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Diet

Are We What We Eat? Nutritional Psychiatry and Brain Health

Our brains are hungry. Here's what to eat.

Key points

  • Our brains hunger for optimal nutrition.
  • Our food choices directly influence our brain health and mood.
  • Experts recommend foods containing essential fatty acids.

Many folks start their day with a cup (or two or three) of coffee and that’s about it. They try to make it to lunch, perhaps inhaling a muffin if they are really hungry. But our bodies and brains in these situations are starving for proper nutrition. Research from nutritional psychiatry suggests there is much we can do to improve upon this situation. Here are a few principles that you may find helpful.

1. While our brains are only 2% of our body weight, they consume 20% to 25% of our energy when we’re active (Wilson, 2022). Our brains need sustenance, and if not fed properly, they go hungry. Nutrition has powerful impacts on our health in general, and brain health, specifically. We need to feed it regularly and nutritiously to be our best.

2. What we eat is strongly connected to brain and mood health. It matters what we put in our bodies. Some foods are high in antioxidants and help our body to protect itself from free radicals and oxidative processes, thereby reducing inflammation. In contrast, some foods cause inflammation, which has been linked to incidence of cancer and also mood disorders like depression. Poor and irregular eating can lead to drops in blood sugar, irritability, and struggles with cognitive performance (Wilson, 2022). We can become easily stressed, anxious, and confused when our brains are not properly fed. What are some examples of foods we should be getting more of?

3. Eat more fish. Fatty fish, like cod, trout, Alaskan salmon, mackerel, and herring are highly recommended by nutritionists. Why? There are good kinds of fats and bad kinds of fats, and fatty fish are rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids that are essential fats (i.e., our bodies do not produce on their own). Omega-3s work to decrease inflammation and cut the risk of heart disease. They’re important for prenatal development in babies, too. At least two servings of these fatty fish per week are recommended by nutritionists and dieticians (Wilson, 2022). Because I really like all of these fish, I initially thought I must be doing well in consuming the recommended portions; a review of my eating habits in the past month revealed that I eat only about three portions a month. (By the way, avoid fish with high levels of mercury contamination, such as swordfish, king mackerel, shark, and tilefish). Baked and broiled fish are healthier than fried. Folks often find themselves eating burgers, steak, and tacos, but it’s a good idea to mix it up and have healthier options every week, as these foods are high in cholesterol and saturated fats, are highly inflammatory, and, eaten to excess, are terrible for your heart.

Nadie Primeau/Unsplash
Essential fatty acts and phytonutrients combat inflammation.
Source: Nadie Primeau/Unsplash

4. Eat your vegetables. There is a reason that a family member insisted that you “eat your spinach.” It’s one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables available, so make it a regular ingredient in a side salad next to your avocado toast. Cruciferous vegetables, like arugula, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, are good sources of phytonutrients, plant-based compounds that may help lower inflammation and reduce the risk of cancer. They are also low-calorie and high in fiber, which helps you feel full longer. I never met a vegetable I didn’t like, but I was fortunate to grow up in a family that could afford to introduce me to all of them, and so it’s become a part of my nutritional culture. What we are used to and willing to consume can often be income-based.

5. When it comes to access to nutrition and brain health, it’s not a level playing field. Social scientists have been pointing to social determinants of health for over a decade. For instance, folks in inner-city neighborhoods frequently have much less access to fresh produce and healthier food options. In addition, many folks even above the poverty line cannot afford things like organic foods or wild Alaskan salmon twice a week, and they may not live within walking distance of a store that carries these grocery items. Food deserts exist even in first-world nations, making it much more difficult for people to feed themselves and their families the foods their brains (and rest of their bodies) need to be less stressed, less anxious, and less depressed (Wilson, 2022). This is a serious issue of equity that needs addressing if we care about the lives and well-being of everyone.

In conclusion, eating healthier has direct effects on brain and mood health, and nutritional psychiatry informs us that what we consume affects how we sharply we think, how we feel about ourselves and other people, and our outlook on the world. When it comes to food and our health, the maxim from computer science holds true for our biological systems: Garbage in, garbage out.

References

Wilson, K. (2022). How to build a healthy brain. Yellow Kite.

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