Diet plays an integral role in the genesis of many diseases and our nutritional habits have a profound effect on our mental health, including depression, insomnia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The quality of our diet impacts not only our physical health but also our brain health.
The quality of our diet impacts not only our physical health but also our brain health. Mounting evidence indicates that the contemporary Western dietary pattern – characterized by higher intakes of red and processed meat, refined sugars and grains, alcohol, and high-fat dairy products, with minimal intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and fish – is strongly associated with negative health outcomes.
The vitamins and minerals that we take through the foods that we eat or through supplementation are used in every metabolic step in our brains. You might want to do a no-bad-fat diet but not a low-fat diet, because every cell in our body is made up of fat. About two-thirds of our brain is composed of fat, and fatty acids are among the most crucial molecules that determine the brain’s integrity and ability to perform. Although essential fatty acids (EFAs), particularly the omega-3 fatty acids, are important for brain development, they cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from dietary sources. The most common food sources of EFAs include seafood, such as sardines and salmon, as well as flax seeds, walnuts, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli and spinach), olive oil, whole grain foods, and eggs.
Diets that are high in carbohydrates and sugars have been linked to an increased risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia. The Western diet is high in both sugar and the less-healthy carbohydrates that get converted to sugar more quickly (as opposed to complex carbohydrates such as vegetables or legumes). Lower intakes of nutrient-dense foods and higher intakes of unhealthy “Western” foods have even been associated with smaller left hippocampal volume, a brain area critical for learning and memory, as well as mood regulation, and is especially vulnerable to damage at early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
While consuming brain-healthy foods is critical at all ages, this becomes increasingly important as we age because our ability to absorb and utilize many nutrients becomes less efficient, as our nutrient requirements simultaneously increase. If you want to live as long as we’re living and still have your brain intact, cut out the processed food and the sugar from your diet.