Healthy Eating 101: How Food Affects Your Brain

Our brain is the team leader that keeps our entire body functioning. It facilitates every process that takes place, it coordinates every action that occurs. Now, I don’t know about you but I don’t want anything murking up the driver of my car and, as it turns out, what you eat does affect your driver. A lot.

Just as our cars need regular maintenance to continue to run smoothly, our brains require a steady diet of nutrient rich food to continue to function at an optimal level. That, of course, comes from eating high quality food.

Welcome to “Healthy Eating 101: How Food Affects Your Brain”. Please find a seat, class has begun!

How Sugar Affects Health

Wait… Is Sugar A Processed Food?

Both refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup are processed from their original form (sugarcane, beets or corn) to become the easy to use sweeteners that we’re so familiar with. The problem is not really the processing of these products but the sheer volume at which they are added to our foods.

What are the side effects of eating too much sugar?

High sugar diets lead to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, which increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Studies show that increased glucose levels lead to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease even without diabetes being present.

Studies also show the excess consumption of fructose specifically, such as is found in high-fructose corn syrup, leads to an increased risk of dementia.

How much sugar is too much?

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for women and 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men. Unfortunately, the average American consumes a whopping 108 grams (22 teaspoons) every day. That’s almost half a cup of sugar. Wondering how we’re managing to choke down that much sugar every single day? It’s really not that hard.

Traditional Coca-Cola, by their own admission, contains 65 grams of sugar in a 20 oz bottle. 13 teaspoons. With one bottle of Coke, you are well over your daily intake of sugar already and more than halfway to being an “Average American”.

I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that soda (pop, tonic or whatever your regional term for it is) has that much sugar. It’s no secret and many people have given it up completely for this very reason. But in this world of processed foods, you will find sugar in the most unlikely of places.

Pasta sauce, granola bars, instant oatmeal packets, salad dressings and breakfast cereal can all put a serious dent in your daily sugar allotment. Heck, there are some yogurts that can suck up your entire allowance!

Should I cut out sugar completely?

It’s not necessary to cut sugar out completely. Sugar and corn syrup aren’t evil villains who have it in for you. As a matter of fact, they’re here to help. Added sweeteners can enhance or mellow flavors by altering our perception of tastes but keep in mind that a little goes a long way. You can make a difference in your own diet by reading those nutrition labels so you can be aware of how much sugar you’re taking in. It might even cause you to start making your own spaghetti sauce.

The link Between Serotonin and Depression

Do Processed Foods Lead To Depression?

Processed foods don’t, in and of themselves, cause depression but when we eat them we are not eating the healthy food we need to keep our serotonin at the proper level.

What is Serotonin?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates a number of bodily functions, both physical and psychological. Low serotonin levels have been linked to poor memory, low mood, anxiety and aggression.

So How Does Serotonin Affect Depression?

While there is no direct link to low serotonin causing depression, there is a link to those who are already suffering from depression or have a family history of depression. While higher serotonin levels in this group of people doesn’t dissipate feelings of depression, it does provide a more positive emotional response to those feelings. In other words, they are less likely to take negative action, such as self-harm, in response to what they’re feeling.

What foods increase Serotonin?

Eating foods rich in tryptophan will help to increase serotonin levels but not all these foods will be able to cross the blood – brain barrier and actually help serotonin levels in the brain. Some foods that can pass the barrier are corn, milk and chickpeas which can be especially effective when paired with bright light and exercise.

What Other Foods Improve Brain Function?

The antioxidant beta-carotene that’s found in many orange and dark green produce can protect the brain against mental decline. An 18 year study showed that men who took beta-carotene supplements had sharper memory skills and less cognitive decline than their counterparts who were taking a placebo.

Consuming nuts, seeds, fish and certain oils provides omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. These lipids have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that promote healthier brain cells and can lessen the deterioration of the brain.

Curcumin, which is found in turmeric, improves the function of brain neurons, strengthening and protecting them while encouraging their growth. This promotes memory and the ability to cope with mental strain.

The Bottom Line Is This…

Yes, you can eat a little more of this and a little more of that but the bottom line is this: Eating a whole foods diet is simply good for your mind, body and soul. The evidence shows that sticking to high quality foods positively affects your brain function and emotional stability.

It’s time to take charge of your food, your health and your life. Your brain will thank you.

