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March 28, 2022 3 min read

Your brain makes up only around 2 per cent of your overall body weight, but it consumes about 20 per cent of your body’s total energy requirement. It also needs nutrients to function, just as every organ in your body does.

Evidence is growing that deficiencies in these nutrients contribute to poor brain and mental health. In fact, there is not a single point in the lifespan, from conception to old age, where nutrition doesn’t play an important role in brain structure and mental health.

For example, we know that it is important for women trying to conceive to take folic acid (a B vitamin) to prevent neural tube defects conditions such as spina bifida. Of course, it’s not just folic acid that the developing brain needs. The essential omega-3 fatty acids form the structural building blocks of brain cell membranes.

One of these fats, DHA, makes up between 10 and 20 per cent of the brain’s total fatty acid content. DHA promotes healthy neuronal morphology and cell signaling, allowing brain cells to communicate efficiently. During pregnancy, accumulation of DHA in the brain and retina is necessary for proper brain development and visual function.

The body is unable to synthesize adequate amounts of DHA, so it must come from the diet. Fortunately, it is abundant in seafood and oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, salmon and trout, and one 140g serving of mackerel supplies enough omega-3 for a week.

Consequently, greater maternal seafood consumption during pregnancy is associated with improved brain development and cognitive function in children, including better scores on assessments of verbal intelligence and fine motor control. Lower blood levels of omega-3 in children are connected to poorer behavior, worse verbal learning and poorer reading skills.

In adults, higher blood levels of DHA are associated with reduced risk of dementia, which is the leading cause of death in the UK. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the age-related decline in cognitive function that can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, the dominant form of dementia.

A randomized controlled trial of elderly individuals with MCI found that supplementation with B vitamins combined with high blood levels of omega-3s resulted in a 40 per cent slower rate of neuronal atrophy.

Polyphenols are another class of nutrient with profound beneficial effects on brain function. Polyphenol-rich foods include tea, coffee, dark chocolate, berries, herbs, spices and wine. In placebo-controlled trials, polyphenol-rich foods increased brain blood flow and enhanced performance on tests of attention, memory and processing speed.

There is even good evidence that improved nutrition can support emotional wellbeing. A landmark Australian study showed that increasing fresh fruits, veg, wholegrains and oily fish in the diet reduced depression severity.

But what about foods to avoid? Sugary drinks are a huge factor in overall health decline in all age groups.

Human studies have shown that the typical Western diet can have negative effects on the brain within a week. So, we should try to think of sweets, refined cereals, fried food, fast food, processed meats and sugary drinks as ‘extras’ or ‘fun foods’ and limit their consumption.

The best brain foods that you should try to each at least a few times a week?

Raw unsalted nuts
One serving per day

Oily fish
At least one 140g serving per week

Five to six servings per day

Three to four servings per week

Berries (fresh or frozen)
Half a cup at least three times per week

Leafy green vegetables
Cooked or raw

It can be difficult to keep up with adding different foods to your diet in order to meet the requirements to maintain your cognitive strength.

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