Updated: Nov 18
Written by Meredith Krayenhoff, Registered Dietitian. Published October 15th 2023.
Medically reviewed by Serena Benali, Registered Dietitian.
We often think about nutrition as fuelling and nurturing the health of our bodies, but it's also crucial for supporting brain health.
In this blog, we'll unpack the connection between brain health and nutrition and provide you with the steps to how you can keep your brain healthy for years to come!
The Early Roots of Brain Health: Planting the Seeds
While we more often see the impact of poor brain health and function as we get older, the seeds for this decline are actually sown earlier in life.
We can think about it in the same way we see osteoporosis (a condition where the bones become weak), as a young person’s disease where the effects don’t show up until several decades later. For this reason, it’s important to think about feeding your brain a variety of nutrients throughout your whole life. Secondly, nutrition has a strong impact on mood and mood disorders. While nutrition isn’t the only thing impacting your mental health, it’s tough to feel your best without this solid foundation.
What Makes Up Your Brain OR The Brain's Structure
The phrase “you are what you eat” is certainly true when discussing the brain. Your brain is physically made up of 60% fat.
We all have slightly different brain compositions, depending on the types of fats we eat. The best composition involves a high proportion of omega-3 fats, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is found mostly in fish, seafood, enriched egg yolks, and supplements. DHA is unique because of its shape and flexibility. When multiple DHA units bond, they form a highly adaptable layer, which translates into a brain that is more flexible and responsive to stimuli.
The Brain's Fuel: Glucose
Even though your brain makes up just 2% of your body weight, it utilizes an impressive 20% of the body's energy requirements. At the heart of this energy consumption is glucose, the brain's principal source of fuel. Glucose is derived from carbohydrates, and is crucial for optimal brain activity. Ensuring a steady flow of glucose to the brain, without sudden spikes, is vital for the brain's overall health, efficiency and well-being.
The Protein-Brain Connection
Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers your brain uses to communicate with the rest of your body. Proteins play a pivotal role in the brain's ability to do this. These proteins primarily assist in the formation of neurotransmitters, which act as our body's communication agents.
The effectiveness of these neurotransmitters depends on the quality of protein we consume, particularly the array of amino acids present in them. Think of amino acids as puzzle pieces. To complete the puzzle, you need every piece to fit perfectly. In the same manner, to ensure optimal brain function and mood stability, our body requires a balanced proportion of these amino acids. An imbalance can disrupt cognitive processes and mood regulation, highlighting the significance of consuming high-quality proteins.
Protecting Brain Health with Antioxidants
Antioxidants are the tools that will “rust-proof” your brain. They act as a protective shield, warding off potential harm. While many antioxidants are derived from plants and vitamins, it's interesting to note that our bodies also make them (neat!) To optimize this natural production, it's essential to eat a balanced diet that ensures adequate intake of the building blocks for antioxidants, namely copper, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc.
How Can We Harness the Power of Food to Maximize Brain Health?
Research has shown the MIND diet to be highly effective in boosting cognitive function and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. "MIND" is short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. Despite It being quite the mouthful, its essence is simple: adhering to this dietary approach enhances the chances of maintaining healthy brain function as you grow older.
Wondering how to incorporate the MIND diet into your routine? Here are some guidelines to chew on (pun intended ;)):
Eating for a Healthier MIND:
Have green leafy vegetables daily
Consider adding spinach to your morning smoothie, frozen kale in your soup, or whipping up a quick salad out of romaine lettuce.
Diversify your vegetable intake
Consume various vegetables multiple times daily. This could include raw snap peas dipped in a dill yogurt dip, fresh garden tomatoes sliced onto a sandwich, or some roasted cauliflower drizzled with garlic avocado sauce.
For more easy and practical tips on how to add a variety of vegetables into your diet, check out our blog on how to eat more vegetables.
Make nuts a daily habit
Nuts and seeds are about the easiest, and nutritious, snack out there: they’re filling, don’t require any preparation, and can be packed around without needing refrigeration.
Have berries two or more times per week
Opt for berries, whether fresh or frozen, for convenience all year round. Keep a big bag of blueberries or raspberries in the freezer, and pull out a handful for your yogurt or oatmeal in the morning.
Have pulses like beans, lentils and chickpeas every other day
These can be incorporated into any meal or snack. Warm up a quick lentil soup for lunch, enjoy some black beans in your tacos at dinner, or munch on roasted chickpeas in the evening.
Have whole grains three times per day
Many of us tend to eat a lot of wheat and rice in our diets, but the options here are vast! From barley pilaf, to popped amaranth, to savoury oats. Take a trip to your local grocery store and try something new!
Have fish at least once per week
Fish can be fresh, frozen or canned, depending on your preferences and the availability in your area. Look for low mercury fatty fish, such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, herring, and light (skipjack) tuna.
Have poultry two or more times per week
Both chicken and turkey have high quality brain-boosting protein, but note that for the MIND diet, it’s ideally cooked gently, without frying.
Use olive oil as your main oil
Make extra virgin olive oil your primary cooking and dressing oil. It's versatile and is best used raw, or only lightly heated - great for drizzling over dishes, blending into dressings, or pairing with balsamic vinegar for a rustic bread dip.
A benefit of the MIND diet is that it doesn’t have to be perfect to have a positive impact on your brain. Even those who follow this diet sometimes or most of the time will see benefits!
Key Takeaways: Brain Health & Diet
Eating good food is important for our bodies and our brains. The food we eat can help our brains work better now and in the future. Just like putting the right oil in a car makes it run well, eating the right food helps our brain run well.
Embracing a diet that prioritizes brain health not only secures our cognitive future but enhances our present, allowing us to experience life with clarity, joy, and purpose.
Boost Your Brain & Mental Health with a Dietitian Today!
Book an appointment with a dietitian, take a proactive step towards enhancing your brain health and overall mental wellness.
Our team of dietitians offer a tailored approach, understanding your unique needs and providing actionable, science-backed strategies on nutrition. Contact us or book your session today and unlock the benefits of optimized nutrition for your brain and mental well-being!