Can nutrition impact your brain health?

March 20, 2024

You are what you eat, so the saying goes. 

Nutrition plays a fundamental role in our overall health and well-being. It also plays a pivotal role in supporting our brain health.

What we eat influences energy levels, mood, cognitive function and the development of chronic diseases, and yet despite its importance, the world of nutrition can be complex and confusing. 

At its core, nutrition is the science of how the body utilises the nutrients it receives from food. These nutrients are passed through the body and absorbed into the bloodstream, working hard to encourage growth, maintenance and repair, further serving a specific role to achieve a state of balance in the body known as homeostasis. In addition, these nutrients support healthy brain function working to reduce the risk of cognitive decline in later life. 

These nutrients can be classified as substances that are essential for the human body, and can be broken down into the following categories: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and water. Following a healthy diet based on these food groups – a high intake of plant-based foods, nuts, omega-3s and a low intake of saturated fats, animal-based proteins and refined sugars – the risk of neurocognitive decline and impairment can be reduced, limiting the risk of  dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in later life. (Pistollato et al., 2018; Abduljawad et al., 2022)

Here is an overview of each food group and their key importance to our overall well being and cognitive function: 

  • Micronutrients: are nutrients that are required in smaller quantities but are equally essential for various physiological functions including myelin formation. 
  • Vitamins: are organic compounds that regulate numerous biochemical reactions in the body, supporting processes such as energy production, immune function and tissue repair. 
  • Minerals: are inorganic substances essential for various bodily functions, including bone health, fluid balance and nerve transmission. Minerals include calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc. 
  • Carbohydrates: are the body’s primary source of energy. They are found in foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates (starches and fibre). Choosing complex carbohydrates over simple sugars is generally recommended as they provide sustained energy and are accompanied by essential nutrients and fibre.
  • Proteins: are crucial for building and repairing tissues, producing enzymes and hormones, all the while supporting immune function. Good sources of protein include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts and seeds. It’s essential to consume a variety of protein sources to ensure adequate intake of all essential amino acids which are the building blocks of protein.
  • Fats: play a vital role in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. They provide a concentrated source of energy, insulating organs and forming cell membranes. Healthy sources of fats include avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, fatty fish and coconut oil. 
  • Water: is often overlooked but is arguably the most critical nutrient for survival. As humans, we can survive for 30 days without food, but without water we can only survive for three. Water is involved in almost every bodily function including digestion, nutrient transport, temperature regulation and waste removal. Staying adequately hydrated is crucial for overall health and for supporting cognitive function.

Achieving a balanced diet to support brain health as well as the body, involves consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods from all food groups. Aim to fill your plate with colourful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. Moderation and portion control are also essential, as overconsumption of even healthy foods can lead to weight gain and other health issues.

Understanding the basics of nutrition is the first step towards looking after your brain health, reducing the risk of cognitive decline, and supporting overall well being in daily life. Nutrition is not about deprivation or strict rules but rather about balance, variety and moderation. 

For more information on nutrition, head over to Instagram @brainhealthnetwork and watch our short video with Professor Jeremy Spencer, an academic specialising in nutrition and cognitive function, on the 5 foods that can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline.