5 Ways Diet Can Improve Brain Health

Your diet influences the health of your brain. Alertness, ability to focus, capacity to learn, creative thinking, mood, and appetite are correlated with brain health. With all you have going on, you need your brain to be functioning at its best. Here are 5 ways your diet can help keep your brain operating at its best.

1. Protein to Increase Mental Alertness

Protein intake increases mental alertness for several hours after eating. This is because dietary protein increases levels of the brain neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine which can make it easier to concentrate, learn, and complete complex tasks. A lack of dietary protein can be associated with decreased cognitive function.
Hence the importance of eating protein at breakfast and lunch, or brunch, for ultimate daytime productivity. If you want to be productive in the evenings, have a protein-focused dinner.
So what should you eat? For breakfast, protein powder in a smoothie, eggs, tofu scramble, yogurt, and nitrite-free ham are great options. For lunch, try beans in a green or grain salad, chicken stir fry, broiled fish, or lentil soup.
No need to go overboard on your protein intake! Aim for at least 65 grams and 90 grams of protein per day for women and men, respectively, which, in my experience with clients, has the most benefit. However, do check with your health care provider if you are following a specific dietary protocol, consider the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) guidelines in your decisions, and if your weight is on the low or high side of “average,” adjust your protein intake accordingly.
Bottom line: Including protein at breakfast and lunch is a smart move.

2. Unsaturated Fats to Prevent Daytime Sleepiness

Mental alertness and cognitive capacity are affected by the type of fat we eat. Saturated fats can be associated with post-prandial fatigue. Think of how enticing lying down on the couch is after those last bites of apple pie at Thanksgiving. The reason is the high saturated fat content, like cream in the mashed potatoes, turkey drippings and butter in the gravy, and butter in the desserts.

On the other hand, consuming unsaturated fat is not associated with daytime sleepiness. Examples of unsaturated fat are avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, olive and nut oils, and tahini.

There’s no need to avoid all unsaturated fats as many of them, such as grass-fed beef, eggs, coconut oil, and unprocessed aged cheese, offer health benefits. However, if you’d like to get some things done at work after lunch, saturated fats may not be the best choice.

So what should you eat? Avocado toast, hummus, grilled salmon, drained mackerel from a can mixed with arugula, quinoa salad with chopped nuts, and salads with dressing made with olive or nut oils.

Bottom line: Choose unsaturated fat if you want to maintain your cognitive capacity after a meal.

3. Fiber to Balance Your Mood

Did you know that dietary fiber affects gut health which in turn affects mood?

There are two types of fiber, insoluble like that found in wheat bran and kale, and soluble fiber, such as that found in oats and beans. Intake of both types of fiber is associated with decreased risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Fiber also increases gut health. And a healthy gut is associated with a balanced mood.

Dietary fiber provides nourishment for the trillions of microorganisms, known as the biome, that live in your gut. The bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites that make up the biome are essential to immune, endocrine, digestive, and neural function.

The gut communicates directly and indirectly with our brain and can affect our level of anxiety and depression. The more fiber you eat, the healthier your gut. The healthier your gut, the less likely you are to experience anxiety and depression.

So, what should you eat? Vegetables, fruit, beans, whole grains, avocados, sweet potatoes, squash, nuts, and seeds.

Bottom line: Choose a variety of wholesome, unprocessed foods to balance your mood

4. Carbs to Control Your Appetite

A number of neurotransmitters in your brain affect your desire to eat. This desire is also known as cravings or appetite. The cravings can be for the sensual aspects of eating, based on habit, or an attempt to escape difficult emotions.

Hunger, on the other hand, is physiological and related to your body’s need for energy and nutrients. Food satisfies both desire and hunger, ideally at the same time.

But what happens when your desire to eat overshadows your body’s need for fuel and nutrients and consumes mental energy that could better be spent on more productive, creative, and ultimately more satisfying pursuits? Excessive cravings can side track your brain and cause confusion over what you “should” eat, distract you from being in the moment, and add additional negative emotions if they lead to a cycle of overeating.

One way to minimize cravings is to eat foods that increase brain serotonin.

Serotonin is known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter. It also has a role in controlling appetite. Since brain serotonin levels are naturally lowest in the late afternoon and evening, it’s not surprising that these are the times of day we’re most likely to have cravings. The good news is that eating the right carbs at the right times of day can prevent and control your cravings.

As my co-author Judith Wurtman, PhD and I discuss in our book, “The Serotonin Power Diet” (Rodale, 2006,) carbohydrate consumption initiates a series of physiological steps mediated by insulin that allows tryptophan to enter the brain and serotonin to be made. This makes sense since cravings often mean a desire to eat carbs, and once you eat carbs, your cravings are satisfied and you feel more calm. Grilled chicken and broccoli just don’t have the same effect!

A low fat, low protein carb snack in the late afternoon can take the edge off your appetite (and stress) and help prevent overeating at dinnertime. Between 125 and 140 calories (25-35 grams) of carbs will do the trick, and in 20-30 minutes you’ll feel the effect.

So what should you eat? Simple carbs such as pretzels, breakfast cereal, or half a bagel will work, but for optimal nutrition choose unprocessed, wholesome carbs such as a sweet potato, whole grain crackers or bread, a low sugar / low fat granola bar, or a small bowl of whole grain oatmeal or brown rice.

Bottom line: The next time you feel an afternoon slump and are tempted to eat an oversized scone or leftover pizza, try a low fat, low protein carb snack instead.

Tip: To keep evening cravings at bay, focus on wholesome carbs and vegetables for dinner. 

5. Reduce Foods that Adversely Affect Brain Health

What you don’t eat can be as important as what you do eat. In contrast to the suggestions listed above, processed and refined foods, sugars, salt, and alcohol can have a negative impact on brain health. Eliminating or reducing these foods can make you feel better mentally in general.

Try to avoid characterizing these foods as “bad.” Judging food in this way can lead to judgment about yourself when you eat them. Your diet is not a reflection of your self worth! Wherever you are on your eating journey, it’s OK. It’s important to be kind to yourself, give yourself time, and be realistic with yourself, your lifestyle, and life events. Too many or extreme changes at once are often unsustainable, socially isolating, and emotionally distressing.

You can start by reducing less brain-friendly foods and consuming more of the foods associated with a healthy brain. When and if you’re truly ready, then you can consider eliminating foods that are not in alignment with your brain health goals. Making your food choices ahead of time, including food shopping and meal prep, will take away decision overload when it’s time to eat and insure you have brain healthy foods on hand at snack and meal times.

So what should you NOT eat? Try to eliminate or reduce processed foods, salt and MSG, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice, unpronounceable and unrecognizable ingredients, cured meats and sausages especially those with nitrites, and more than one or two alcoholic drinks a day.

Bottom Line: Choose wholesome, unprocessed, high fiber, low or zero sugar, low salt foods to feel your best mentally.


If you’d like support or guidance on nutrition and achieving your health goals, I’m here to help!  You can book a free consultation with me to learn more about health coaching and my available programs. I look forward to meeting you!

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