1 Feeding Your Brain

Brain Food

Sahara Quinones and Samantha Mason


Imagine your body is a car or truck you own. You wash it when it’s dirty, get “tune-ups”,  and fill it with fuel when you’re feeling “on empty,” so to speak. For this chapter, let’s focus on fuel. You have a choice of what kind of fuel you can fill up with. Whether it is cheap unleaded from a no-name gas station that gets you from point A to point B or premium fuel with additives that help keep the engine running smoothly long term. The same can be said for the type of nutrients you put into your body. In our case, the engine in our vehicle is our brain. Our brain needs fuel that promotes healthy function as well as prevention of demyelination (Short 2015). Luckily for us, we know what kind of nutrients we can eat to keep it running in its most optimal state.

Why is nutrition important to the health of our brain?

Our brains are big eaters. Despite being only 2% of our body weight, the brain burns 20% of the energy we incinerate each day (Raichle, 2002)! The brain’s primary source of fuel is glucose. When most people think of glucose, they think of sugar. While “sugar” is the most commonly known form of glucose, it can also be found in many foods that are not pure sugar or derivatives of sugar. Glucose is the byproduct of the metabolization of carbohydrates. There are many great wholesome foods that we can incorporate into our diets that fall into the carbohydrate category.  Another important source of energy we should look at is fat. Although fat is metabolized at a slower rate than carbohydrates, it provides the energy needed without inducing a blood glucose spike (Wakhloo, 1984). The final fuel we will discuss is protein. Protein can be found in both animal and plant-based forms. Carbohydrates, fat, and protein are what the average person can identify as nutrients they know are important to overall existence. This chapter aims to look at each category and incorporate these vital nutrients into our diets for optimal brain health.

Where can we find the correct nutrients to help our brain function?

We often think about what we eat and how this fuels our body for daily activities. Do we ever stop and think about how the food we eat affects our brain function? Nutrition is essential for healthy brain function. Our brain is the second biggest internal organ and uses 20% of the energy we consume. With the brain being such an essential organ due to its function, we must know what foods offer these nutrients. The brain carries out fundamental functions. Not only does it allow us to carry out involuntary actions like breathing and blinking, but it also allows us to think and reason. This is also known as cognitive function.
Cognitive function is affected by nutrition. Cognitive function refers to someone’s mental ability to think, learn, reason, solve problems, make decisions, and pay attention. Since nutrition is a modifiable factor, it is important to consider how we can benefit our brain cognition and decrease our risk of developing neurological disorders in the future. Being a Phoenix College student means you’ve taken the first step on a path to enlightenment, no matter what you’re pursuing. Why not set yourself up for success by feeding your body and mind with foods that not only taste good but aid in the achievement of educational success?

What are some nutrients we should incorporate into our diets to help promote healthy function and form and where do we find them?

  • Omega-3 fatty acids – fish (salmon), vegetable oils (rapeseed oil), and walnuts
  • Vitamin B6 – grains (whole grain, brown rice, quinoa, wheat germ), nuts, meat, liver, and meat products.
  • Vitamin B12 – animal products (dairy products, eggs, meat, fish, and liver), fortified foods.
  • Folate- dark-green leafy vegetables, legumes, oranges, grapefruit, peanuts, almonds, and liver.
  • Unsaturated Fat – coconut oil, olive oil, vegetable oil, full-fat dairy products, cold-water fish, seeds, avocados
  • Vitamin D – fish, liver, fatty fish, full-fat dairy products (or fortified low-fat ones), egg yolk, meat.

These are some examples of dietary patterns that have been researched and proven to impact the brain significantly.

  • Mediterranean diet – This diet has been proven to reduce the risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment.
  • DASH diet has shown a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease or a slower cognitive performance decline.
  • MIND Diet – The Mediterranean and DASH diets combined offer healthy brain function support and hypertension prevention to those most at risk.

What neurological disorders are associated with malnutrition?

Inadequate amounts of food and lack of diversity can cause severe health problems in general. Poor nutrition can have a direct effect on how our brain functions. This can range from uncomfortable symptoms to more severe diseases. Although malnutrition-related neurological disorders are not common in the United States, it’s important to recognize what food shortages can do in terms of developmental damage.

According to the World Health Organization, most of these malnutrition-related neurological disorders are preventable:

  • Beri-Beri – affects the nervous system and causes degeneration of nerves. Can lead to atrophy and loss of reflexes.
  • Polyneuropathy – this results when various peripheral nerves are damaged. These nerves are located outside the brain, and spinal cord, and their function is to relay information between the brain and spinal cord.
  • Wernicke’s Encephalopathy – is a life-threatening illness that affects both the peripheral and central nervous system. It can cause decreased reflexes, fast pulse, low blood pressure, low body temperature, muscle weakness, atrophy, and coordination problems.
  • Pellagra- causes diarrhea, dementia, and dermatitis. If it is not treated, it can result in death.
  • Progressive Myelopathy – a nervous system disorder that affects the spinal cord. Specific to Vitamin B12 deficiency causes sensory disturbances on the legs.
  • Neural tube defects (myelomeningocele) – when bones of the spine do not form completely.
Nutrient The neurological disorder caused by a deficiency
Vitamin B1(Thiamine) Beri-Beri, polyneuropathy, Wernicke’s Encephalopathy
VitaminB3(Niacin) Pellagra, dementia, and depression
Vitamin B6(Pyroxidine) Polyneuropathy
VitaminB12(Cobalamine) Progressive Myelopathy with disturbances in the legs
Folate Neural tube defects (myelomeningocele) of the fetus, cognitive dysfunction in children and elderly
Iodine Iodine deficiency disorders
Iron Delayed development in children
Zinc Delayed motor development in children, depression
Selenium Adverse mood states


There are various ways to prevent these diseases. One of them is to include a diversity of micronutrients in your diet. Including various fruits, vegetables, and protein sources ensures that we can obtain the nutrients we need. Not everyone can have diversity in their food. This can be due to food insecurity in some cases. Supplementation can be helpful, and this is especially important in countries with low incomes. This is a good option for people who are limited in their food choices. Eating foods that are fortified with these vitamins and minerals is also essential.

