Under the Hood

Brain Food: How To Eat Smart, And Reduce Risk For Illnesses Like Dementia And Depression

fruit and veggies
Eating plenty of phytonutrient-filled foods, like kale or carrots, boost mental health. Pixabay, public domain

Mental health is helped by a variety of things: Exercise, meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and spending time with friends are all examples of good habits that keep your brain sharp. But it turns out there’s a whole branch of psychology that focuses on nutrition for the brain as a form of therapy, and it’s called nutritional psychiatry.

“Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel,” wrote Dr. Eva Selhub on Harvard Health Blog, noting that “what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.”

Your gut and brain are linked, so what you eat will impact how you think and behave. As psychiatrist Drew Ramsey notes in a new Big Think video, remember that “Every molecule in your brain starts at the end of your fork.”

In the video, Ramsey discusses the role of diet in mental health treatment. He describes the types of foods you should be eating as a “rainbow” plate; the best foods are often those that exhibit a wide range of color, from greens to reds to oranges. These colors contain phytonutrients, or nutrients that have health benefits for humans, representing a “palette of medicine.”

Leafy greens like watercress, spinach, and kale are at the top of that list. They’re dense with nutrients like potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin B-6. Seafood is another important type of food that provides your brain with omega-3 fats, which have been linked to effectively treating depression and inflammation. Eating fruits and vegetables, meanwhile, has been associated with increased happiness and overall good mental health, hinting that diet does have a tangible impact on your brain.

“What I love about food in clinical practice… is that it gives us an intervention that you can focus on and employ every day,” Ramsey said in the video. “And it’s a way that we can help patients and people in general take care of themselves, really employ self-care with every bite. So that’s the idea behind nutritional psychiatry as it’s being called.” 

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