HomeArticlesHow nutrition impacts mood, focus, and brain health (according to dietitians)

How nutrition impacts mood, focus, and brain health (according to dietitians)

Nutrition can have a huge impact on your mood, ability to focus, and cognitive health. While food may not be the “cure all” for mood issues, eating a balanced diet can improve attention span and keep your emotions at bay. Here’s what dietitians have to say on which foods are the worst (and best) for your brain.

Brain health is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. From stress reduction to improved sleep habits, there are many natural ways to boost cognitive function, yet the importance of nutrition can sometimes be overlooked. Although it’s not  a "cure all" for mood issues, eating a balanced diet is one critical component of improving attention span, preventing cognitive decline, and keeping mood swings at bay.
While many foods can make you feel your best, there are certain ones that negatively impact mood, focus, and brain health. Before diving into some top nutrition strategies for mood, focus and brain health from Registered Dietitians, let’s examine what science has to say about foods that negatively impact cognitive health. 
Learn more - Supercharge your morning

Nutrition and cognitive function

Your brain functions best when you eat a nutritious and balanced diet filled with fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Here are some ways that nutrition plays a key role in how you feel and function throughout the day.
man concentrating at a document on his desk

Mood and focus

Refined sugar is one of the main dietary culprits of mood swings, and is found in sweet treats (such as cookies and cakes), as well as sugar sweetened beverages and breakfast cereals. 
According to Jamie Hickey, RD, NASM, FMS certified trainer and founder of Truism Fitness,  refined sugar causes mood swings by affecting neurotransmitters (such as serotonin and dopamine levels) in the brain and “insufficient levels can lead to depression and lack of focus, while excessive levels can cause anxiety or restlessness.”
To prevent mood swings and improve focus throughout the day, reduce added sugar consumption to keep your blood sugar balanced. Dietitian Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD suggests “eating a combination of quality carbohydrates (such as veggies, moderate fruit, and whole grains) and good protein sources throughout the day” to reduce blood sugar spikes/dips that impact mood and focus.
If you want to track your blood sugar levels at home, check out this review on Levels Health CGM.

Brain health

Diets high in sugar can not only negatively impact your mood, but they also have serious consequences for long-term cognition function. Diabetes, a disease characterized by hyperglycemia, is a risk factor for developing dementia. Studies have found that high glucose levels (regardless of whether you have diabetes or not) may be related to a higher risk of cognitive decline [1, 2, 3].
While added sugar negatively affects cognitive health, experts agree that a lack of fatty acids also play a role. According to Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, a diet lacking in omega-3 can lead to poor cognitive function and brain health. Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN also agrees by stating that “healthy fats are linked with improved cognition during aging, as well as lower risks of depression.” 
an assortment of produce and pantry items displayed on a table

Dietary approaches 

There are a few dietary approaches that health professionals recommend when it comes to improved brain health including the Mediterranean diet. This well-known eating style focuses on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, oils, and limits processed foods high in sugar to help extend your lifespan and prevent chronic disease. Studies have also found that those who follow this dietary approach experience a reduced risk of dementia and cognitive decline [4,5]. 
The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet is another dietary approach that combines elements from the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. The MIND diet was created to help prevent dementia and slow the loss of brain function that can happen with age, and studies have shown that it reduces cognitive decline and risk for Alzheimer’s, even more than the Mediterranean diet alone [6]. 
Not only do these dietary approaches improve cognitive function, but they also reduce inflammation, which is another factor that can lead to fatigue, lack of energy, and an increased risk of depression and/or anxiety [8]. Since anti-inflammatory foods (such as multi-colored veggies and omega-3 fats) are a natural part of the Mediterranean and MIND diets, following one of these eating styles will prove beneficial for your mind and body. 

Best foods for brain health

Now that we’ve covered some foods to limit (or avoid), here are the top brain-friendly food recommendations from dietitians to help improve your mood and focus.
  • All fruits and vegetables. The Dietary Guidelines recommends 4-5 servings of vegetables and fruit each day, yet only 9% and 12% of Americans meet those daily requirements, respectively [12]. Despite the numerous health benefits, it may prove challenging to hit those serving sizes, which is why Palmer encourages you to include fruits and veggies at every meal and snack. Some examples could include a veggie scramble for breakfast, a hearty salad for lunch, or a cozy soup with dinner. 
  • Fatty fish. