How can my diet affect my brain?

Dr. Robin Miller, MD
Internal Medicine
The Mediterranean diet, which contains food that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, has shown to be good for brain function. In this video, Robin Miller, MD, reports on how this type of diet helps prevent problems with memory and thinking.
Did you know that your brain uses 20 to 30 percent of the calories you consume? Your cells -- especially your brain cells -- need certain types of high-quality nutrients to operate at peak performance.  If you want to live longer, look younger, be smarter and feel happier, you have to give your brain and body high-quality nutrition. In short: eat right to think right. Whenever I have a speaking engagement or book signing, people always ask me what I eat on a typical day. I have a fruit shake with my wife Tana's stevia-sweetened pea-protein powder for breakfast. I bring fresh-cut veggies with a little guacamole to work as a morning snack. I usually have a 350-calorie chicken and veggie stir fry with green tea for lunch. I have a nutrition bar and a few raw nuts as an afternoon snack. For dinner, I will often have a large salad or soup, plenty of veggies, and some form of protein like ahi tuna, wild salmon, or turkey if I need to focus in the evening. For the salad, I always put the dressing on the side. Why? I want to control the calories that go into my body. And, I always have dessert; usually frozen blueberries with Greek yogurt. With these brain healthy meals, I usually get eight or nine servings of fruits and veggies a day. It adds up to about 1,700 calories, which is slightly less than the 2,000 calories necessary to maintain my weight. Research shows that eating fewer calories than you need leads to a better brain and better overall health. I want to be in the group with the better brain, so I choose to eat fewer calories. Plus, I have no cravings, which I truly love -- and I feel happy and energetic!
Sugars in the diet, or the lack thereof, can affect the energy source for the brain. The brain uses a lot of glucose or sugar to maintain activity. If someone doesn’t eat sugars/carbs, then the brain can use ketones as an energy source. 12-14 hours after the body last ingests carbs, the body starts to go into mild ketosis. If no protein is available from the diet to turn into ketones, the body starts to break down its fat and muscles to provide energy for the brain. 

Another way to affect the brain through the diet is by fats. The brain cells have a fluid membrane or outer surface made up of various types of fats. This outer surface needs to be flexible and fluid enough to transmit electrical signals from one cell to another. Some types of fats are more liquid at room temperature, while others are more solid. A fine balance between the various types of fats is needed for the brain to function at the best of its ability.

Certain types of fats in larger quantities are not good for the brain, especially trans and saturated fats. Recent studies are suggesting that these types of fats may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and declining brain function.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
Two research studies drill down deep into food's good -- and bad -- effects on your gray matter. Here's the verdict:
  • Good food results in fewer "silent" brain problems. Brain scans of 966 elderly New York City residents show that loading your plate with food from the Mediterranean diet (vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, and a little wine) protects tiny blood vessels in the brain. People who ate this way had less blood vessel damage caused by silent strokes that fuzz up your ability to balance your checkbook, remember your neighbor's name, or play a mean game of pinochle.
  • The right nutrients boost sharp thinking and keep your brain bigger, too! When nearly 100 elderly women and men had their blood tested for key vitamins and fats, then took a thinking-skills test (some had their brain size measured, too), an "eat healthy" pattern emerged among the people with the best test scores. Those with higher levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids and of vitamins B, C, D, and E had the sharpest minds and largest total brain volume. Those with the highest levels of trans fats -- the nasty fats found in processed foods -- didn't fare as well.
The brain is arguably the most complex and important organ in the body, and research suggests your diet can affect your brain. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia rates have been on the rise recently as the population continues to age.

We know that a healthy diet and regular exercise can help prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, but can it work for your brain too? It’s looking like the answer is yes. The evidence suggests that a healthy diet rich in the right nutrients is good for your brain, and can help boost memory, delay dementia and protect against neurodegenerative diseases.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.