Following a balanced diet as part of a healthy lifestyle improves heart and brain function and reduces the risk of many serious conditions, including strokes, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. It may also help to manage neurological symptoms.
The brain represents only 2% of an adult’s weight, but it uses 20% of the energy produced by the body. If energy supply is not enough, people may experience a variety of symptoms, including memory problems, fatigue and concentration problems.
The importance of a balanced diet
The main components of a balanced diet are:
- five portions of fruits and vegetables per day
- carbohydrates from foods such as brown rice, potatoes, cereals and whole wheat pasta
- protein from foods such as oily fish, eggs and meat
It is also advised to limit your salt, sugar and alcohol intake. For more information you may want to look at the ‘Eatwell Guide’, produced by Public Health England.
Choose wholemeal bread over white bread
The body (and the brain) gets energy from a substance called glucose, which is found largely in carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates, found in starchy foods like wholegrain bread, pasta and rice, are better for us because they release energy slowly and help the brain to function in stable way.
Top tip: For better concentration and mental performance, choose wholegrain foods (like wholemeal bread) instead of refined versions (like white bread). Avoid sweets and sugary foods.
Essential fatty acids
The ‘dry weight’ of the brain is about 60% fat and a fifth of this fat is made from the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. Essential fatty acids cannot be made by the body so they have to come from the diet. Most of us eat much more omega-6 (found in poultry, eggs, avocado and nuts) than omega-3 (found in oily fish, seeds, especially flax seeds, and nuts, especially walnuts).
Trans fats however, also known as ‘hydrogenated fats’, are particularly bad for the brain, because they stop essential fatty acids from doing their work effectively. They are found in many ready-made foods like cakes and biscuits. Check labels for hydrogenated fat or oil and avoid these foods where possible.
Top tip: Eat more oily fish like salmon, herring and mackerel. As a rich source of omega-3, oily fish is very good for the brain. Avoid processed foods.
Oily fish is a rich source of omega-3
Neurotransmitters in the brain, which regulate our moods, are made from amino acids. Some of these amino acids come from what we eat and drink. For example the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps us feel content and is important for sleep, is made from the amino acid tryptophan, found in milk, oats and other foods.
Top tip: The food you eat really can affect your mood. For a good night’s sleep, choose food and drink rich in tryptophan, such as a milky drink before bed.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are important for the functioning of your whole body. The brain uses vitamins and minerals to help perform vital tasks. A vitamin or mineral deficiency (shortage) can affect your mood, as well as other brain functions.
Vitamins such as folate and B12 (types of ‘B complex’ vitamin) support the healthy function of the nervous system (the brain, the spinal cord and the nerves). A deficiency in either of these vitamins can cause a wide range of problems, including:
- memory problems
- muscle weakness
- pins and needles
- psychological problems
- mouth ulcers
Some of these problems can occur if you have a deficiency in vitamin B12 or folate and/ or if you have vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia. You can find links to more information on vitamin B12 deficiency and pernicious anaemia towards the end of this article.
Top tip: Maintain a balanced diet by eating a variety of foods. Unless your doctor has advised you to take supplements, this should be enough to provide you with all the vitamins and minerals you need.
According to some studies, a dietary pattern that has repeatedly shown positive effects for brain and general health is the Mediterranean diet. The diet is characterised by:
- high consumption of extra virgin olive oil rather than other fats
- high intake of fish
- high intake of fruit, vegetables, cereals and legumes
- moderate intake of alcohol (usually red wine)
- low intake of meat (in particular, red meat)
- low to moderate intake of dairy products
The general health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are already recognised, and research is now beginning to indicate that following a Mediterranean diet may also help to maintain cognitive functioning in old age (‘thinking and understanding’ processes, such as memory, attention, reasoning and language). The diet may also decrease the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Foods and drink to boost your brain
There are some foods that seem to be particularly good for our brains, when eaten as part of a balanced diet.
Extra virgin olive oil
This is a healthy source of fat in the diet and can help reduce cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Some studies have linked olive oil with a lower risk of ischaemic stroke, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
(examples: salmon, herring, mackerel)
This is an excellent source of omega-3, which your brain needs to stay healthy.
Berries and other deep-coloured fruits and vegetables
(examples: strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, spinach, beetroot, beans)
These foods are high in antioxidants, which help guard against disease by protecting cells in the body and brain from damage.
Foods containing ‘good fats’
Foods containing polyunsaturated fatty acids (nuts, seeds, fish, leafy green vegetables) and monounsaturated fatty acids (extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts) may reduce your risk of both depression and dementia.
It contains high levels of antioxidants, although it is also high in sugar and fat. One small piece of dark chocolate per day is enough to get the antioxidant benefit.
This is another rich source of antioxidants.
As well as what you eat, it is also important when you eat. Eating regular meals will help you to maintain steady energy levels. In particular, you should also try to always eat breakfast as this will help your concentration and mental performance throughout the day.
Food and drink that isn’t beneficial for the brain
There are also some foods which seem to be particularly bad for our brains.
(examples: crisps, tinned soups, ready meals)
We know that salt causes high blood pressure, which increases our risk of stroke. Government guidelines state that you should eat no more than six grams of salt per day.
Sugary foods and drinks
(examples: sweets, cola)
These may give us a temporary energy boost, but the energy is released so quickly that we soon ’crash’, feeling low and lethargic. Too many sugary foods and drinks in the diet can also make us overweight, which increases our risk of health complications, and cause dental health problems.
Often present in ready-made foods, trans fats are particularly bad for us and may increase our risk of ischaemic stroke. They are also known as ‘hydrogenated fats’ or ‘hydrogenated oil’.
Drinking large amounts of alcohol may increase your risk of having a stroke. The Stroke Association have a fact sheet with more information on the link between alcohol and stroke.
If you would like to read more about vitamin B12 deficiency or pernicious anaemia you can visit the websites below for further information.
Other ways to look after your brain
The brain is such a vital organ that it is important to do what you can to keep it healthy. Here are some other everyday things that you can do to keep your brain in good condition:
Make sure you get enough, but not too much. Lack of sleep can affect your concentration, memory and emotional well-being, while too much sleep can, surprisingly, make you feel tired.
This is a big help in keeping the brain healthy, because it increases blood flow to the brain. Exercise can help you to be more alert and improve your mood.
Stimulate the brain
Learning new skills can help keep your brain stimulated, as can mentally challenging hobbies like music or knitting, or puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku.
If you have been ill, the temptation to get back to normal and do everything you used to do can be immense. Nevertheless, do not push yourself too hard – your condition may be “invisible” but your brain is working hard to heal itself, and trying to do everything could make you feel exhausted.
This information was last checked in April 2017. Due for review in April 2020.
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