body. But could what you eat also affect your state of mind? A growing body of research indicates that what you eat does indeed impact your brain, your mood, and mental health conditions such as depression.

Most of us have felt sluggish and unfocused from a food coma, that temporary lethargy you feel after gorging on a high-calorie meal. Or, we’ve eaten a big piece of cake and experienced a sugar rush, followed by a crash half an hour later. Studies have also found connections between a low-quality diet and impacts on mental health in the long run.

“It turns out that most of us kind of think intuitively, ‘Yeah, there's a connection,’ but it's still really a black hole,” said Ephi Lu, founder and executive director of The Center for Nutritional Psychology. “There's been a tremendous amount of research done in lots of different areas to try and understand various aspects of how we as humans relate with food.”

The Center for Nutritional Psychology collects and shares studies on how diet affects everything from mood to memory and concentration. Researchers have even found evidence that a poor diet may cause depression in some people, while a healthy diet of whole foods, fruits, and vegetables improves mental health.

Why Diet Affects the Brain

Scientists are finding that a low-quality diet high in fat, sugar, and processed foods has a detrimental effect on the brain. How that happens is under investigation.

Research has long looked into the “gut-brain axis,” or the links between gastrointestinal problems and mental health. Scientists have also found that eating a diet high in processed foods and low in vegetables throws the bacterial colonies in your gut out of whack, potentially leading some bacteria to overtake others and damage the lining of the intestine. Bacteria and pathogens escape into the bloodstream, leading to inflammation in the body and the brain. Prolonged inflammation can affect brain tissue and eventually lead to depression, anxiety, memory problems, and more.

Other researchers are investigating the role of oxidative stress in the brain. The cells in our body naturally produce free radicals, which are unstable atoms that can damage cells in the brain and other parts of the body. Free radicals are neutralized by the antioxidants we produce naturally and that we receive when we eat fruits and vegetables, but they can get out of balance. Oxidative stress has been linked to neurological diseases, depression, and dementia.

How to Eat for a Healthy Brain

Not surprisingly, experts in nutrition and the brain recommend avoiding junk food and eating healthy whole foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables. And eating a wide range of vegetables will keep your gut healthy and provide you with a variety of antioxidants.

Research has found benefits in following the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish, and olive oil. Poultry and dairy is eaten in moderation, while red meat, added sugars, and processed foods are rarely eaten.

That is easier said than done, Lu admits, and it’s important to be aware of why that is.

“Highly palatable foods, which are foods that are very high in salt, fat, and sugar, are actually driving mechanisms in our brain's reward center and influencing, very quickly, what we choose to eat later on,” Lu says. “The food choices available to us that are super palatable and really hitting those reward centers are making it really hard to go for that … steamed broccoli anymore.”

Recognizing that sugary, high-fat foods have affected your brain can help you to break the cycle. And following a healthy diet should lead to a happier, healthier brain.

Tags: Healthy Eating, healthy living, Self Care

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Written By

Brandee Gruener

Brandee Gruener is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Durham, N.C. See Full Bio

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