What is Brain Food?

By: Mira Postelnek  |  September 19, 2022

By Mira Postelnek

“We are what we eat” is a saying we’ve all heard since elementary school, and honestly, it’s always seemed like a silly expression at best. However, as we mature, it’s become apparent that what we put into our bodies seriously affects us. Of course, in a society with an unhealthy and obsessive focus on weight loss and fad diets, one can easily get lost in the craziness of it all. From keto to intermittent fasting, we sometimes lose focus on why we care about what we eat in the first place. It’s common knowledge that consistent exercising, managing blood pressure, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, and having a healthy balanced diet can promote energy and overall well-being. There is, however, an equally considerable correlation between one’s diet and mental health, cognition, and memory, which is often overlooked. 

Numerous studies have shown that diligently adhering to a “Mediterranean diet”, which consists of a plant based diet, can help boost one’s cognitive health, increase energy, and reduce depressive symptoms. For example, a study by Europe PMC showed that a “Mediterranean diet” could significantly reduce inflammation in our bodies and boost cognition as well as memory. In comparison, high-calorie meals, rich in saturated fats, stimulate inflammatory effects, which lead to detrimental effects on brain health as well as cognitive impairments and damage to the blood-brain barrier. Furthermore, an observational study showed individuals with depression scored having significantly higher depressive symptoms when eating foods associated with inflammation and lower intakes of nutritional food. This correlation can partly be explained by the mechanisms of transferring food to neurons. The brain requires an immense amount of energy, and the process of transferring energy from food to neurons fundamentally controls brain function. Therefore, converting energy in neurons can affect synaptic plasticity, which explains how metabolic disorders can potentially disturb brain function/cognition. 

A study conducted by The New York Academy of Science explored the evidence of cognition decline and dementia risk with high-fat diets. They found diets high in fruit, vegetables, and fish, mirrored the prior results, with heightened cognition and decreased risk of dementia. One benefit from plant polyphenols (found in fruit, vegetables, and nuts) is the antioxidant vitamins they provide, which assists in brain function. Another vital benefit is the omega-3 fatty acids which support neurotransmission and have anti-inflammatory effects, while a lack of this essential hydrocarbon can promote inflammation and compromise cognitive function. Additionally, Omega-3 supports brain flow to the brain, resulting in higher memory and comprehension performance.  

Given the contrary effects of these two diet choices, the evidence shows that consumption of a “Mediterranean diet” can create the most successful outcomes for both mood and cognition. With this knowledge, hopefully, as the semester progresses, we can all make small choices to add more of these helpful nutrients into our diet to promote our success.