Brain Food: What to Eat (and what to avoid) for Better Brain Health

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 7.54.35 PMControversy around the effects of grain on our brain has academics debating about which foods promote cognitive health. The debate has spiraled and now has nutritionists questioning the fundamentals of what makes up a healthy diet.

Should We Eat or Avoid Carbs?

“Carbs are destroying your brain,” says Dr. David Perlmutter, MD, author of the New York Times bestselling book, Grain Brain. Perlmutter claims that not just unhealthy carbohydrates such as white bread are bad for your brain, but even the healthy ones such as whole grains and fruit, can cause dementia, anxiety, ADHD, chronic headaches and depression.

According to Perlmutter in a recent CBC radio interview, “…eating carbohydrates stimulates inflammation, which is responsible for some of our most dreaded diseases…according to the Mayo Clinic, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, in January of 2012, your risk of developing dementia increases by 89 per cent if you favor a high carbohydrate diet; but if you favor a high fat diet, your risk decreases by 44 per cent.” In fact, he argues that we should be eating a diet that is about 70 per cent fat.

Eating a diet that is 70 per cent fat sounds pretty scary to the average consumer who has been told for decades that fat is bad for the heart. Except, many consumers wrongly believe that all fats are bad for their heart. There is also the belief among some consumers that eating fat makes you gain weight. Let’s bust that myth: eating fat does not directly cause fat accumulation in the body it is the consumption of too many calories, from any type of food source, is what causes fat accumulation.

Blood Sugar and Your Brain

Reducing your intake of simple carbohydrates (e.g. candy, soda pop, sugary beverages, cookies) offers a plethora of health benefits – including benefits for your brain.  According to a study reported in October 2013 in Neurology, high blood sugar levels may be affecting your memory. The study involving 141 healthy people, with an average age of 63, found that even people who do not have diabetes, high blood sugar levels are associated with memory problems. For more helpful information on blood sugar control, see below. However, completely eliminating carbohydrates from your diet may be an extreme measure.

The Grain Push Back

When faced with eliminating grains and fruit from their diet, the average consumer reaches for trans fats (fried, packaged foods), beef, processed meats and high-fat dairy. That is not what advocates of a high fat diet are suggesting; they suggest reaching for nuts, seeds, plant oils, avocados, fish and grain-fed beef or free-range chicken.

This misunderstanding of the diet and the resulting overconsumption of foods high in bad fat have lead to concerns among nutritionist. These concerns have extended into the research community: a systematic review and meta-analysis in 2013 reported significantly higher risk of death and cardiovascular disease by those consuming a low-carbohydrate diet.

Opponents of the Grain Brain philosophy, argue that inclusion of whole grain foods may lower inflammation in some population groups. A study published in Gut Microbes in 2013, noted that eating whole grains positively influences gut microbes (probiotics), which alters gut permeability, inflammatory markers and systemic inflammation.

As in any good debate, there are arguments supporting both sides. Which diet is best for your brain and your body is still unclear. Luckily, a steady tread can be drawn among all of these diets: eating lots of fresh foods, particularly nuts, seeds, vegetables and fish is a healthy choice.

Brain Boosting Nutrients

To eat your brain healthy may sound like a silly idea, but it’s possible, easy and can help your brain come up with more great ideas. A number of healthy nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids and turmeric, can support both the structure and function of the brain, positively effecting mood and cognition.

a) Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Growing up, parents would say we should eat tuna before an exam because fish is brain food. Well, as usual, they were right. A growing stack of scientific papers shows fish, more specifically the fat in fish called omega-3 fatty acids, improves brain function.

The main omega-3 fatty acids in the human body are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The central nervous system, which includes the brain, has high concentrations of omega-3s. The human brain is comprised of 40 per cent DHA. As such, DHA is thought to be a very important nutrient for brain structure and function. In July 2014 issue of Nutrients, omega-3 researchers concluded evidence shows the consumption of DHA enhances cognitive performance relating to learning, cognitive development, memory and speed of performing cognitive tasks.

