Nutrition and Brain Health


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Written by Phillippa Quigley

We all know that we should be eating healthy and consuming a varied diet to ensure we are keeping our bodies in their most optimal state. But what about our brain? What’s the link between nutrition and brain health?

In this article we will discuss why nutrition is so important for our brain health, and the impact that a poor diet can have on our cognitive and mental wellbeing.

How does food effect our brain?

The brain is the most complex part of our anatomy. It powers functions such as; our behavior and emotions, memory, learning, body temperature, movement and hunger. 

The average brain weighs nearly 3lbs, and it needs to be kept in the best conditions in order for it to function properly and as optimally as possible. 

Whilst we can’t just simply eat our way to becoming a genius, what we can do is eat a healthy diet and enjoy a healthy lifestyle so that we can ensure we are doing our best to keep our brain in the best shape and for longer in to our lives. 

What is the best diet for brain health?

We want to ensure we are eating a varied diet full of fruit and vegetables. Research suggests that ensuring we eat whole grains, nuts, seeds and healthy fats and oils, will provide protection for our brains. 

The Mediterranean diet fits the mould for this type of approach. This diet is mainly plant-based, and is high in nutrients and anti-oxidants, and low in sugar, meat and saturated fats. 

When we focus on a diet for brain health we are doing our part to help protect ourselves from degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. 

A lot of degenerative diseases are caused by inflammation in the brain, and the Mediterranean diet includes lots of foods which are anti-inflammatory. Therefore, you can see how nutrition and brain health really do go hand in hand. 

Which foods can have a negative impact on our brain health?

When we don’t maintain a healthy diet, or we consume too much of a food that negatively affects the brain, we increase the risk of having a degenerative disease as well as impacting our memory.

It won’t be any surprise that the foods that have a negative impact on our cognitive abilities are sugar, highly processed foods and alcohol. There are also some types of fish that can have a negative impact. Not that we want to avoid it completely but enjoy it in moderation.

Lets take a look at some of foods that are the worst for our brain health.

Refined Carbohydrates

image of sugar and refined carbs

These are ‘carbs’ which are processed and made with white flour. Foods such as; white bread, cakes, pastries, pies and some packaged cereals. They will contain sugar, and cause a spike in your blood sugar levels. 

If we consume lots of refined carbohydrates, our blood sugar levels will be raised too high. It is this that effects our cognitive function. They can cause poor memory, and trigger inflammation in the brain.


Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that is used in many foods and drinks, which are sugar free. It is in no way a healthier option! 

When people are trying to lose weight or cut down on sugar, the alternative options may appear like the better choice. However, sweeteners are themselves a health hazard. 

The trap you must not fall in to with sugar-free options is that; you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) drink lots of cans of Coke in a day. Then because Diet Coke is the ‘healthier’ option, it means it’s ok to drink more of it. What happens here is, your consumption of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame increases significantly. 

It is believed that aspartame causes cognitive issues as well as effecting people’s mood and behavior. Aspartame gets broken down into; phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol. 

Phenylalanine can affect the production of neurotransmitters such as; serotonin and dopamine. These two neurotransmitters are responsible for our moods, serotonin is known as the ‘happy hormone’. If production is negatively affected, then our moods will be low and we will be more susceptible to depression. 

We don’t need to go into too much scientific discussion to know already how highly processed, high sugar content foods can affect the way we feel. We can indulge in certain foods and enjoy the very moment we are eating them, to then feel quite low soon after. That is the blood sugar spike effect. 

Trans Fats

Trans fats are also known as unsaturated fats. Some unsaturated fats can occur naturally from meat and dairy products, and eaten in moderation can cause little impact. Other trans fats which are industrially processed are a concern for our health. 

Trans fats are created when liquid oils are turned into solid fats, an example being margarine. They raise your cholesterol levels in your blood, therefore create a major risk for your cardiovascular health. 

In terms of your brain health, it has been found that people who consume high amounts of trans fats suffer from poor memory, increased cognitive function decline and have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

You can find trans fats in; pre made cake and cookie mixtures, frosting, margarine, fried foods and shortening. 

Processed Foods

Highly processed foods tend to come in the form of convenience foods. They are high in sugar, salt and contain added fats. The food will be starved of nutrients and will be high in calories. 

Examples of highly processed foods are; instant noodles, ready-made meals, ice cream, sausages, bacon, crisps, cakes and biscuits. 

The reason why these foods affect our brain health is that they are full of things that cause inflammation in our body. Where there is inflammation there can be disease. They offer no nutrients that help our body’s stay healthy, therefore if you eat lots of them, it will effect your brain health negatively. 


We know no good comes from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. However, when enjoyed in moderation, it can be a nice addition to your food and general lifestyle. Some alcoholic beverages do actually have some health benefits – we’ll get to those soon.

If we drink to excess, and binge drink alcohol, it can have very negative consequences for our health. Alcohol makes our brains struggle with its simplest of roles such as; speech, memory and balance. An alcoholic would suffer with chronic damage to their cognitive functions as well as it reducing the actual volume of the brain. 

