Brain Food: How What We Eat Affects Our Brain Health

Life Butler’s customised Happy Gut, Happy You retreat was eye-opening for all involved. During the course of the retreat we shared with industry partners a taste of how important it is to nourish what is being hailed as our ‘second brain’, the gut. We are excited to present this tailor-made programme, offering a combination of expert advice, nutrition guidance, and scientific analysis. 

While this customised retreat focuses on gut health, we also need to consider the importance of our brain health. Dr. Lisa Mosconi, neuroscientist and Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, has recently released a revolutionary new book, Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power, which reveals the results of her studies into fighting dementia and Alzheimer’s through eating the correct foods. 

“I think the most important thing is to understand what the brain actually needs, in terms of food,” says Dr. Mosconi. “What I have come to realise is that there’s a huge difference between the foods the brain needs and the foods the rest of the body needs. The brain is a picky eater.” According to her new book there is a looming brain crisis resulting from increasing life expectancy. As we get older, our chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s also increase. Indeed, some 5.6 million people in the United States alone suffer from these neurological diseases. 

The Western Diet Versus the Mediterranean Diet

As a specialist in brain imaging, Dr. Mosconi has worked to identify people at risk of dementia. This allows for early intervention and a delay in onset. It was through these studies, and through a personal realisation of how her body was responding to processed foods as opposed to her native Italian diet, that Dr. Mosconi began to study the effects of food on the brain and which brain foods make the biggest impact. 

While she stresses that Alzheimer’s can be genetic, as well as influenced by lifestyle and environment, she notes that “neurochemistry is all about food.” Take the memories that we make, for example. A neurotransmitter in the brain is responsible for memories, and that neurotransmitter is comprised of Vitamin B. Which means it comes from food. Certain foods, she says, are protective, literally shielding the brain from harm, whilst others can harm the brain, especially in the long term.

Through clinical trials, which studied participants on a Western diet and those on a Mediterranean diet, Dr. Mosconi concludes that those with the healthiest brains and who live the longest without dementia are those who eat balanced Mediterranean diets. So what does she mean by a balanced Mediterranean diet? Fresh fruits and vegetables, plenty of water, whole grains, minimal processed foods, smaller quantities of meat and locally sourced, high quality foods, she says. Fish and seafood are crucial too for their high Omega 3 and Omega 6 contents, which are vital to brain health. 

Studies have shown that, while there are exceptions, those on a long-term Western diet can have up to 50% smaller brain volumes in mid-life than those on a Mediterranean diet. “Diet is not causative,” says Dr. Mosconi, “but it definitely has a strong impact on the way the brain ages.” 

Brain Food and Carbohydrates

Dr. Mosconi addresses the current trend for avoiding carbohydrates and replacing them with fats. As a scientist, she says, she finds this very strange. In brain nutrition, high carbohydrate diets are very good for you. But those carbs need to be healthy and naturally occurring, not refined sugars and grains. When we look at some of the communities around the world with the highest life expectancies, where people often live to be over 100, there is a common food trend, according to Dr. Mosconi: their diets are mainly plant based. 

The reason that the brain needs carbohydrates is that 99% of all energy in the brain comes from glucose. Unlike the rest of the body, the brain cannot burn fat. While in extreme cases it can handle up to 40% of energy from ketone bodies, this in fact creates stress and ultimately makes the brain age faster. 

While Dr. Mosconi’s studies focus on brain food, she advises that diet alone is not enough to maintain good brain health. A low stress lifestyle, a good amount of exercise, quality sleep and having a strong sense of community all play their part. So in essence, adopting a holistic approach to brain health is the key. Listen to the entire podcast interview with Dr. Mosconi here.