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March 25, 2021 6 min read

our brain gets its fuel from what we eat

The brain is the control center of the entire body. Even unconscious actions, like breathing or the heartbeat, are controlled by your brain.

Albeit in a different way, your brain is on while you sleep. It’s forming memories and still managing your breathing even when you aren’t awake. When you think about all that the brain does, it makes sense that the brain needs fuel. 

Like our muscles and the rest of our body, our brain gets its fuel from the fuels we eat. As you can imagine, all fuel is not created the same. Merely eating food is not the same as eating nutritious, high-quality food that properly fuels the brain. Every part of our bodies, including our brains, work best when they get quality fuel, and low-quality fuel can cause problems. 

This concept that what we eat affects our brain function and mental wellness is part of the growing field of nutritional psychiatry¹. In this guide, we’ll explore nutritional psychiatry and how you can use it to improve your cognition. 

What is Nutritional Psychiatry?

Nutritional psychiatry is about improving your mental health via diet². There are now several different studies that point to a connection between nutrition and mental health. Though the underlying mechanisms are still being explored, the present findings suggest that combined diet and lifestyle changes can prevent and treat mental health conditions to improve mental wellness. 

Sugar and the Brain 

refined sugars and processed ingredients impact mental health

Ingesting “low-quality” fuel can negatively affect mental health and emotional wellness. Processed and refined foods often include refined sugars. While refined sugars and processed ingredients undoubtedly affect our physical health, they also impact mental health. The inflammation that refined sugars produce can impact memory and attention. One study that examined rats with a high sugar diet found that the inflammatory markers were present in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory³. 

Sugar also harms mood. Elevated blood glucose levels compromise the brain’s ability to process emotion. A large study on sugar intake found that sugar can be linked to depression⁴. According to the 2017 Scientific Reports, people with the highest sugar consumption were 23% more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder than those with low sugar intake. 

While sugar and other processed foods can have lingering effects on the brain, it’s possible to reverse the adverse mental effects of sugar on the brain. According to a 2017 study, low sugar, low-GI diet reversed the memory damage caused by sugar⁵. 

Food and Emotional Wellness

Japanese bento box.jpg

Sugar is one vital consideration for the brain’s fuel, but it’s certainly not the only one. Another way that food impacts emotional wellness is via the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is essential for the following: mood regulation, sleep, appetite, and pain inhibition. As a neurotransmitter, it is produced and used in the brain; but 95% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract! The kind of bacteria you have in your gut makes up your “microbiome,” and the good bacteria are essential for producing serotonin. Gut health will not only improve nutrient absorption, but it will also activate the neural pathways to the brain. 

Western diets tend to be very heavy with meat, dairy, refined grains, and processed foods, compared with the nutrient-dense Japanese traditional or Mediterranean diet. One study examined how the different types of diet impacted mental health in women⁷. It found that the traditional dietary pattern was “associated with lower odds for major depression or dysthymia and for anxiety disorders. These results demonstrate an association between habitual diet quality and the high-prevalence mental disorders.” 

How to Incorporate Nutritional Psychiatry Into Your Life

When eating, notice a difference in your mood and emotion

The research behind and understanding how food affects your mood, energy, level, and overall mental wellness is gaining traction in nutritional psychiatry. While it’s certainly a complex topic that still has a lot of room for discovery and growth, there are ways you can benefit from nutritional psychiatry today. 

Start by monitoring how you react to foods mentally and physically. Do you feel foggy, groggy, or down after eating certain foods? Experiment with a traditional whole foods diet for a couple of weeks by cutting out all processed foods and sugars. Do you notice a difference in your mood and emotion? The beauty of nutritional psychiatry is that the same foods and dietary patterns help us mentally and physically. They give our minds and bodies the fuel we need to perform our best. 

