How The Food You Eat Affects Your Brain

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How The Food You Eat Affects Your Brain
How The Food You Eat Affects Your Brain Graphic © Background photo: Pixabay (PD)

Here’s some food for thought: The brain is at the driving seat of virtually every aspect of your life—and how it functions/performs mainly depends on what you eat.

Your brain is always working hard to keep everything running smoothly – even when you’re asleep. For this, it needs energy—and lots of it. Despite accounting for around 2% of your body weight (around 3 pounds), your brain consumes as much as 20% of your daily caloric intake. [1] Processing power!

“The brain is, of course, more than just the sum of its nutritional parts, but each component does have a distinct impact on functioning, development, mood, and energy,” says Mia Nacamulli in an animated Ted-Ed lesson. “So that post-lunch apathy, or late-night alertness you might be feeling, well, that could simply be the effects of food on your brain.”
Read on for a breakdown of how different foods affects your brain—and what you should be eating to improve its functioning?

How Do Carbohydrates Affect The Brain?

Mia Nacamulli notes that the “fuel” needed to power your powerful brain mostly comes from carbohydrates that are digested into glucose. But just like the fuel you put in your car, the quality of carbs you eat matters. For a vehicle to run optimally, you need “premium” fuel. And for the brain to function optimally, you eat a diet rich in high-quality carbohydrates.

The “quality” of carbs is primarily based on the glycemic index. High glycemic foods like white bread are associated with steep blood sugar fluctuation. Blood sugar spikes before dipping rapidly, and with it, your mood and attention span. [2][3]

On the other hand, low glycemic index foods such as those high in fiber are associated with less blood sugar variability—leading to steadier and sustained brain power throughout the day. [4]

How Do Fats Affect The Brain?

In the TED-Ed lesson, Mia Nacamulli pointed out that most of the weight of a dehydrated brain would come from fats. More specifically, research estimates that omega-3 fats account for around 60% of your brain. [5]

Omega-3s are essential for the structure and function of brain cells by helping build cell membranes. Studies show that eating a diet with high levels of omega-3s, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), may help protect against cognitive decline and improve brain function. [5][6] This is achieved through a number of mechanisms—including increased blood flow in the brain and increased secretion of anti-inflammatory compounds. [7][8]
Consider eating oily fish, seeds, and nuts to increase your dietary intake of omega-3s for improved brain functioning.

How Do Proteins and Amino Acids Affect The Brain?

Ever noticed that you’re likely to feel alert through the afternoon after eating a protein-rich meal for lunch? Or sluggish after indulging in carbs in the middle of the day? This may be due to the interaction of the nutrients you consume with your brain messengers—which skews your mood in one way or another.

The brain may be mostly made of fat, but it’s the proteins and amino acids that facilitate communication between brain cells.

Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are a key component of neurotransmitters, hormones, and enzymes that control what happens in your brain (and throughout your body). For example, eating a protein-rich diet increases the levels of the amino acid tyrosine in the brain. This spurs the production of dopamine, which may promote alertness. [9]

When it comes to eating proteins, variety and moderation are key. Different foods have different amino acid profiles. So mix up your sources to get a combination of essential amino acids in the right amount.

How Do Micronutrients Affect The Brain?

According to a study published in the journal Nutrition, a diet rich in minerals and vitamins from vegetables and fruits is linked to a lower risk of cognitive problems. [10] A steady supply of these micronutrients plays an essential role in maintaining healthy brain function.

For example, vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays a key role in the formation of sphingolipids—an essential component of brain cell membranes. [11] Higher vitamin K intake is associated with improved cognitive health and better memory. [12][13] Some good food sources of vitamin K include eggs, leafy green vegetables, and grapes. Members of the B vitamin family are also identified as essential for the production of energy in the brain. [14]

Similarly, magnesium is an important mineral linked to the production of neurotransmitters, improved neural plasticity (capacity of nerves to adapt to damage), protection against stress, and improved memory. [15][16][17][18] You can get dietary magnesium from whole grains, avocados, dark green vegetables, nuts, legumes, and seeds. Other minerals that are important for brain health include zinc and copper for nerve signaling. [19][20]

Summary: Next time you plan your diet, think about how the food you eat affects your brain. Whatever you put on your plate is crucial to your quality of life.

