How The Food You Eat Affects Your Brain

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When it comes to what you bite, chew and swallow, your choices have a direct and long-lasting effect on the most powerful organ in your body: your brain. So which foods cause you to feel so tired after lunch? Or so restless at night? Mia Nacamulli takes you into the brain to find out.

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Lesson Article

Composition of the Brain

If you removed all the moisture from your brain and broke it down into its individual nutritional components, what would it look like? Most of the weight of your dehydrated brain would come from fats, also known as lipids. The remaining brain matter would contain proteins and amino acids, trace amounts of micronutrients, and glucose. While the brain is much more than the sum of its nutritional parts, each component does play a specific role in brain function, development, mood, and energy.

The Effect of Food on the Brain

Have you ever experienced post-lunch drowsiness or late-night alertness? These sensations could be the result of the effect of food on your brain. Of the fats in your brain, the most important are omegas 3 and 6. These essential fatty acids, which have been linked to preventing degenerative brain conditions, must come from our diet. Eating omega-rich foods, such as nuts, seeds, and fatty fish, is necessary for the creation and maintenance of cell membranes. While omegas are good fats for the brain, long-term consumption of other fats, like trans and saturated fats, may harm brain health.

Proteins and amino acids, which are the building block nutrients of growth and development, influence how we feel and behave. Amino acids contain the precursors to neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that carry signals between neurons, affecting things such as mood, sleep, attentiveness, and weight. The complex combinations of compounds in food can stimulate brain cells to release mood-altering norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. However, getting to brain cells is difficult, and amino acids must compete for limited access. A diet with a variety of foods helps maintain a balanced combination of brain messengers and keeps your mood from becoming skewed in one direction or the other.

Benefits of Micronutrients

Like the other organs in our body, our brains also benefit from a consistent supply of micronutrients. Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables strengthen the brain to fight off free radicals that destroy brain cells, enabling the brain to function well for a longer period of time. Without powerful micronutrients, such as vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid, our brains would be susceptible to brain disease and mental decline. Trace amounts of minerals, such as iron, copper, zinc, and sodium, are also vital for brain health and early cognitive development. For the brain to efficiently transform and synthesize these valuable nutrients, it requires a lot of fuel, most of which comes from carbohydrates that our body digests into glucose or blood sugar.

The Role of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates come in three forms: starch, sugar, and fiber. On most nutrition labels, they are all grouped into one total carbohydrate count, but the ratio of the sugar and fiber subgroups to the whole amount affects how the body and brain respond. A high glycemic food, such as white bread, causes a rapid release of glucose into the blood, followed by a dip in blood sugar that can lead to a decline in attention span and mood. On the other hand, oats, grains, and legumes have a slower release of glucose, enabling a steadier level of attentiveness. For sustained brain power, it is crucial to opt for a varied diet of nutrient-rich foods. Your choices in food have a direct and long-lasting effect on the most powerful organ in your body.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do the components of the brain, such as fats, proteins, and micronutrients, contribute to its function and development?
  2. What impact does the consumption of certain types of fats, like omegas 3 and 6, have on brain health, and how does it contrast with the effects of consuming trans and saturated fats?
  3. How do proteins and amino acids influence our feelings and behaviors, and what role do they play in the functioning of neurotransmitters?
  4. How do different types of foods and their complex combinations of compounds stimulate the release of mood-altering substances in the brain?
  5. What role do micronutrients play in promoting brain health and preventing mental decline, and how do they combat free radicals?
  6. Why are trace amounts of certain minerals essential for early cognitive development and overall brain health?
  7. How do different forms of carbohydrates influence the brain’s function, and how does the body and brain’s response vary based on the ratio of sugar and fiber in the carbohydrate intake?
  8. Why is it crucial to opt for a varied diet of nutrient-rich foods, and what are the long-lasting effects of our food choices on brain health?

Lesson Vocabulary

  1. Lipids – A group of naturally occurring molecules that include fats, waxes, sterols, fat-soluble vitamins, monoglycerides, diglycerides, triglycerides, phospholipids, and others. – Lipids make up a large portion of the dehydrated brain’s weight.
  2. Micronutrients – Vitamins and minerals that are essential to the body in small amounts. – Micronutrients like vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid are crucial for preventing brain disease and mental decline.
  3. Neurotransmitters – Chemicals that transmit signals across a synapse from one neuron to another ‘target’ neuron, muscle cell, or gland cell. – Neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin are influenced by the amino acids in our diet.
  4. Degenerative – Causing the body or part of the body to gradually lose its functions or structure. – Omega fatty acids have been linked to preventing degenerative brain conditions.
  5. Glycemic – Relating to or denoting the presence or amount of sugar in the blood. – High glycemic foods like white bread cause a rapid release of glucose into the blood.
  6. Cognitive – Relating to cognition, which involves processes such as knowledge, attention, memory, judgment, and problem-solving. – Minerals such as iron, copper, zinc, and sodium are vital for early cognitive development.
  7. Synthesize – To combine (a number of things) into a coherent whole. – The brain efficiently transforms and synthesizes valuable nutrients from our diet.
  8. Precursors – A substance or structure that precedes and indicates the approach of something. – Amino acids contain the precursors to neurotransmitters in the brain.
  9. Skewed – Make biased or distorted in a way that is regarded as inaccurate, unfair, or misleading. – A diet with a variety of foods prevents our mood from becoming skewed in one direction.
  10. Attentiveness – The quality of being attentive; paying careful attention to something. – Consuming oats, grains, and legumes helps maintain a steadier level of attentiveness.

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