Your Brain On Food: What We Know
You heard it from your Mom, and you’ve seen it on social media: Our brains work better when we eat better, healthier food. Now scientists investigating this under-researched topic are starting to confirm what many of us suspected.
“An unhealthy diet can instigate neurological changes in brain structure and functions,” says Sabrina Diano, PhD, director of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Diano and her team study things like the physiological mechanisms that regulate how much food we consume, the link between depression and appetite, and how high-fat diets cause brain inflammation. The latter may explain why various brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, are more common in people who have obesity.
Diano’s research has won awards and recognition across the globe and is illuminating the complex relationship between food and brain health.
We asked Diano to help us understand the connection, and more. Here’s what she said.
What is your current research about?
I study how nutrients—and specifically macronutrients, such as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins—act on brain cells. And how they control eating and other complex behaviors, such as anxiety, depression, learning, and memory. That means, for example, when you eat a carb, cells in your brain react to it being in your body, and those cells dictate eating and other behaviors.
We’re also looking into the connection between obesity and diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Studies have shown that people with diabetes or obesity are more likely to develop neurodegenerative disorders, and it’s possible that neuroinflammation triggered by a high-fat diet could explain the connection.
What’s the most surprising thing you've learned about nutrition and the food we eat?
I’m surprised by how much it changes. I’m surprised by how the media covers the topic. Trends are generated, often by the media telling only one part of a research study to make an appealing headline. Society follows those trends: low-fat diets, low-carb diets, ketogenic diets, protein diets, etc.
Food items are vilified then brought back as good. Eggs are bad, then good. Red meat is bad, then good. And so forth. As one gets older, these revelations are not surprising anymore, but people should be skeptical about any “new” revelations.
How do we know that food contributes to brain health?
Food science is an emerging entity in biomedicine. It has a long way to go to deliver unambiguous outcomes, results, and advice. It requires studies that are well-designed and inclusive of large and diverse populations.
What we know from research so far is: Healthy eating is important not only for the overall health of the body but also for the health of the brain itself.
We have also realized that nutrition sciences have a future in clinical medicine and pharmacological approaches are not the answer to everything. Nutrition will be critical for maintaining health throughout our lives and may be beneficial for the onset and the progression of diseases.
What are the worst foods for your brain health, and why?
There are several considerations to make before providing a declarative answer to this intriguing question. First, everyone is different: There are robust individual differences in our bodies regarding how we utilize and make use of any type of food.
Second, many studies aiming to understand the effect of nutrients and diets on health have major limitations, such as food category generalization, and studies use different data collection and analysis methods. For example, simply describing a diet in terms of broad nutritional categories such as fats, proteins, or grains does not capture all the information needed.
In fact, research that generalizes food categories can obscure important information, as did previous studies about the relationship between eating meat and cognitive function. Those studies suggested eating red meat is associated with an increased risk of dementia. However, when processed meat and unprocessed meats were analyzed separately, the risk of dementia was limited to processed meat, such as bacon, chicken nuggets, and cold cuts. Not every study considers all the available information.
It is almost certain that unprocessed foods of any type are more beneficial than processed food. But nutrition and nutrition advice will have to be personalized and provided by health professionals.
If you’re buying canned, cured, dried, fermented, salted, or smoked meat products from a store, including frozen items like lasagna, numerous other preservatives like sugar, fats, nitrates, and other chemicals have also been added, whether the product is organic or not.
What is the best diet for brain health?
A diet based on vegetables, fish, legumes, whole grains, with a moderate to low amount of other unprocessed food, including meat. Think of it as a Mediterranean-style diet. I grew up with it and I still follow this diet as a lifestyle because it’s good for brain health, easy to follow, and often delicious.