The link between diet and health is a fairly well known one.
Most of us know that eating poorly can have many different impacts on our bodies, including the potential to increase disease risk, not to mention weight gain.
But, does your diet affect your brain?
Logic suggests that it would.
After all, the brain relies on energy and nutrients from food just as much as the rest of your body. But, what does the science say? And, what are the implications of a bad diet on brain health?
How Does Your Diet Affect Your Brain?
The human body is a complex system that involves many different components and chemical reactions. Because of this, even small decisions and actions can have large impacts on the body.
For one thing, high-quality foods tend to offer the body more useful components, including antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. These components help to ensure the body functions efficiently and optimally.
In contrast, other types of food can have different effects.
Such a connection really isn’t that surprising.
After all, many people find that some foods can affect their mood, especially in the short-term. Both coffee and chocolate are well-known for having this effect, although the outcome may be partly connected to our own expectations.
There are many other examples and research in the area is still ongoing.
Likewise, a person following a healthy diet is probably going to feel better physically and emotionally than somebody who isn’t.
There are many exceptions, of course, and the relationship isn’t going to be as simple as that.
Still, it’s clear that our diets do affect our brains.
For that matter, this impact may be much more significant than most people realize.
The Field of Nutritional Psychiatry
There are many specific ways that nutrition could influence the brain but one interesting one is the connection between diet and mental health.
This topic suggests that the answer to ‘does your diet affect your brain’ is a resounding yes. Furthermore, the area indicates that diet could potentially impact mental health and the risk of mental illness.
The field related to this area is known as nutritional psychiatry.
For the most part, the topic is still a relatively new area of study. As a result, there is much that we don’t know about the connection between nutrition and mental health.
But, some patterns are emerging.
For example, reviews of current research show a connection between diet quality and mental health outcomes, especially in relation to depression. These patterns are present across age groups, cultures and countries, indicating that the issue is a prevalent one (1,2,3).
Now, this research does mostly use an observational approach, which means that it doesn’t test cause and effect. As such, the outcomes are somewhat limited.
But, the prevalence and strength of the observed patterns do suggest a relationship. Besides that, the potential for diet to influence mental health does make sense.
For example, some research argues that this type of connection may be related to gut health. Basically, we have bacteria in our gut that play a key role in a number of functions. Collectively, these bacteria are called gut flora or microbiota.
Estimates suggest that there may be as many as 1,000 beneficial species of bacteria in our gut and their impacts can be dramatic (7).
Maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria is thought to be critical for health in many ways. This is actually one reason why fermented foods and probiotics (particularly in yogurt) are so important.
Overall, the food you eat can affect your gut health and this has the potential to impact both physical and mental health. Now, the relationship between mental health and the gut is just one way that your diet can affect your brain but it is a significant area to consider.
Another potential relationship is the impact of nutrient deficiencies. For example, one of the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency is depression, particularly in older adults (8,9,10). It’s possible that other types of deficiencies could also contribute to issues in the brain.
After all, the body does rely heavily on the nutrients that we get from food. If those nutrients are limited, then the impacts are often significant.
As the field of nutritional psychiatry grows, we’re likely to see more such connections.
So, the simple answer to ‘does your diet affect your brain’ is yes. But, much more research is needed to figure out the precise mechanisms and ways to improve outcomes.
For example, one study has been focusing on the use of diet as a treatment for depression, although results are not yet in (11).
Even though the research has been limited, holistic approaches for treating mental illness (particularly depression) often rely on diet. In many cases, this can include cutting down on caffeine and refined sugar (12).
Likewise, some people argue that antioxidants can help with depression (and with brain health in general) because they can prevent cell damage (13). This suggests a heavy reliance on fruit and vegetables, especially options like pomegranate, blueberries and tart cherries.
Now, good nutrition isn’t going to simply cure many mental illnesses. However, making healthy food choices can still be a key component of treatment and a great idea all around.
Nutritional psychiatry focuses on the connection between mental health and food - and there is significant evidence for this relationship
The Best Approach for Health
It’s clear that your diet does truly affect your brain. However, there are still so many gaps in our knowledge on this topic.
Because of this, there is no set diet that offers the best health outcomes for your brain. However, it’s likely that approaches to promote physical health will also lead to positive outcomes for your brain.
One example would be choosing foods that reduce inflammation as much as possible while avoiding too much sugar and processed products. Instead, you’re better off relying on healthy options and recipes that focus heavily on whole foods.
Making these types of food decisions can be critical for improving your overall physical health and may help reduce any negative impacts on the brain.
There is also evidence that some individual foods may offer benefits for the brain and also for mental health. For example, the site Psychology Today talks about the link between diet and depression, while Dallas Behavioral highlights foods that can help fight depression and anxiety.
Some people advocate for taking this process a step further.
For example, you could cut out refined sugar altogether, along with processed foods. You might choose to avoid wheat or focus on an entirely gluten-free diet.
In most cases, the solution is to make changes to your diet and see what works best for you. Most people probably won’t need to make extreme changes (and those changes are often unsustainable).
But, the answer for you personally could be very different than for somebody else.
Want to Improve Your Health?
Better health starts in the kitchen, with the food that you eat and the meals you prepare. Getting the best outcomes involves making good choices about the food and the ingredients that you use.
Check out my recommended products to see where you can get started.