EPA also plays an important role in the brain. Studies have found EPA concentrations in the brain are linked to mood, particularly depression. A 2011 review in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry concluded that supplements containing EPA (200 to 2200mg/day of EPA in excess of DHA) were effective against primary depression.

Omega-3 fatty acids not only enhance and support brain function, they may also protect it. In the August issue of Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, researchers reported omega-3 fatty acids had a neuroprotective effect. Over the 8-week study, the researchers found the older (19 month old) mice given omega-3 fatty acids had multiple biological markers suggest there was a lack of cognitive decline. Another study suggests omega-3 fatty acids may prevent brain atrophy with age: the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study followed 1,111 women over 8 years noting MRI brain scans showed an association between higher blood concentration of DHA and EPA and larger normal brain volume.

The body’s capacity to synthesize DHA and EPA is limited, making dietary sources vital to brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids are present in some plants, such as flax or chia seeds, in the form of ALA. The body uses enzymes to convert ALA into EPA and DHA in the body; this conversion has been estimated to occur at a rate of about 10 per cent. Alternatively, direct dietary sources of DHA and EPA include fish and, more recently algae – a paramount change for vegan and vegetarian consumers looking for a dietary source of DHA.

b) Turmeric

Another brain boosting nutrient is turmeric. Traditionally used to treat depression, modern science confirms turmeric’s ability to prevent depression. A 2007 study in Journal of Ethnopharmacology, reported turmeric beneficially regulates neurochemical and neuroendocrine systems and may be a useful agent against depression. Additional research studies note turmeric’s ability to positively effect depression may be linked to its ability to effect serotonin levels, and mediate the enzyme monoamine oxidase.

Where Can I Find More Helpful Information on Blood Sugar Control?

From the creators of myWholeLife comes a life-changing e-book, Power Up: Master Your Blood Sugar. It is a comprehensive guide developed from leading-edge science that helps the reader find foods to avoid, blood-sugar friendly foods to eat, supplements and lifestyle suggestions. Offering holistic solutions to achieve optimum blood sugar levels, this book was created to bring positive change to the lives of people who struggle with blood sugar issues or type 2 diabetes. Power Up: Master Your Blood Sugar is available for Kindle on Amazon, Nook by Barnes & Noble, iBooks by Apple, Kobo for Chapters/Indigo and Copia.


CBC Radio, The Current. October 15, 2013. Grain Brain Experts Disagree over whether Grains are Bad for Our Brains.

Cutuli, D et. al. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids supplementation enhances hippocampal functionality in aged mice. Front Aging Neurosci 2014 Aug 25;6:220.

Kerti, L. et al. Higher glucose levels associated with lower memory and reduced hippocampal microstructure. Neurology, Oct 2013;81(20):1746-1752.

Noto H, Goto A, Tsujimoto T, Noda M (2013) Low-Carbohydrate Diets and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55030. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055030

Perlmutter, D. Grain Brain. Little Brown, 2013.

Pottala JV. Higher RBC EPA+DHA corresponds with larger total brain and hippocampal volumes: WHIMS-MRI study. Neurology 2014 Feb 4;82(5):435-42.

Roberts RO, et al. Relative intake of macronutrients impacts risk of mild cognitive impairment of dementia. J Alzheimers Dis 2012;32(2):329-39.

Stonehouse, W. Does consumption of LC omega-3 PUFA enhance cognitive performance in healthy school-aged children and throughout adulthood? Evidence from clinical trials. Nutrients 2014 Jul 22;6(7):2730-58.

Sublette, ME. et al. Meta-analysis of the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in clinlcal trials in depression. J Clin Psychiatry 2011 Dec;72(12):1577-84.

Walter, J. et al. Holobiont nutrition: Considering the role of the gastrointestinal microbiota in the health benefits of whole grains. Gut Microbes 2013 Apr 15;4(4).

Xia, X. et al. Behavioural, neurochemical and neuroendocrine effects of the ethanolic extract from Curcuma longa L. in the mouse forced swimming test. J Ethnopharmacol 2007 Mar 21;110(2):356-63.