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  • Denise Scott

Nutrition for Brain Health and Mental Health

Did you know that diet plays a role not only in brain development but also in brain function? The brain requires specific nutrients to maintain its best function. 

Drawing of human brain surrounded by healthy foods - fruit, nuts, veggies - that promote brain health.

These include macronutrients - 

Carbohydrates for fuel

Protein for structures

Fats for development and function

And micronutrients - 

Minerals - choline, iron, zinc, iodine, copper and

Vitamins - A, B, C, & D

We also know that high-sugar and high-fat processed foods lead to inflammation in the brain. These can affect brain function. 

Mental health matters spelled out in letters on a board. When it comes to mental health issues, nutrition plays a role.

The Western diet, high in processed foods, strongly correlates with an increased risk of developing depression, mild cognitive (thinking) impairment, and ADHD. Diets high in ultra-processed foods are likely deficient in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids - vital building blocks for brain function. A diet of nutrient-depleted, artificially laden, ultra-processed food does not provide the nutrients the brain needs to function optimally. Deficiencies such as B12, folate, and zinc are tied to depression, fatigue, cognitive decline, irritability, and dementia.

Studies show that children and adolescents who consume large amounts of ultra-processed foods can impact their maturing brain and:

  • Don’t score as well on standardized tests

  • Have more mental health issues

  • Have more behavioral issues

  • Can have poorer cognitive function

Diets high in fat, sugar, and food additives, especially artificial colors, are suspected as some causes for the increase in ADHD the past two decades. 

Research reveals a link between deficiencies in iron and ferritin and the incidence of learning difficulties and ADHD. Iron deficiency anemia is one of the most common and preventable nutritional deficiencies worldwide. If your child is limited in their diet (picky eater) and having learning problems, or possibly ADD/ADHD, it is probably worth having their iron and ferritin levels checked.

Learning disturbances are seen in children with low iron during infancy and early childhood. Iron deficiency can occur with or without anemia. Iron deficiency can cause changes in attention span, intelligence, behavioral issues, and sensory development. 

Adolescents seem more susceptible than other age groups to high-fat, high-sugar foods. The prefrontal cortex is most affected. This area controls attention span, impulsivity, social behavior, and memory. The prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until adulthood and is sensitive to nutritional deficiencies.

Side view picture of a head and neck x-ray with the brain seen in colored sections. The pink section depicts the frontal lobe, the section most affected by diet, especially in adolescents.

There is also a link between nutrition and mental health. Even though diet may not fully treat or prevent mental health issues, research is teaching us that nutrition plays a role, especially during adolescence, and that a healthy diet can decrease the risk for certain mental health diseases. An unhealthy diet can lead to poorer mental health. For example, diets high in refined sugars create inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain and can worsen depression. 

The field of nutritional psychiatry integrates food and supplements in treating mental health illnesses. Healthy dietary patterns, started early in life, can have a bearing on mental health later. One of the most notable changes I observed in my thirty years of pediatric practice was the dramatic increase in mental health disorders in children and adolescents. Some of this paralleled the childhood obesity epidemic, which we know is related to increased consumption of sugar and ultra-processed foods.

There are numerous ways in which diet quality can impact mental health. A diet low in nutrient-dense foods can lead to specific nutritional deficiencies such as folate, zinc, and magnesium, which have been linked to depression, the most common mental health condition. Depression affects people of all ages and backgrounds. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids helps lower the risk of anxiety. 

Less sugar, fewer refined grains, and more natural, plant-based foods can decrease inflammation and influence your brain’s function. A diet high in processed foods is associated with a greater risk for anxiety and depression.

For brain health, fish and seafood are among the most nutrient-dense foods. These are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and B and D vitamins. Good nutrition promotes healthy brain growth and cognitive function.

Omega-3 fatty acids benefit ADHD, major depressive disorder, bipolar depression, and PTSD. Consuming foods rich in omega-3s and reducing intake of foods high in omega-6s is beneficial for brain health. (see post from 11/16/22

The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) combines parts of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. (see post on the Mediterranean Diet 4/10/24;

The DASH diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet but further restricts salt intake. This diet promotes whole, natural foods to nurture brain health and prevent cognitive deficiencies.

Many recommendations for improving mental health with diet focus on promoting a healthy gut microbiome. The gut microbiome can be improved with fermented foods, prebiotics, probiotics, and fiber. The Mediterranean and Japanese diets, with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, and limited processed foods, are promoted for improving the gut microbiome and mental health. 

Research and evidence for nutrition to treat mental health disorders are ever-evolving. We are learning that diet plays a substantial role in keeping our bodies and brains healthy. Changing diet is accessible, affordable, and without side effects, unlike traditional treatments - something to consider.

The best way to promote a healthy diet for your child’s brain is to:

  • Limit ultra-processed foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and foods high in saturated fat, added sugar, and salt.

  • Serve foods in their most natural state with a variety of colors, with whole grains, fruit, and vegetables.

  • Serve seafood twice a week to get good fats.

  • Consider a daily multivitamin with iron for a picky eater.

Realize that what your child eats can affect their physical and mental well-being.

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