Food affects us in so many ways – physically, emotionally, intellectually and cognitively. In our society, high-fat, high-sugar foods, meat and alcohol are associated with celebration and comfort, but when we look at the scientific studies, we see overwhelming evidence that adhering to an unhealthy eating style, such as the standard American diet (SAD), has serious consequences.
In this post, we’ll look at one of the biggest culprits in the Western diet:1 added sugars. Regular and excessive consumption of sugar is associated with poorer cognitive function, increased risk of depression or dementia, or reduced brain volume.2-7 Even in short-term studies, detriments to learning, memory, or attention have been detected.
Foods, nutrients, and the brain
Brain function, including learning, memory, mood, attention, processing speed, and motor function, is profoundly affected by the foods we eat. Over decades, a poor diet can impair brain health through nutrient insufficiencies, oxidative stress, inflammation, and vascular damage. This can lead to depression, dementia, or a decline in cognitive function. In contrast, vitamins, minerals, antioxidant nutrients, and other phytochemicals have protective effects.
Omega-3 fatty acids are structural components of brain cell membranes that influence learning, memory, and mood. Fast food and commercial baked goods are associated with depression,8 whereas vegetable, fruit, and phytochemical intake is associated with reduced risk of depression,9-12 and dietary interventions effective at improving mood and reducing depression symptoms.13-15It is true when they say, “good food, good mood.”
Neuroinflammation could underlie the deficits in attention, learning, and memory that are associated with a poor diet. There is growing consensus among researchers that pro-inflammatory diet components, such as added sugars and saturated fats, lead to insulin resistance, systemic inflammation, and neuroinflammation. The good news is that phytochemicals in vegetables and fruits may help to prevent or slow loss of cognitive function with age by lowering oxidative stress and inflammation.16-19
Related: Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, are crucial for brain health through all stages of life
Related: Short-term dietary intervention improves depression symptoms
Position Paper: Treating Depression Naturally (free for members)
The dangers of “junk foods”