How the food you eat affects your brain

If you sucked all of the moisture out of your brain and broke it down to its constituent nutritional content, what would it look like? Most of the weight of your dehydrated brain would come from fats, also known as lipids. In the remaining brain matter, you would find proteins and amino acids, traces of micronutrients, and glucose. The brain is, of course, more than just the sum of its nutritional parts, but each component does have a distinct impact on functioning, development, mood, and energy. So that post-lunch apathy, or late-night alertness you might be feeling, well, that could simply be the effects of food on your brain.

Here are four fascinating facts about your brain on food!

Your brain runs on fats! The good kinds, that is. As we mentioned before, your brain is made mostly of fats. Of the fats in your brain, the superstars are omegas 3 and 6. These essential fatty acids, which have been linked to preventing degenerative brain conditions, must come from our diets. So eating omega-rich foods, like nuts, seeds, and fatty fish, is crucial to the creation and maintenance of cell membranes.

Food can make you super sleepy! But, it can also keep you up. Proteins and amino acids, the building block nutrients of growth and development, manipulate how we feel and behave. Amino acids are one of the reasons we might feel calm after eating a large plate of pasta, or more alert after a protein-rich meal. While the human brain only makes up about 2% of our body weight, it uses up to 20% of our energy resources. Most of this energy comes from carbohydrates that our body digests into glucose, or blood sugar. The frontal lobes are so sensitive to drops in glucose, in fact, that a change in mental function is one of the primary signals of nutrient deficiency. Carbs come in three forms: starch, sugar, and fiber. While on most nutrition labels, they are all lumped into one total carb count, the ratio of the sugar and fiber subgroups to the whole amount affect how the body and brain respond. A high glycemic food, like white bread, causes a rapid release of glucose into the blood and then comes the dip. Blood sugar shoots down, and with it, our attention span and mood. On the other hand, oats, grains, and legumes have slower glucose release, enabling a steadier level of attentiveness. For sustained brain power, opting for a varied diet of nutrient-rich foods is critical.

Trans fats are not your friends. While omegas are good fats for your brain, long-term consumption of other fats, like trans and saturated fats, may compromise brain health. Some research shows that trans fats may impair your memory and may actually affect the size of your brain??!?

Food affects your mood. The complex combinations of compounds in food can stimulate brain cells to release mood-altering norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. But getting to your brain cells is tricky, and amino acids have to compete for limited access. A diet with a range of foods helps maintain a balanced combination of brain messengers, and keeps your mood from getting skewed in one direction or the other.

How’s that for ‘food for thought’?

From the TED-Ed Lesson How the food you eat affects your brain - Mia Nacamulli

Animation by Private Island