Your Diet and Your Brain Health

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


The following report provides readers with (literally) “Food for Thought”!

The promotion of Mental health wellness is now being enriched as a result of critical findings in the fields fo diet and nutrition: put simply, your diet has a major influence on your mental wellness. Hence, just as your thoughts are critical for your wellness, so too is your diet.

Bret Stetka has provided a concise overview of research in the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry in the Summer 2017 Special Collector’s edition of Scientific American Mind (citation of the article is provided in “references” below).

Stetka begins his report by citing a 2014 study by Charles Reynolds and his colleagues that found that a sample of 247 older adults suffering from mild depressive symptoms (clients who without support/treatment have a 20-25 percent chance of falling into a major depression). The participants benefited equally from either having problem-solving therapy (a cognitive-behavioral technique designed to assist patients cope with stressful life events) or dietary counselling. The data of the study were as surprising as they were significant: participants of the study who partook in one of the approaches (problem-solving therapy or dietary counselling) scored 40-50 percent lower on the Beck Depression Inventory Test fifteen months after the end of their sessions. Only eight percent of the participants who had received problem-solving therapy or dietary counselling fell into a major depression.

Drew Ramsey, who is a psychiatrist, outlines the impact of diet on brain health, notably with respect to mental wellness  (Source: Tedx Talks).

The most robust data with respect to which type of diet/cuisine promotes brain health, data points increasingly toward a distinctly Mediterranean diet – especially Greece, Italy and Spain. Overall, this type of diet can be summarized as follows:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Olive oil
  • Whole grains
  • Lean meats (in moderation)
  • Fish
  • Red wine (in small amounts)

As noted by Stetka (2017, p.71):

“Earlier this year the first-ever randomized controlled clinical trial to test a prescribed diet to treat depression was published in BMC medicine. … after 12 weeks of consuming a Mediterranean-like diet, patients suffering from moderate to severe depression experienced significantly greater improvements on a commonly used depression symptom measure called the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS), compared with the control group.”

The research activities of Almudena Sanchez-Villegas of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and her colleagues in 2011 have yielded further information on the links between a Mediterranean diet and depression in a sample of 12,000 healthy Spaniards over a (median) period of 6 years. The results of these studies are as follows:

  1. Subjects who consumed a Mediterranean diet were less likely to succumb to depression than those who followed a non-Mediterranean (i.e. North American) diet.
  2. Subjects who followed the Mediterranean diet more closely actually reduced their risk of depression by 30 percent.

Sanchez-Villegas essentially confirmed the above results in a follow-up study with another large sample size (7500 women and men from Spain) in a study known as PREDIMED (Prevention with Mediterranean Diet). This study specifically looked at the role of a Mediterranean diet augmented with extra nuts – the results fully analyzed by 2013 were again remarkable:

  1. A Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra nuts significantly protects against cardiovascular illnesses.
  2. Subjects following the Mediterranean- extra nuts diet were found to also have a reduced risk for depression.

Julia Rucklidge, who is a clinical psychologist, discusses the significant role of nutrition in mental health (Source: TEDx Talks).

Australian Nutritional psychiatry researcher Felice N. Jacka of Deakin University and the University of Melbourne is one of the world’s first experts to have discovered direct links between typical Western diets and anxiety and depression. Her 2015 study revealed that adults who consumed a strictly western diet (excess sugars, fat-rich meats, processed foods) experienced:

  1. A significantly higher rate of mood disorders
  2. Significant shrinkage of the left portion of their hippocampus (as discovered in MRI scans)

Note that the hippocampus, as a part of the brain’s limbic system plays a very significant role in learning and memory – see the handout below from the Langara College Counselling Department‘s “Brain, Emotions, Learning & Health” workshop:

Jacka’s research complements a range of other studies with respect to “brain changes” that take place as a result of typical Western diets. As reported by Stetka (2017, p.72):

“Jacka’s findings parallel other research revealing that high-sugar diets can prompt runaway inflammation and trigger a cascade of other metabolic changes that ultimately impair brain function. Ordinarily inflammation is part of our immune system’s arsenal to fight infection and encourage healing, but when it is misdirected or overly aggressive, it can destroy healthy tissues as well…inflammation plays a role in a range of brain disorders – from depression and bipolar disorder to possibly autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

The studies cited in the Steka article however have only compared Western cuisine with Mediterranean diets. More studies are required to examine the impact of other types of cuisine (e.g. Indian subcontinent, Asian, Pacific, Middle Eastern, etc.) upon cognitive functions (esp. learning and memory) and emotional states.

A study conducted by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine has found that persons who have daily intakes of soda/pop and sugar-heavy beverages are more likely to have poorer memory, smaller overall brain volumes and smaller hippocampal volumes–an area of the brain important for memory – learning skills and thinking decline as a result (Source: Boston University School of Medicine).

The implications of all of these studies with respect to post-secondary students are highly significant. Put simply, students who adhere excessively to the “fast food” regimen and especially diets excessively rich in processed foods, fatty meats and excess sugars are:

  1. More vulnerable to stress and depression
  2. Experience less efficient learning and memory given the importance of the hippocampus (critical for the transition or “coding” of information from short-term memory to long-term memory)


Stetka, B. (2017). In Search of the Optimal Brain Diet. Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp.69-75.

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