Better Diet, Bigger Brain

“…diet, a modifiable lifestyle factor, holds the ability to modulate brain health and function.”
From Murphy et al. 2014

What’s the best way to measure brain health? Is it by observing how well a person performs on paper-and-pencil challenges? Movement tests? Social behavior? Brain structure based on imaging? An additional way might be to infer optimum brain wellness based on the nutritional value of what you eat.

The brain is the chief organ for bodily functions, and as long as our body works normally, we take for granted that our brain is healthy. The brain also creates something that can’t be physically “seen” on imaging, and that’s our mind: what we think and feel does not exist outside of our brain, and so our cognitive, mental and emotional wellness all depend on keeping our brain in good working order.

“You are what you eat”

What we put in our bodies food-wise affects the complex “Control Central” that is housed in the skull. Most of the time, if we put conscious thought into dietary choices it’s because we’re concerned about things like whether we look too fat, or our blood pressure is too high, or we’ve been diagnosed with diabetes. Rarely do we sit down to dinner and wonder if eating grilled salmon instead of a cheeseburger with bacon would be better for the brain.

A new Dutch studyi found that what we eat definitely affects the physical structure of the brain. People with healthier nutrition actually have greater brain volume, including more gray matter, white matter, and the hippocampus. Here’s what each of these areas does:

  • Gray matter is a powerhouse of information processing, and it has regions that direct movement, sensory function (e.g. seeing, hearing), speech, decision making, self-control and many other activities
  • White matter consists of bundles of millions of nerve fibers that connect gray matter areas to each other, facilitating the transmission of nerve impulses between the individual cell bodies called neurons
  • The hippocampus is a small region deep in the brain’s center that is mainly associated with learning, memory and mood. It also helps us with spatial navigation. In adults, the hippocampus has the ability to generate new functional neurons, which aids in learning, brain adaptability, and self-renewal. If this ability it disrupted, “severe impairment of learning abilities as well as increased depressive- and anxiety-related behaviors” can occur.ii

The Dutch study enrolled 4,000+ participants who completed detailed questionnaires about the foods they ate; they also had MRI brain scans to assess brain volume. The questionnaires covered vegetables, fruit, whole grain products, legumes, nuts, dairy, fish, tea, unsaturated fats and oils of total fats, red and processed meat, sugary beverages, alcohol, and salt. The researchers created a “healthy diet” rating system based on a score of 0-14, where 14 is very healthy. They then correlated each person’s MRI results with his/her dietary score. The better the diet, the bigger the brain.

One of the authors, Meike Vernooij PhD was quoted in a news article as stating, “People with greater brain volume have been shown in other studies to have better cognitive abilities, so initiatives that help improve diet quality may be a good strategy to maintain thinking skills in older adults.”iii This offers much incentive to adhere to a robustly healthy nutrition plan throughout life.

Which plan is good for the brain?

Research consistently points to the Mediterranean diet as abundantly healthy on many levels, especially for cardiovascular health and aging well. It has also been studied with regard to sharpening mental function and preserving it during aging. Here is a good description of it:

The traditional Mediterranean diet is characterized by a high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruits and nuts, and cereals (that in the past were largely unrefined), and a high intake of olive oil but a low intake of saturated lipids, a moderately high intake of fish (depending on the proximity of the sea), a low-to-moderate intake of dairy products (and then mostly in the form of cheese or yogurt), a low intake of meat and poultry, and a regular but moderate intake of ethanol, primarily in the form of wine and generally during meals.iv

As it turns out, there is a way to boost the brain value of the Mediterranean diet, much like certain gas or oil additives can improve car engine performance. A 2015 study out of Spain found that supplementing the diet with extra olive oil or nuts improved cognitive function when compared with results from those who ate a low-fat diet.v The moral is, take care of your brain’s best functioning by eating balanced nutrition and plenty of anti-oxidants.

iCroll PH, Voortman T, Ikram MA, Franco OH et al. Better diet quality relates to larger brain tissue volumes: The Rotterdam Study. Neurology. 2018 May 16. pii: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000005691. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000005691. [Epub ahead of print]
iiMurphy T, Dias GP, Thuret S. Effects of diet on brain plasticity in animal and human studies: mind the gap. Neural Plast. 2014;2014:563160. doi: 10.1155/2014/563160.
iiiJudy George. “Better Diet Tied to Bigger Brains.” MedPage Today, May 16, 2018. https://www.medpagetoday.com/primarycare/dietnutrition/72915
ivTrichopoulou A, Costacou T, Bamia C, Trichopoulous D. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and survival in a Greek population. N Engl J Med 2003; 348:2599-2608.
vValls-Pedret C, Sala-Vila A, Serra-Mir M, Corella D. Mediterranean diet and age-related cognitive decline: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Jul;175(7):1094-103.

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