diet and mental health - woman eating berries
Adobe Stock

Diet and Mental Health: 8 foods to eat to give your brain a boost

There is a correlation between diet and mental health.

We know our diet and what we eat can have a big impact on our physical health, but it can also have an effect on our mental health.

Ali Essig specializes in plant-based nutrition, and shares details on how to feed your brain.


Just as saturated fats are found to be the primary contributor to heart disease it also is being found to impact brain health and cognition as well. Diets high in fat are harmful because they contribute to oxidative stress, insulin resistance, inflammation, and changes to blood vessels and the integrity of the blood-brain barrier.

Just like plaque buildup in the arteries of the heart can lead to heart attacks, plaque in the arteries of the brain can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.

The brain relies heavily on a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients to function optimally. When arteries become clogged with plaque, this vital supply is compromised. Over time, this lack of proper blood flow and oxygen can lead to damage and deterioration of brain cells, contributing to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Where Genetics & Diet Meet: The APOE-ε4 Gene

There are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease that can’t be modified: age, sex and genetics. Within the genetics category you have what is called the apolipoprotein E4 allele gene (APOE-ε4 or APOE4), which is found in 10 to 15 percent of the population and is associated with a greater risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. The APOE4 gene is a variant of apolipoprotein, which encodes proteins carrying cholesterol around the brain. Everyone has two copies of the APOE gene.

Possessing one or two copies of APOE4 can increase the risk of the person developing late-onset Alzheimer’s, but it’s no guarantee that the person will actually develop it. This is where modifiable risk factors like diet and lifestyle play a huge role, including their sensitivity to saturated fats and potential increased risk of heart disease.

Fiber & Gut Health

  • Consuming adequate fiber (between 20 to 35 g daily) has been linked to lowering cholesterol and heart disease risk as well as helping control your blood sugars and promoting gut health. Our gut makes short-chain fatty acids, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects and preserve immune functioning.
  • Fiber may promote tight junctions in the gut to keep the gut lining healthy and protected from harmful molecules from entering the bloodstream and promote inflammation, specifically within the nervous system and the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier (a potential pathway to Alzheimer’s disease).
  • Promotes good bacteria that promotes brain-derived neurotrophic factor, promoting memory functioning.
  • Fiber influencing the main gut-brain axis, the vagus nerve by stimulating neurotrophic factor production.

Important Micronutrients for Brain Health


VITAMIN C, E & Beta-Carotene

The brain is susceptible to reactive oxygen species, a situation where compounds found in the brain can be easily oxidized and increase risk for twists and tangles to develop.

Antioxidants can downplay damage of oxidants by donating an electron to them to neutralize them from making damage to our cells.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D’s connection to brain health is related to its connection to certain genes that depend on vitamin D to be formed.

Vitamin D is also a potential reducer to neuroinflammation on toxicity that can occur without sufficient antioxidants.

Low-fat dairy is linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease but most likely due to milk being the main source of vitamin D in standardized American diets.

There are better alternatives for vitamin D including mushrooms exposed to UV light and fortified plant-based milk.

Vitamin K

Evidence so far shows promising associations with green leafy vegetables.

Mostly known for its role with forming blood but also needed to metabolize lipids in the brain and nerve cells. Vitamin K is also anti-inflammatory and prevents automatic cell death in the nervous system.

Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center estimated that people who consume about 1.3 servings of leafy green vegetables per day had brains that were about 11 years younger, compared with those who consumed fewer servings of leafy greens daily.

Iron & Copper Intake on Brain Health

Iron and copper are strongly concentrated within the plaques and tangles that represent the hallmarks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Based on multiple studies, those with Alzheimer’s disease were found to typically have higher levels of copper in their blood and in the fluid that surrounds their brain as well as inside their brain. Copper tends to make amyloid plaques more toxic, making them more likely to contribute to oxidative stress. Unfortunately, free copper is extremely efficient in the generation of free radicals.

Copper is found in highest amounts in protein foods like organ meats, shellfish, fish, nuts, and seeds as well as whole grains and chocolate. Plant-based foods  have traces of copper. However, studies are tentatively showing that copper in the diet is only a concern when it is consumed with saturated fat or trans fat-containing foods. Some of the protective benefits of plant-based foods are that they contain antioxidants which can scavenge free radicals and prevent oxidative damage by binding up with metals.

Fats: Not All are Created Equal

Chronic ingestion of Western diets enriched in saturated fat and cholesterol compromise the blood vessels in our brain and is associated with a range of neurodegenerative disorders including vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.

The brain is about 60 percent fat and highly enriched in structural fats, which is incorporated in the insulated sheaths of the extension of neurons called myelin, where they influence neurotransmission and synaptic plasticity. The only types of fat your brain needs are the ones that maintain the integrity of the membranes of the neuron which are mainly polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) like omega-3 fatty acids.

Fats & Brain Health: Include Omega-3s

Fats are not all created equal. There are non-essential and essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids are the ones your brain needs regularly, and this includes omega-3s (especially in the form known as DHA). These essential fatty acids contribute to the brain structures that deal with synaptic transmission and reduce oxidative stress.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are the fats that your brain needs and can decrease your risk for dementia. These fats are found in plant sources as well as some marine animals and nuts.

The Story of Saturated Fats: Why do Some Say They are Ok?

Studies have been done on individuals who replace saturated fats from meat and dairy with foods made of refined flour like breads and pastas and other highly processed foods. They found that when replacing saturated fat with these refined carbohydrate-based foods, it actually increases your risk of cardiovascular events. The idea that saturated fats being “better” than refined carbohydrates is not an accurate statement nor is it recommended. Those who argue for saturated fats being healthier fail to acknowledge the studies that replaced saturated fats with polyunsaturated fat (omega-3s) and the clear reduction it makes on cardiovascular events.

Evaluate Added Sugars in the Diet

Glucose is the end product of complex carbohydrates found in vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. Our brain, however, only needs a limited, finite amount of glucose to sustain itself, the rest of it gets stored in the liver for a rainy day.

While we know that saturated fat can lead to inflammation and damage your arteries over time, we tend to overlook the impact of excess added sugar. Simply put, large amounts of added sugars can damage arteries over time, especially those that lead to the brain.

Excess glucose increases oxidation, which damages cell walls and DNA. People with insulin resistance–even without having diabetes, tend to have poor cognitive scores on memory tests.

You get more than enough of the glucose your brain needs from eating whole plant foods.

Additional Foods for Brain Health


Circumin is suggested to be an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and to try and incorporate this spice as much as possible


Berries improve the way neurons in the brain communicate with each other. Try and consume at least 2 servings weekly


Increases blood flow and nutrients such as beta carotene, potassium, vitamin A, C, E lutein and lycopene

Citrus Fruits

Packed with flavonoids and keep arteries flexible so blood can move more freely to the brain.

Leafy Greens

Provides B vitamins like folate and vitamin C and D for optimal brain functioning. Helps blood vessels stay dilated. Try and consume 1 serving daily.

Soy Foods

Tofu, soymilk and edamame can give you brain power with soy isoflavones that can potentially reduce cognitive decline


Helps arteries relax and contains omega-3s and ellagitannins, polyphenols that make our gut and brain happy as well as vitamin E-a powerful antioxidant.


Potatoes, radishes and avocados have potassium that help brain cells communicate with each other and reduce blood pressure

Article written by Ali Essig.

Find more healthy advice from Ali on Instagram, @plantwhys.

Add comment