Eat a healthy and balanced diet that supports the complex metabolic and nutrient needs of your body’s most powerful organ. Feed your brain with the right nutrients and micronutrients if you want to feel better and perform better. This may significantly change how you feel emotionally and physically.



[1] Mergenthaler, P., Lindauer, U., Dienel, G. A., & Meisel, A. (2013). Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function. Trends in neurosciences, 36(10), 587-597:

[2] University of Michigan School of Public Health:

[3] Beilharz, J. E., Maniam, J., & Morris, M. J. (2015). Diet-induced cognitive deficits: the role of fat and sugar, potential mechanisms and nutritional interventions. Nutrients, 7(8), 6719-6738:

[4] Harvard School of Public Health:

[5] Chang, C. Y., Ke, D. S., & Chen, J. Y. (2009). Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan, 18(4), 231-41:

[6] Bradbury, J. (2011). Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): an ancient nutrient for the modern human brain. Nutrients, 3(5), 529-554:

[7] Amen, D. G., Harris, W. S., Kidd, P. M., Meysami, S., & Raji, C. A. (2017). Quantitative erythrocyte omega-3 EPA plus DHA levels are related to higher regional cerebral blood flow on brain SPECT. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 58(4), 1189-1199:

[8] Molfino, A., Gioia, G., Fanelli, F. R., & Muscaritoli, M. (2014). The role for dietary omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in older adults. Nutrients, 6(10), 4058-4072:

[9] Lieberman, H. R. (1999). Amino acid and protein requirements: cognitive performance, stress and brain function. The role of protein and amino acids in sustaining and enhancing performance, 289-307:

[10] Mohajeri, M. H., Troesch, B., & Weber, P. (2015). Inadequate supply of vitamins and DHA in the elderly: implications for brain aging and Alzheimer-type dementia. Nutrition, 31(2), 261-275:

[11] Alisi, L., Cao, R., De Angelis, C., Cafolla, A., Caramia, F., Cartocci, G., … & Fiorelli, M. (2019). The relationships between vitamin K and cognition: a review of current evidence. Frontiers in Neurology, 10, 239:

[12] Alisi, L., Cafolla, C., Gentili, A., Tartaglione, S., Curini, R., & Cafolla, A. (2020). Vitamin K concentration and cognitive status in elderly patients on anticoagulant therapy: a pilot study. Journal of aging research, 2020:

[13] Soutif-Veillon, A., Ferland, G., Rolland, Y., Presse, N., Boucher, K., Féart, C., & Annweiler, C. (2016). Increased dietary vitamin K intake is associated with less severe subjective memory complaint among older adults. Maturitas, 93, 131-136:

[14] Kennedy, D. O. (2016). B vitamins and the brain: mechanisms, dose and efficacy—a review. Nutrients, 8(2), 68:

[15] Jahnen-Dechent, W., & Ketteler, M. (2012). Magnesium basics. Clinical kidney journal, 5(Suppl_1), i3-i14:

[16] Kirkland, A. E., Sarlo, G. L., & Holton, K. F. (2018). The role of magnesium in neurological disorders. Nutrients, 10(6), 730:

[17] Boyle, N. B., Lawton, C., & Dye, L. (2017). The effects of magnesium supplementation on subjective anxiety and stress—a systematic review. Nutrients, 9(5), 429:

[18] Xu, Z. P., Li, L., Bao, J., Wang, Z. H., Zeng, J., Liu, E. J., … & Wang, J. Z. (2014). Magnesium protects cognitive functions and synaptic plasticity in streptozotocin-induced sporadic Alzheimer’s model. PloS one, 9(9), e108645:

[19] Portbury, S. D., & Adlard, P. A. (2017). Zinc signal in brain diseases. International journal of molecular sciences, 18(12), 2506:

[20] Sensi, S. L., Granzotto, A., Siotto, M., & Squitti, R. (2018). Copper and zinc dysregulation in Alzheimer’s disease. Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 39(12), 1049-1063:

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