Brain Food: Your Brain and Nutrition

As we move into April, spring cleaning is on everyone’s mind. A large part of this cleaning involves diet and exercise. We’re going back to the gym and eating more salads as we put away our wool sweaters. But we often neglect cleaning up one of the most important aspects of our lives: the brain. In this series on Brain Food, we’ll delve into good nutrition for a healthier brain. We’ll look at how what you eat affects your mood, explore the effects of sugar on your brain, and examine ways to boost brain power through good nutrition.

Most of us are well aware that what we eat has a direct impact on how we feel physically, but too few of us dine with a thought to how the foods we eat influence the brain. When we think brain food, we think salmon, kale, blueberries. But there is more to it than that. Like all cells in the body, brain cells are fueled by glucose, the energy the body derives from the foods we eat. It makes sense that when we eat higher quality foods, we give the brain a higher quality energy source.

While the brain is only about 2% of the body, it gobbles up about 20% of the body’s daily energy. In other words, your lunch, or more accurately, the types of lunches you enjoy over your lifetime, will affect your performance this afternoon and every afternoon. The brain needs a study stream of fuel — and “what’s in that fuel makes all the difference. Put simply, what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.” ( Sushi? Awesome. Kale? Terrific. Big Mac? Not so much.

More and more studies show that experiences encountered (especially diet) every day dramatically affect the brain. You really are what you eat, as it turns out. For example, omega 3 fatty acids, particularly those derived from fish and walnuts, have been shown to improve cognition and plasticity; vitamin E reduces the free radicals in the brain that can impede neural function. On the other hand, junk food “negatively affect the brain’s synapses…Brain synapses and several molecules related to learning and memory are adversely affected by unhealthy diets…Emerging research indicates that the effects of diet on the brain, combined with the effects of exercise and a good night’s sleep, can strengthen synapses and provide other cognitive benefits.” (

How much you eat also affects your brain. “Cognition and plasticity of the brain have also been shown to be affected by caloric intake and the frequency of food consumption. Restriction of calories seems to increase levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), resulting in improved neuronal function.” (

Of course, no one eats perfectly all the time, but before you dig into that fast-food cheeseburger at lunch today, consider what it can do to your brain. If you indulge in such treats every once in a while, you will probably not damage your overall health. Be aware that the negative consequences of consuming a low-quality diet will affect not only your physical fitness but your mental fitness, too.

Check back here in the coming weeks for more Brain Food.


image: {{PD-US}} – published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.