We Feel and Think What We Eat

This week, I had the joy of sharing spring break with my daughter and niece in Paris. It was a food lover’s dream. Beginning with a baguette and fresh berries each morning and making our way through the day with crepes, cheese, and fine dining of regional and seasonal specialties, we loved being in Paris, and our palettes relished being in heaven.

We say, ‘we are what we eat.’ These days we are inundated with information about diet, food, and health. Most of the conversation focuses on metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes or weight loss diets. Much of it is seriously ill-informed. And little of it addresses the link between what we eat and brain health. But this is changing with the emerging fields of integrative nutrition and nutritional psychiatry, which explore the impact of what we eat on how we think.


The food-brain connection and eating disorders. The relationship between food and mental disorders has largely been limited to the study of eating disorders. Individuals with eating disorders have complex and burdensome relationships with food. Across the disorders, typical patterns exist in foods that are avoided, foods that are allowed, and foods that are consumed only when binge eating. The predictability of these food groupings may have the potential to inform the broader food-brain question: How do the nutritive and biological properties of food specifically impact emotions and cognition?


The food-brain connection moves beyond eating disorders. If what we eat impacts other organs in our bodies, why not the brain? The brain uses most of the calories and nutrients derived from the food we eat, so it makes sense that what we eat directly impacts our mental health, and not just in the case of eating disorders. A burgeoning field of science is examining the biology of food on brain health by focusing on the intimate relationship between nutrition and brain functioning. The data are steadily emerging that our brain health – including mood and cognitive function – is intimately and directly linked to the nutrition of the foods we eat.


Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power. Authored by neuroscientist and integrative nutritionist, Dr. Lisa Mosconi, Brain Food has forever changed the way I will think about food and mental health. Presenting her own research and that of many others, Mosconi makes a compelling case that what we eat affects our cognitive functioning and mood more directly than we have previously known. The devastating effects of starvation – too few calories – on brain health and neurodevelopment are well documented. What Mosconi makes eminently clear is that the wrong calories are equally devasting for brain health. And conversely, the right foods have the potential to provide essential proteins, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals for brain health. Certain nutrients make it possible to form new neural connections, others are associated with reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, and others are linked to improving mental capacity of people with dementia.


Promises and potential. I am a pop culture midget, but having worked with individuals with eating disorders for many years, I am always up-to-date on the latest health promoting-food craze. One could get whiplash trying to keep up. Some scientists claim refined sugar increases risk of depression, others say meat, and still others say food has no influence on the brain at all. We have endured an endless parade of miracle foods (think chia seeds and kale) and diets (think paleo and gluten-free). One gives way to the next like high school bands passing before us at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Of course, this is largely because the brain remains mostly a complex mystery, and each new idea tells only a thin thread of the story. It is also because studies reporting specific nutritional health benefits and risks are almost always correlational in nature. For the most part, we have yet to move from observing correlations to understanding causal mechanisms to developing effective interventions. Exciting promises, great potential, many more steps ahead.


Integrative Nutrition and Nutritional Psychiatry. These emerging disciplines focus on the use of food and supplements to provide essential nutrients to the brain as interventions to promote brain health and treat mental disorders. Pioneering studies, for example, describe the potential for food to improve mood among individuals with depression and have identified nutrients that have antidepressant properties. These efforts to understand the food-brain connection are analogous to pharmaceutical industry efforts to develop medications that interact with the brain in therapeutic ways. In fact, many synthetic medicines have been inspired by our limited understanding of the natural biology of the brain. Perhaps the promise of food as medicine is that successful efforts could have greater preventative potential and fewer side effects.


If you are interested in learning more, Dr. Drew Ramsey, a graduate of our residency program at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, will be among thought leaders of Mind, Mood & Food hosted at Kripalu in September, and Brain Food by Dr. Lisa Mosconi will give you lots of food for thought. Time now for my last croissant of the trip.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
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