A person who drinks a large amount of alcohol would find that their quality of sleep is disrupted, and that they would feel sleep deprived.

Therefore, if you drink regularly but wouldn’t class yourself as addicted, your sleep would still suffer quite significantly. When our brain does not get adequate rest during sleep, we would feel our cognitive functions would be negatively impacted.  

Fish containing Mercury

Most fish have lots of health benefits. When it comes to our brain health, we must be careful of some fish where they have been susceptible to consuming mercury. 

Mercury is a naturally occurring element found in food, water and air. It is a neurotoxin that can disrupt our central nervous system and neurotransmitters which then causes cognitive decline. We are exposed to mercury when we eat certain fish or shellfish, therefore we need to limit our intake of fish to two or three servings of fish, and be considerate of which fish to eat. 

Fish which are thought to contain high levels of mercury are; swordfish, tuna, shark, king mackerel, marlin, and a few more. It is recommended that you do your research of the area you live in before you consume local fish. 

What foods should you eat for good brain health?

Now we have covered what foods you need to be aware of that can cause poor brain health, let’s look at which ones we want to consume to better our brains.

Fruit & Vegetables

We discussed the Mediterranean diet earlier. This diet is traditionally high in fruits and vegetables, as well as legumes and a moderate consumption of oily fish and dairy products. It is also low in meat produce. 

The diet is very popular and famous for being one of the healthiest diet and lifestyle approaches due its prevention of various diseases and increase in a healthy lifespan. 

Fruit and vegetables are really important to our brain health as they are full of nutrients that improve our cognitive functions. 

For example, fruit such as oranges, kiwi and strawberries, are full of Vitamin C which is so important in preventing mental decline. Vitamin C prevents our brain cells from becoming damaged.

Leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, kale and spinach are rich in Vitamin K. Known more for its role in clotting blood, Vitamin K plays a big role as well in brain health. It also helps regulate calcium in our bones and brain, therefore helping to prevent degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. 

Berries such as blueberries, blackberries and raspberries contain the highest amount of antioxidants. We need antioxidants to help limit oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. By including these berries in your diet, it will improve cell to cell communication in your brain. This will with your cognitive function and memory. 

Dark Chocolate

dark chocolate for brain health

It is always nice to know that some kind of chocolate can have it’s place in a healthy diet! However, it must be consumed in moderation to reap the benefits. It is recommended to have 30 – 60 grams a day

Dark Chocolate contains 70% or more cocoa. It is this that holds the health benefits of flavonoids, caffeine and antioxidants. Flavonoids are natural substances which come from plants. They are an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and very beneficial to our health. 

It is thought that those who include dark chocolate as part of a health diet see a positive impact on their mood and memory. 


There are many herbs and spices that are thought to improve your brain health, many have been researched for their impact on Alzheimer’s disease.

Turmeric is very well reported for it’s anti-inflammatory properties. It contains curcumin which is both anti-inflammatory and has antioxidant effects. Turmeric is thought to help prevent Alzheimer’s by clearing the brain of protein fragments, which would form the disease. 

When cooking with turmeric, be sure to add black pepper to help with the absorption. We often see this in popular nootropics in the form of Piperine – and again is there to help with the absorption of the other cognition enhancing ingredients.

Sage is another spice which is known for helping improve memory. It is full of antioxidants, and has anti-inflammatory properties. It can help people improve their attention and also mood. This has been found in people of all ages, not just those who are trying it to ease degenerative brain diseases. 

You can add sage to your cooking or drink it as a herbal tea. 


It is being reported more than ever now about the gut-brain axis. Our gut and our central nervous system communicate. We must keep our gut microbiome healthy for lots of health reasons, but especially for our brain health. 

If we don’t look after our gut, then we can feel the impact in our mental health. Poor gut health is linked with anxiety, depression and fatigue. When our gut is ‘overgrown’ with unwanted bacteria it has been linked to the development of neurological conditions such as Dementia and Parkinson’s.

Probiotics help us build the population of healthy bacteria in our gut. Therefore we want to ensure we include fermented foods in our diets such as; kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut. 


We must view our brain health as important, if not more important, than our physical health. Taking the time to consider which foods you are consuming for better cognitive function is paramount. 

If you are feeling that your brain health is not as optimal as you think it should be, then you must address your diet and lifestyle and make positive changes. 

You must also contact your healthcare provider if you think you are seeing symptoms of the conditions and diseases mentioned in this article. 

Phillippa Quigley headshot

This article was written by: Phillippa Quigley – SOMA Analytics Nutritionist and Holistic Health Coach

Phillippa is the owner and founder of Health and Soul and coaches and supports clients in the field of women’s health, nutrition, stress management, lifestyle, mindset, weight loss and general fitness.

She has a young family, loves the outdoors and has a wide range of hobbies that help her manage her own mental and physical health.