Nutrition and healthy food for brain health and function

We’re very used to the idea of eating the right foods for our waistlines, but what about our brains? We look at how nutrition affects our cognitive functions and what you should be eating…

Your brain is the most complex organ in your body and studies show that your diet has the power to shape it into old age. In fact, says brain expert Dr Lisa Mosconi, of all the organs in the body, the brain is the one most easily damaged by a poor diet. 

“The nutrients we get from the foods we eat are taken up into the bloodstream and carried into our brains,” she says. “Once there, they replenish depleted storage, activate cellular reactions and become the very fabric of our brains.”

How do the foods you eat make you feel?

Your grey matter works hard 24/7 and requires a constant supply of fuel. That fuel comes from the foods you eat — and, as studies are increasingly suggesting, it’s what’s in that fuel that makes all the difference to the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.

Recent Australian research suggested that eating a healthy diet resulted in 30% reduced risk of depression, and a whole host of other studies have attested to the power of a good diet to improve mood.

The reason for this is partly down to your microbiome – the trillions of micro-organisms, such as bacteria and yeasts, that live in our guts and help convert tryptophan into serotonin, the feel good brain chemical.  

About 95% of serotonin is produced in your digestive tract, so it makes sense that it can impact your mood as well as mulching down food. It stands to reason then that what you eat has an impact on this, with a diet rich in fermented foods, fibre, wholegrains, fish, pulses and fruit and veg nurturing your microbiome, and foods like sugars, refined carbohydrates and highly processed food depleting it. 

“People are eating a lot of stuff that’s toxic and detrimental to their brain health,” says brain health expert Professor Felice Jacka. She singles out high-sugar diets, which lead to an increase in the same inflammation markers that are raised in people with depression. But it’s not just fizzy drinks and sweets that are on the don’t-eat list.

The worst foods for brain health

Experts agree that over time, a toxic diet will impair cognitive function – your ability to focus, remember, learn, reason and problem solve. Your brain can be damaged if you give it too much low-quality fuel. As an example, highly processed foods, such as fast food, refined carbohydrates and ready meals, promote inflammation and oxidative stress, says Felice Jacka.

Aside from sugar, Lisa Mosconi mentions trans fats and saturated fat as red-flag foods. “A high intake of saturated fat can cause inflammation throughout the body and reduce oxygen flow to the brain,” she says. 

Typical processed foods that are high in trans fats include baked goods, such as doughnuts, cakes, biscuits and frozen pizza. “The more packaged and processed the foods you consume, the more hidden trans fats and artificial substances you may be consuming and the higher your risk of negative outcomes,” she says.

Foods to avoid: 

  • Fast food
  • Refined carbohydrates like white bread and white pasta
  • Ready meals
  • Highly processed foods such as doughnuts, cakes, biscuits and frozen pizza. 

The best foods to support brain health 

So, that’s what’s not so good, but what’s good for brain health? Eating high-quality foods that contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress — the “waste” (free radicals) produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells.

So what does this look like on your dinner plate? Mosconi recommends using extra-virgin olive and flaxseed oils; eating complex carbohydrates such as wholegrains, legumes and sweet potatoes, consuming berries and leafy greens for their antioxidant, brain-protective powers, and eating oily fish once or twice a week for its nutrients and omega-3s. 

Foods you should eat:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Wholegrains
  • Pulses
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Berries
  • Leafy greens
  • Oily fish

Finally, drink plenty of water. “I’m convinced of the value of drinking enough water,” says Mosconi. “Of all the tricks I’ve learned for keeping my mind sharp, staying hydrated might be the one I follow most passionately, starting with a glass of water first thing in the morning.” 

If it’s good enough for a neuro-nutritionist, it’s good enough for us…

Looking for a little recipe inspiration to incorporate those good foods into? We have three vegan BBQ ideas that use some of those good brain-food ingredients in!