What effects do the nutrients we eat have on our brain function?

  • Omega-3 – The nerve cell membranes are rich in fatty acids. They have a direct effect on cognitive function. Consuming omega-3 can be extremely beneficial for people with mild cognitive impairment.
  • Folate, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin B6 – Homocysteine is a common amino acid in our bodies. These three vitamins are in charge of lowering homocysteine levels. Too much homocysteine in the blood can lead to faster cognitive decline and dementia in older people.
  • Vitamin C – Neurons in the brain absorb large quantities of vitamin C, and they also protect nerve cells.
  • Vitamin D – Aids in the growth and development of neurons. Low levels of vitamin D result in an increased risk of developing dementia and increase cognitive decline.
  • Vitamin E – The oxidative properties of vitamin E helps protect lipids, which is what nerve cell membranes are made of. Consumption of Vitamin E also helps prevent cognitive decline.
  • Flavonoids – improve communication between nerve cells and aid in blood vessel function. Flavonoids can also help improve cognitive function.

Nutrition, mental health, and academic performance.

Recent research suggests that there is a direct correlation between what we eat and how we feel. Nutrition has an effect on brain health, cognitive function, and mental health. There is evidence that suggests that the inflammation effects of food can be linked to mood disorders. Dietary inflammation results from consuming foods high in calories, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and trans fats. The inflammatory effects of consuming these foods can result in cognitive decline and damage to the blood-brain barrier. Firth (2020) states that “consumption of highly refined carbohydrates can increase the risk of depression and anxiety.” (p.1)

Feeling stressed before a big exam? It’s easy for students to run to comfort foods that help them emotionally during mental unease times. Unfortunately, these comfort foods are usually that of the unhealthy variety, such as fried foods, sweets made with processed sugars, doughy pizza, and even alcohol. As emphasized throughout this chapter, it’s wildly important to skip the junk food and reach for snacks that work in conjunction with our bodies to function at their most optimal level. Some quick examples can be found here, along with easy, inexpensive recipes you can whip up before a big exam.

These are just a few examples of how nutrition affects not only our brain but our mental health as well. It is important to know how our dietary patterns affect our mental health because we all deserve to feel good.

In-depth look at how food can affect our brains


The brain is an essential organ in our bodies, and we must take care of it. Being aware of what we eat and what kind of nutrients are in our food can improve our cognitive function and directly affect mental health. The brain is composed of many parts, and all of them obtain specific nutrients from the food we eat. To prevent any deficiencies that can lead to uncomfortable symptoms or a specific disease, appropriate amounts of vitamins and minerals should be consumed. The area of nutritional psychology and neurology both work together to ensure that we can improve our brain function and prevent certain diseases.

Community Resources


The following are resources offered in the Phoenix area that offer services regarding nutrition for students, people experiencing balanced food scarcity or nutrition-based diseases.



  • Phoenix College Food Pantry – Students struggling to secure meals can make an appointment online for the opportunity to select up to ten balanced foods for pick up during times of personal distress.http://Phoenix College Food Pantry
  • Center for Autism Research and Education – This center offers resources to people with neurological disorders such as Autism, Asperger’s, Tourettes, Down Syndrome, and ADHD. Many individuals who are diagnosed suffer from different food sensitivities and food allergies. After implementing their ideal diet, they can experience increased cognitive function and greater mental clarity. They offer dietary and nutritional interventions.
  • AZ BrainFood – This is a non-profit organization that provides kids with a backpack full of food for the weekends. The unfortunate reality that attending school may be the only place they receive for many poverty-stricken children adequate, nutritionally balanced meals.


Firth, J., Gangwisch, J. E., Borsini, A., Wootton, R. E., & Mayer, E. A. (2020, June 29). Food and mood: How do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing? Retrieved from https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m2382.short

Gómez-Pinilla, F. (2008, July). Brain foods: The effects of nutrients on brain function. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/

Scarmeas, N., Anastasiou, C. A., & Yannakoulia, M. (2018, September 21). Nutrition and prevention of cognitive impairment. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1474442218303387

Raichle, M. E., & Gusnard, D. A. (2002). Appraising the brain’s energy budget. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99(16), 10237–10239. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.172399499

Short B. (2015). A vitamin supplement for remyelination. The Journal of Cell Biology, 211(5), 936. https://doi.org/10.1083/jcb.2115iti1

Wakhloo AK, Beyer J, Diederich C, Schulz G. Einfluss von Nahrungsfett auf Blutzuckerspiegel und Insulinverbrauch nach Einnahme verschiedener Kohlenhydratträger bei Typ-I-Diabetikern am künstlichen Pankreas [Effect of dietary fat on blood sugar levels and insulin consumption after intake of various carbohydrate carriers in type I diabetics on the artificial pancreas]. Dtsch Med Wochenschr. 1984 Oct 19;109(42):1589-94. German. doi: 10.1055/s-2008-1069418. PMID: 6386412.





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Good Health and Well-Being Copyright © 2020 by Sahara Quinones and Samantha Mason is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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