This is Your Brain on Food!

Writer / Alecia Wettrick

Can your candy, cake and cookies be the culprit of decreasing your cognitive function? Can your delicious fast food meal be contributing to your depression and anxiety?

More studies are showing a relationship between certain foods and mental health function. A diet heavy on processed food, junk food, trans fats, saturated fats, high carbohydrates and sugar are associated with, but not proven, to decrease cognition function and contribute to mental health deficits.


Although the data has not proven absolute harm to the brain, many healthcare providers can attest patients who change to a healthier diet report improvement in mood, memory and the ability to learn and concentrate, as well as experience less anxiety and depression symptoms.

Dr. Drew Ramsey, M.D., is an assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeon. He is also the author of “The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood and Lean, Energized Body” and “Fifty Shades of Kale.” He focuses his clinical work on treating depression and anxiety with a recipe of psychotherapy, lifestyle modification and psychopharmacology. Dr. Ramsey notes that while a healthy diet is emphasized in healing and maintaining a healthy body, it is overlooked in the mental health community.

He told Medscape Medical News, “While we don’t want to send the message to patients that all they have to do is change their diet and their severe depression will be cured, I can say that I have absolutely seen dietary changes work to improve outcomes for a lot of patients, and there are many reports of that … If someone has a severe mental illness, it is very important to talk to them about diet.” He continues, “For example, if a patient has certain nutrient deficiencies, it will be difficult for any medications to help until such deficiencies are treated.”

Learning, memory and concentration deficits have also been linked to an unhealthy diet. Researchers led by Felice Jacka, Ph.D., of Deakin University, in Melbourne, Australia, has conducted a series of studies showing a poor diet to be associated with cognitive deficits ( Not only what you eat, but also the amount can affect your cognition function. Too much or too little food affects the brain. Schools have known this for years. Children who eat a healthy breakfast perform better in class and on testing.


About 100,000 chemical reactions occur in your brain at any given moment. These chemical reactions regulate every thought, emotion and action you have. A poor diet not only improperly nourishes brain cells or neurons, but it also affects these chemical reactions, particularly neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that relay signals between nerve cells, called “neurons.” Serotonin, endorphins and dopamine are important neurotransmitters that influence your mood and seem to be strongly connected to food.

Studies have found foods that contain high amounts of fat, carbs and sugar tend to cause a ‘boiling-over’ effect of these ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters that quickly evaporates. This is why a person may report an immediate ‘feel-good’ response after eating these foods but then have a sudden crash or low feeling. The depletion or ‘draining’ of these ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters sends a strong signal to ‘refill the cup,’ and that is what we call cravings.


We discussed foods that can harm the brain, so what foods can help the brain?

1. Foods rich in Omega-3s (healthy fats) such as fish, nuts and avocados helps the fatty membrane that surrounds the neurons to be more flexible, so nutrients can get through. Also, Omega-3s decreases blood ‘stickiness,’ so it can flow more proficiently across membranes. The less ‘sticky blood’ allows oxygen to energize brain cells.

2. Caffeine in moderation (less than 200mg a day) has been shown to enhance memory, increase concentration and stabilize mood.

3. Foods high in antioxidants and vitamins such as berries and dark green leafy vegetables provide the brain with nutrients and protection.


• Blueberries: 1 cup a day

• Nuts/seeds: 1 oz. a day

• Beans: 1/2 cup a day

• Wild salmon: 12 oz. a week

• Pomegranate juice: 2 oz. a day

• Freshly brewed tea: 2-3 cups a day

• Dark chocolate: 1/2 to 1 oz. a day

• Avocados: 1/4 to 1/2 an avocado a day

Whole grains/wheat germ: 1/2 cup of whole-grain cereal, 1 slice of bread two or three times a day, or 2 tablespoons of wheat germ a day.

• Kale/spinach


It would be great if we craved a spinach salad over a double cheeseburger in times of stress, but that’s not how we are wired. So remember, coping with depression and anxiety by consuming junk food is a recipe for disaster. It not only impacts you physically but mentally as well, so be mindful of what you eat. You get out what you put in!