All my best,

Cynthia

cynthia@cynthiaeats.com

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10 Replies to “Healthy Eating 101: How Food Affects Your Brain”

  1. Wow! I agree with this post so much!! my mom is big on healthy food, and this is something I will send to her, it’s packed with great things to know on here. what about the meat? does meat count for unhealthy food? 

    I love what I read and it’s easy to know what I’m reading, I look forward to what you have to say on this topic.

    Stay safe. 

    Rebekah. 

    1. Thank you for your comments and thank you for forwarding this to your mother. I hope she’ll let me know her thoughts on the subject.

      Meat is the Yin and Yang of the food world.  While it’s generally accepted to be the most high quality and complete protein available to us, it’s also higher in saturated fat than other foods, which we know to be unhealthy.  The answer, of course, is moderation.  For most people, it’s recommended that we consume red meat only twice a week.  For those who choose to give up meat, it’s important to research how to combine less complete protein sources to make sure your body has the nutrition it needs to run properly.  

  2. I love reading and talking about food. Not just any food, but the food that is terrible and the food that is great. Although I do find sugar to be an evil toxic food that should be altogether avoided (if processed), I thank you for cautioning us to fact that sugar hides in almost everything. (I think the best sugar food is local raw honey). My problem is that I am so damn lazy that I don’t like reading labels, so I ditched the labels. New philosophy: if I have to read a label, I should rethink the purchase altogether. I do not live on an island in 1850, so this is not always realistic. 

    I would love to get your view on fat as a brain food. I recently reduced the carbs because they deplete me of sustained energy and increased my fats (grass-fed butter/meat fat like tallow/coconut milk/coconut cream/avocado/100% dark chocolate). I have found brain fatigue a problem of the past. 

    Thanks again for a great healthy eating post!

    Rachael

    1. The world we live in makes it impossible for most of us to avoid processed foods altogether so we just have to do the best we can, right?  And I love using local honey as a sweetener!  

      I think when we talk about fats, it’s along a similar line as processed foods.  It’s necessary for our bodies to function properly but it’s best to stick to high-quality fats, such as monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat, as much as possible. Saturated fats, such as those found in meats, butter, and coconut oil should be used more sparingly!  While I don’t think these fats are directly linked to brain function (or I haven’t seen the research on it, anyway), the resulting obesity linked to eating too much saturated and trans fats do lead to decreased brain function.  I’m glad you have found an eating plan that allows you to feel your best!

  3. My son did competitive gymnastics for 16 years.  So we got it ingrained in us early on about what to eat and what not to eat.  Processed foods, fatty foods, gravies, mayo, candy and fast food were some of the no nos.  Then there was low carbs too.  So we still still to this and eat pretty healthy. 

    1. I’m happy to hear that you and your family have found a way to keep yourselves healthy!   The journey is different for everyone so it’s a blessing to find a path that suits you and your lifestyle! 

  4. Thank you so much for this interesting article. I really enjoyed it. It is so important to reach as many people as possible with your article. The old saying you are what you eat is still valid. When you consider you eat the food you described here. Then you are doing something good for your body, and you have no hunger anymore, no cravings, nothing. Your body has everything it needs to function all day. When you eat nuts, fruits, and vegetables, you are perfect to spend the day full of energy.
    Sugar should actually be banned, children nowadays are so obsessed with sugar that overweight and diabetics are almost normal even at a young age.

    Share it on my social platform, Monique

    1. Thank you for sharing!  I agree that many children (and many adults) are addicted to sugar and that needs to be addressed.  I think that sharing knowledge, which we are both doing on our own websites, is the best way to combat food addictions.  People have been duped by food manufacturers for so many years that they no longer know the correct path to being healthy!

  5. There’s a ton of great info here! Thanks Cynthia! 

    I cut soda out of my diet (for the most part) years ago and I noticed a few benefits. Besides less of a sugar-high crash after having had soda during the day, I noticed that in a bit more long term, my skin cleared up a bit…less acne occurrence! Also my visits to the dentist became a lot less troublesome, I had 19 cavities one visit before I stopped drinking soda, I’ve had maybe 2 or 3 since and that was probably close to 20 years ago! 

    I do have occasional bouts with depression, reflecting on that…it does coincide with poor eating habits around that time. I’ll have to remember to think about tryptophan sources.

    Thanks again for this, good stuff.

    1. It’s interesting how small changes can have a big impact over the long term!  I’m sorry to hear that you struggle with depression and I hope you’re able to get it under control.  It might be beneficial to keep a food log to see if any foods you eat coincide with your bouts of depression.  I wish you the best of luck in your struggles.

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