As a populace, we in the UK do not eat well: neither for the performance of the body or the productivity of the brain. The Health and Foods Supplements Information Service (HSIS) recently published an in-depth research report finding that the "majority of people in the UK are not eating a healthy diet, with significant impact on vitamin and mineral intakes." While people often consider the physical ramifications of poor nutrition, the consequences of an imbalanced diet on cognitive health tend to be overlooked.
The brain, while responsible for intangibles such as thoughts and feelings, is still a physical organ which needs the correct fuel to function at its best. Just like athletes perform better with the correct nutrition, our brains work better when we feed it the right things. For example, diets rich in Omega-3 fatty acids such as those found in fatty fish result in higher volumes of grey matter in the hippocampus and frontal cortex, the two regions of brain responsible for memory and decision-making. It may also boost synaptic function and plasticity, allowing us to better learn and preserve positive behaviours and modes of thinking.
Conversely, when we feed it the wrong things, the brain works less well: a study found that diets high in saturated fat reduce "molecular substrates that support cognitive processing and increase risk of neurological dysfunction in both humans and animals." This means our ability to think and digest information is exacerbated by, sadly, all the foods we consider most pleasurable e.g. cake, chocolate, pastries, processed meat and full-fat dairy products.
You probably already have some idea of what foods are healthy, and it's no surprise that foods we think of as healthy for our bodies are likely to be healthy for our brains too. As mentioned, fatty fish is a big player in nutritional neuroscience, but other foods like berries, nuts, eggs, fruit and seeds all contain vital micronutrients that aid brain function. Each of these contain different varieties of vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories which protect your brain from free radical damage.
Free radicals are natural by-products of cellular metabolic processes i.e. chemical reactions in the brain and body triggered by what we ingest. They are unstable, incomplete atoms that look for other atoms to bond with. When this continues to happen, oxidative stress occurs. Oxidative stress is shown to disrupt "neurotransmission, synaptic plasticity, and cognitive functions such as memory and learning." Thus, consuming the aforementioned foods can help your brain protect itself from these naturally occurring harmful molecules.
We understand that while knowing what is good to eat is one thing, putting it into practice is another. Healthy eating is sometimes considered less practical (despite all the practical benefits of it) because it's perceived as more expensive, or due to a lack of time or choice.
Firstly, it is a bit of a myth that eating healthy is more expensive. An article garnering attention published by The Independent claiming 'Healthy Food Now Costs Three Times as Much as Junk' cited a study that based their conclusions on cost per calorie, rather than cost per unit weight. Naturally, processed foods rich in fat and sugar will be much more calorific than fruit and vegetables, but this does not mean you need less of these foods in terms of mass to feel full or satisfied. In fact, fruit and vegetables while low in calories are high in dietary fibre, a type of complex carbohydrate proven to improve satiety and gut health.
Lack of time and/or choice are less debunkable. Many people struggle to find time in their working day to prepare fresh nutritious meals, and the options available on the high street are often less than ideal. Having said that, healthy fast-food eateries such as Leon are proliferating, and even places like Pret a Manger have a host of healthy options. To be frank, at the end of the day it is about the personal dietary choices you make for yourself. If you go to Sainsbury's and get a chicken and stuffing white bread sandwich rather than a smoked salmon salad, that's on you.
It is worth your while taking a little time on weekends to think about what you will eat in the upcoming week. In an ideal world, you would meal prep balanced and nutritious lunches to take into work with you each day, saving time and money in the long run, then cook yourself fresh meals in the evenings. However, not everyone has the time or motivation to do this. Although, making healthy selections in your weekly shop will at least encourage good dietary habits at home. If you're someone who just can't resist reaching for the Doritos and Kit Kats at the supermarket, focus less on excluding unhealthy foods and try to include more nutrient-dense foods.
Just by being a little more mindful and a little more organised, you can start to normalise the inclusion of foods in your diet which allow you to get the most out of your brain and body. The science is all there; you just have to take autonomy in what you eat, and you'll feel better and be better.
1 Mason, Pamela et al., 'State of the Nation: Dietary Trends in the UK 20 Years On', The Health and Food Supplements Information Service, 4th June 2019.
2 Raji, Cyrus et al., 'Regular Fish Consumption and Age-Related Brain Gray Matter Loss', American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 29th July 2014.
3 Gomez-Pinilla, Fernando, 'Brain Foods: The Effect of Nutrients On Brain Function', Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 12th January 2010.
4 Attanzio, Alessandro, 'Oxidative Stress and Cognitive Function: Focus On the Interplay Between Immune and Nervous System in Neurodegenerative Diseases', Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 1st November 2019.
5 Green, Chris, 'Healthy Food Now Costs Three Times as Much as Junk, Study Shows', The Independent, 8th October 2014. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/healthy-food-now-costs-three-times-much-junk-study-shows-9782839.html
6 Slavin, J, and Green, H, 'Dietary Fibre and Satiety', British Nutrition Foundation, Spring 2007.