Food and Behaviour Research

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'Profound' link between dietary choices and brain health, new research shows

by University of Warwick

balanced-meal - Credit Unsplash - CC0 public domain

A recent study published in Nature Mental Health shows that a healthy, balanced diet is linked to superior brain health, cognitive function and mental well-being. The study, involving researchers at the University of Warwick, sheds light on how our food preferences not only influence physical health but also significantly impact brain health.

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

New findings from the UK Biobank study, involving almost 182,000 adults, found their dietary choices were strongly linked with their mental health, well being and performance on cognitive tasks, as well as with various measures of brain volume assessed from MRI scans.

Participants' typical self-reported food preferences were analysed using 'cluster analysis', forming 4 main subtypes:
(1) ‘starch-free or reduced-starch’ (18.1%)
(2) ‘vegetarian’ (5.5%),
(3) ‘high protein and low fiber’ (19.4%)
(4) ‘balanced’ (57%).


Adults whose food preferences matched the 'balanced' diet (subgroup 4) had the highest scores for overall well-being, and the lowest scores indicating better mental health - on most measures of this, which included anxiety symptoms, depressive symptoms, mental distress, psychotic experience, self-harm, and trauma.
 
Subtypes 2 (vegetarian), and 3 (high-protein, low-fibre - i.e. mainly processed foods) had relatively higher scores on some mental health measures, such as anxiety and depressive symptoms, and a relatively lower level of well-being.

The researchers also examined in detail the inter-relationships between food preferences, brain imaging data and mental health and cognitive performance measures via structural equation modeling

While observational data like these can never demonstrate causality, as the researchers acknowledge, their findings are consistent with a large body of other evidence that can (and does) show that food can affect mental health and cognition.

They emphasise in their conclusions: 

"A noteworthy finding of our study is the potential impact of food preferences on brain structure.

"We observed that individuals with specific food preferences displayed distinct patterns of brain MRI traits. These differential brain structural patterns may play an important role in shaping cognitive function and mental health outcomes
.

"The plasticity and adaptability of the brain, influenced by dietary choices, can lead to structural changes that influence cognitive functions and mental health.

"Moreover, our results suggest a directional relationship between mental health and cognitive function. Mental health not only impacts cognitive abilities but is also influenced by brain structure." 



For details of this research, see:


For a summary of the existing evidence, see also:


This episode of BBC Radio 4's Food Programme does an excellent job of summarising (in less than 30 minutes) decades of mounting research evidence showing that what we eat affects our behaviour, mood and ability to learn. And explaining how and why modern diets - rich in ultraprocessed foods, and lacking in critical brain nutrients - play a fundamental role in the global mental health crisis.

All the scienitists interviewed - including many leading FAB researchers - agree that the problem is NOT a lack of evidence. It is the fact that governments and other policymakers have failed to act on that evidence - and instead, continue to ignore the fundamental role of nutrition in brain health.


27 April 2024 - University of Warwick

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A recent study published in Nature Mental Health shows that a healthy, balanced diet is linked to superior brain health, cognitive function and mental well-being. The study, involving researchers at the University of Warwick, sheds light on how our food preferences not only influence physical health but also significantly impact brain health.


The dietary choices of a large sample of 181,990 participants from the UK Biobank were analyzed against and a range of physical evaluations, including cognitive function, blood metabolic biomarkers, brain imaging, and genetics—unveiling new insights into the relationship between nutrition and overall well-being.

The food preferences of each participant were collected via an online questionnaire, which the team categorized into 10 groups (such as alcohol, fruits and meats). A type of AI called machine learning helped the researchers analyze the large dataset.

A balanced diet was associated with better mental health, superior cognitive functions and even higher amounts of gray matter in the brain—linked to intelligence—compared with those with a less varied diet.

The study also highlighted the need for gradual dietary modifications, particularly for individuals accustomed to highly palatable but nutritionally deficient foods. By slowly reducing sugar and fat intake over time, individuals may find themselves naturally gravitating towards healthier food choices.

Genetic factors may also contribute to the association between diet and brain health, the scientists believe, showing how a combination of genetic predispositions and lifestyle choices shape well-being.

Lead author Professor Jianfeng Feng, University of Warwick, emphasized the importance of establishing healthy food preferences early in life. He said,

"Developing a healthy balanced diet from an early age is crucial for healthy growth. To foster the development of a healthy balanced diet, both families and schools should offer a diverse range of nutritious meals and cultivate an environment that supports their physical and mental health."

Addressing the broader implications of the research, Prof Feng emphasized the role of public policy in promoting accessible and affordable healthy eating options.

"Since dietary choices can be influenced by socioeconomic status, it's crucial to ensure that this does not hinder individuals from adopting a healthy balanced dietary profile," he stated.

"Implementing affordable nutritious food policies is essential for governments to empower the general public to make informed and healthier dietary choices, thereby promoting overall public health."

Co-author Wei Cheng, Fudan University, added, "Our findings underscore the associations between dietary patterns and brain health, urging for concerted efforts in promoting nutritional awareness and fostering healthier eating habits across diverse populations."

Dr. Richard Pemberton, Certified Lifestyle Physician and GP, Hexagon Health, who was not involved in the study, commented,

"This exciting research further demonstrates that a poor diet detrimentally impacts not only our physical health but also our mental and brain health. This study supports the need for urgent government action to optimize health in our children, protecting future generations.

"We also hope this provides further evidence to motivate us all to make better lifestyle choices, to improve our health and reduce the risk of developing chronic disease."