Foods that Can Negatively Impact Mental Health 

When it comes to nutritional psychiatry, everything is about balance and moderation. While a “perfect” diet for the brain may never include processed foods, you can still significantly improve your mental wellness and enjoy an occasional treat. Overall, it would help if you were careful to limit the following:

  • Processed foods (cookies, crackers, noodles - if it comes in a box or package, chances are processed).
  • Refined sugar. 
  • Excess of dairy
  • Fried food
  • Excess of meat. It’s more than possible to have a nutrient-dense, healthy diet that includes meat, but many Western diets disproportionately consume meat. 

Nutrient-Dense Foods To Eat More Of

Berries and dark chocolate

As the findings from nutritional psychiatry suggest, traditional diets that focus on whole foods are great for mental wellness (as well as physical wellness). Some foods to incorporate into your diet more are:

  • Fish. Oily fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help to improve the structure of brain neurons. Omega-3 levels are tied to increased cognitive function. Sardines, tuna, salmon, and herring are a few examples. 
  • Berries. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries contain flavonoid antioxidants, helping reduce inflammation in the brain. One review from 2014 noted that antioxidants help the brain form new connections for learning and memory and reduce the onset of neurodegenerative diseases⁹. 
  • Broccoli. Broccoli contains antioxidants, and a lot of vitamin K. Studies found that vitamin K intake is associated with better memory¹⁰. 
  • Pumpkin seeds. These small seeds are packed with antioxidants and powerful nutrients like magnesium, copper, zinc, and iron. Deficiency in any of those micronutrients is associated with severe mental health issues. Most of the research focuses on how those micronutrients benefit the brain, and pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of them. 
  • Oranges. A single medium orange contains 100% of your daily vitamin C intake. Vitamin C is crucial for preventing mental decline and protecting against age-related mental health issues¹¹. 
  • Dark chocolate. Yes! Without a bunch of added sugar and processing, chocolate can help the brain. Dark chocolate includes caffeine, flavonoids, and antioxidants. Research has found that the flavonoids in dark chocolate can improve memory and slow age-related mental wellness decline¹². 

During National Nutrition Month, there’s no better time to start practicing these nutritional psychiatry tips than now. While any lifestyle change takes effort and consistency, the mental improvements you see from focusing on a whole-food, nutritional diet will be well worth the adjustment. Enjoying an occasional treat is certainly okay, but making the shift toward healthier eating will help you think and feel much better than you ever imagined possible.  




(1) Jacka FN (March 2017) Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to Next?

(2) Adan, RAH; van der Beek, EM; Buitelaar, JK. et al. (December 2019) Nutritional psychiatry: Towards improving mental health by what you eat

(3) Beilharz, JE; Maniam, J; Morris, MJ (June 2016) Short-term exposure to a diet high in fat and sugar, or liquid sugar, selectively impairs hippocampal-dependent memory, with differential impacts on inflammation

(4) Knüppel, A; Shipley, MJ; Llewellyn, CH. et al. (July 2017) Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study

(5) Tran, DMD; Westbrook, RF (March 2017) A high-fat high-sugar diet-induced impairment in place-recognition memory is reversible and training-dependent

(6) Camilleri, M (February 2010) Serotonin in the gastrointestinal tract

(7) Jacka, FN; Pasco, JA; Mykletun, A, et al. (January 2010) Association of Western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women

(8) Amen, DG; Harris, WS; Kidd, PM; Meysami, S; Raji, CA (2017) Quantitative Erythrocyte Omega-3 EPA Plus DHA Levels are Related to Higher Regional Cerebral Blood Flow on Brain SPECT

(9) Subash, S; Essa, MM; Al-Adawi, S; Memon, MA; Manivasagam, T; Akbar, M (August 2014) Neuroprotective effects of berry fruits on neurodegenerative diseases

(10) Soutif-Veillon, A; Ferland, G; Rolland, Y, et al. (November 2016) Increased dietary vitamin K intake is associated with less severe subjective memory complaint among older adults

(11) Hansen, SN; Tveden-Nyborg, P; Lykkesfeldt, J (September 2014) Does vitamin C deficiency affect cognitive development and function?

(12) Sokolov, AN; Pavlova, MA; Klosterhalfen, S; Enck, P (June 2013) Chocolate and the brain: neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior