Food for Thought: What we eat affects our brain

There is an increasing body of research illustrating the impact of food on the brain and our cognitive function. Children who come to school without breakfast have difficulty concentrating. Certain food additives have been shown to decrease a person’s ability to focus. Many of the best known studies focus on the impact of food choices on the teachability of young people. As a result, advocates like Jamie Oliver are adamant about changing children’s relationship to food by educating them about where it comes from, how to cook it and what it does to (and for) our bodies and minds.

Photo from Welcome Trust, Wikimedia

Researchers finally agree that nutritious (preferably unprocessed), foods can help children learn better and can even reduce behavioral challenges.[1]

Food and the Adult Brain

But how do food choices affect adults? Apparently quite a lot. Here are just a few examples of recent research into the effect of food choices on health, mood, and brain function:

  • In a sample of 405 young adults, on a day-to-day basis, those who consumed more fruits and vegetables reported higher levels of happiness and well-being, more intense feelings of curiosity, and greater creativity compared with those who ate less fruits and vegetables.[2]
  • A representative, weighted sample of US adults from 20 to 90 years of age who consumed more walnuts performed significantly better on all cognitive tests. The study concluded that there were “significant, positive associations between walnut consumption and cognitive functions among all adults, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity” and suggested that “daily walnut intake may be a simple beneficial dietary behavior.”[3]
  • A report released by The National Conference Center (NCC) provides specific recommendations on what types of foods to eat and to avoid in order to maximize work and meeting performance because “specific foods trigger neurotransmitters in the brain that enhance memory, cognition, learning, attention and action.”[4]
  • In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the Tufts/USDA scientists say rats that consumed an extract of blueberries, strawberries and spinach every day showed improvements in short-term memory. The blueberry extract alone also improved balance and coordination.[5]
  • A variety of studies show that increasing your intake of certain “protective foods” helps maintain a healthy brain. Foods listed include: dark-skinned fruits and vegetables such as prunes, raisins, red grapes, plums, blueberries, cherries, broccoli, spinach, kale, onion, red bell pepper, beets and eggplant; nuts such as almonds, walnuts and pecans; and cold-water fish such as trout, salmon, tuna, mackerel and halibut (apparently fish really is “brain food.”)[6]

Long Term Impact of Food on the Brain

In response to the aging population, a lot of research is now being done on the links between food and cognitive function in the aging brain. What some of the longer term studies have recently discovered is a link between what people eat when they are younger and the occurrence of memory loss and dementia when they grow older.

  • A recent doctoral thesis published by the University of Eastern Finland found that eating right in midlife may prevent dementia later on. Results cited in the thesis indicated those who consistently consumed healthy foods at the average age of 50 (participants ranged from 39-64 in age) had a nearly 90 per cent lower risk of dementia in a 14-year follow-up study compared to those who did not eat healthfully.[7]

So, not only do food choices affect our mood, behavior and brain function when we make them, they can affect us for the rest of our lives.

For individuals concerned about optimizing current and future brain health and function, but finding it difficult to change poor eating habits, new research shows that it’s possible to train the brain to crave healthy food options. (If you read any of the research cited in this article, read this one!)  From a workplace wellness perspective, employers who provide food in the workplace need to think about whether they are providing good food for physical health and good food for thought, because we are what we eat—even at work.


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[1] Alissa Fleck. Does Eating Breakfast Affect Children’s Learning?

[2] Conner TS, Brookie KL, Richardson AC, Polak MA. On carrots and curiosity: Eating fruit and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life. British Journal of Health Psychology. 2015 May; 20(2):413-27.

[3] L. ArabA. Ang (2015) A cross sectional study of the association between walnut consumption and cognitive function among adult us populations represented in NHANES

[4] National Conference Center. The Science of Food for Thought: Enhancing Meetings Through Food. .

[5] Press Release: Researchers At Tufts University Report Blueberries May Reverse Memory Loss. Related research publications:

[7] Marjo Eskelinen (2014) The Effects of Midlife Diet on Late-Life Cognition.

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