The human brain consumes 20% of the body’s energy. In fact, our brains use more energy than any other organ. Where does this energy come from? Food. Food is our brain’s “fuel” and what constitutes this “fuel” makes a significant difference not only to our cognitive function, but also to our overall health (Selhub, 2016). A nutritious and balanced diet is pertinent in ensuring that our brain functions at its best. Therefore, by focussing our attention on the foods we eat, and maximising our nutrient intake, we are able support both our short-term and long-term brain function. Ultimately, the “fuel” we ingest impacts how our brains perform physically, emotionally and academically.
What foods should I eat?
There’s no magic formula which gives us the ‘ideal’ combination of foods to boost our brain function (Avery, 2020). Instead, one must focus on balance.
High-quality foods that should be incorporated into our diet include: fatty acids, antioxidants, and a range of vitamins and minerals. These all protect our brain from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is the production of waste products known as ‘free radicals’ in our body. These waste products arise naturally when the body uses oxygen, and can damage our brain cells. Here are some examples of high-quality foods that are beneficial for our mind and bodies and why:
|Green vegetables (e.g. spinach, kale, broccoli)
|High in vitamin K, folate, lutein and beta-carotene.
These nutrients have shown to slow cognitive decline (Morris et al. 2016)
|Fatty fish (e.g. sardines, salmon, cod)
|High in omega-3 fatty acids.
These fatty acids are essential to the formation of brain tissue and improve cognitive function (Bauer et al. 2014)
|Contains large amounts of flavonoids
Consuming flavonoids is associated with improved cognition (Miller et al, 2018) and improved memory (Avery, 2020)
|High in omega-3 fatty acids (same reasons as above)
|Contains the active compound curcumin which has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits on the brain.
In animals, turmeric has shown to cause improved learning and memory (Khalid et al. 2017)
Low-quality foods on the other hand are often highly processed and refined. They tend have a low fibre content and are often digested quickly. Quick digestion means we experience fluctuations in our blood glucose levels which can be harmful to brain health, as well as affect our mood. Refined foods, specifically sugar, have also shown to promote inflammation and oxidative stress.
Impact of food on emotional and mental health
So far, we have mainly looked at the benefits of nutrition on cognition and it’s easy to forget the variety of other benefits a healthy and balanced diet provides us with. Of course, what we eat impacts our physical health. Studies have shown that there is also an association between food and our mental health and wellbeing (Mental Health Foundation, 2018). For example, a study by Parletta et al. (2017) showed that a Mediterranean-style diet (high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, fish etc.) was associated with reduced depression amongst participants. This was sustained for 6 months after the intervention. The significance of nutrition in childhood has also been widely studied. Poorer diets which predominantly constitute of poor-quality foods (e.g. with high levels of refined sugars, saturated fats etc.) are associated with experiences of poorer mental health in children and adolescents.
Nevertheless, the association between food and mental health is complex and indeed, nutritional psychiatry is a rapidly evolving field of research. The key thing to take away is that how we feel can impact how we behave, and therefore how we approach demanding tasks such as our academic work.
For the majority of us, there are probably quite a few dietary improvements we can think of which would be beneficial to our health. It’s important to recognise that it is never too late to amend our diets, or that of our children. Ultimately, the “You are what you eat” saying is highly relevant in nourishing our brains and small daily changes will amount to large improvements for the long-term!
Eva Selhub, 2016: Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food.
Aspen Avery, 2020: How Nutrition Impacts the Brain and Mental Health
Morris et al, 2016: Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline
Bauer et al, 2014: Omega-3 Supplementation improves cognition and modifies brain activation in young adults
Miller et al, 2018 (Dietary Blueberry Improves Cognition Among Older Adults in a Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial
Khalid et al. 2017: Pharmacological Effects of Turmeric on Learning, Memory and Expression of Muscarinic Receptor Genes (M1, M3 and M5) in Stress-induced Mouse Model
Mental Health Foundation, 2018: