18 November 2014 Think Brain Food

I once worked with a teacher who came to me for advice because his diet and lifestyle were unhealthy. He ate mainly fast food and drank large amounts of caffeinated sodas to get through his day. He complained of fatigue and reported his brain felt foggy, which was not a good thing when in front of a class all day. I advised him to wean himself off the sodas, drink more water and taught him how to replace the fast food with more simple, healthy meals and snacks. A few months later, I got a phone call from this gentleman. He announced, “I make sense now.” When I asked him to explain further, he replied, “Now my brain is so much clearer when I am teaching class, I am a better teacher!” Think about it.

It is well established that nutrition impacts brain structure and function (1). Nutrition’s impact on the brain has been studied throughout the life cycle, from pre-pregnancy to the elderly. The role of nutrition on brain function is complex. For one, it is difficult to isolate single nutrients and antioxidants because we eat foods, not single substances. Neuroscientists also think there is probably a combination effect of nutrition with exercise, hormones and genetic makeup of an individual. That said, common themes are emerging in neuroscience to show healthy nutrition can play a critical role to enhance brain function, prevent dysfunction and ward off disease (2, 3). So, whether you are a college student trying to ace the next exam, a pregnant woman desiring to grow a smart baby or a baby boomer wanting to hang on to every last brain cell, nutrition matters.

Nutrition words of wisdom:

1. Include plenty of plant foods in your diet. The brain is a highly metabolic organ and is at risk of oxidative damage. Go for a variety of colors when choosing fruits and vegetables in order to get a wide array of antioxidants. Whole grains offer more antioxidants than refined types.

2. Go Mediterranean. An analysis of several studies showed that higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease by 13% (4). This style of eating is known for its high intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds. It is also low in red meat, animal fat and processed foods.

3. Seek out omega 3s. The omega 3 fatty acids, especially DHA, are thought to be very important for optimal brain structure and function. DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain cell membrane. DHA also helps protect the brain from inflammation. The body is not real great at producing DHA so we need dietary sources. Choose fatty fish, such as ocean salmon and tuna, leafy greens, walnuts, flax seed and chia seed.

4. Go easy on saturated fat and trans fat. Quite simply, the brain benefits from healthy blood flow. Brain health is yet another reason to go lean, low fat, and to eat less processed foods.

5. Tame the sweet tooth. If you have diabetes or insulin resistance, high blood sugar and high insulin levels can adversely affect brain health. The important memory region of the brain, the hippocampus, is especially sensitive to uncontrolled blood sugar.

6. Watch the portions. Excess calories have been shown to reduce neuron function and increase the vulnerability of brain cells to damage. On the other hand, mild caloric restriction, may positively impact brain capacity. Go for feeling comfortable, not stuffed when eating.

7. Stay hydrated. Water is necessary to maintain the membranes of the brain for normal function. Water also keeps the brain from overheating, which can cause cognitive decline and possible damage.

8. Get your A, B, Cs of nutrients. Quite a few micronutrients are known to be essential brain protectors, including vitamins A, E, C, iron, zinc, folate. These nutrients appear to work as a team for brain health. Seek out a variety of whole, less processed foods to get plenty of nutrients. A daily multivitamin-mineral supplement can also be an added bonus to a healthy diet.

9. Exercise and sleep. Research indicates that the effects of diet on the brain work in symphony with other important lifestyle factors, such as exercise and adequate sleep.

Reviewing the current literature on nutrition and cognitive neuroscience certainly challenged my brain’s capacity. I snacked on berries, baby carrots and walnuts while reading about this topic in hopes it would fuel my neurons to process this complicated, yet promising area of health. In conclusion, eat smart and try to choose your foods wisely.


  1. Gomez-Pinilla F. Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008;9(7):568-578.
  2. Dauncey MJ. New insights into nutrition and cognitive neuroscience. Proceedings of the Nutriton Society. 2009;68:408-415.
  3. Emerson Lombardo NB. Evidence-based memory preservation nutrition. Today’s Dietitian. Oct. 2014;20-22.
  4. Sofi F, Cesari C, Abbate R etal. Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. Br Med J. 2008;337-344.

Brenda Braslow, MS, RD, CDE

Brenda is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Denver,

Colorado who specializes in diabetes prevention and health enhancement.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


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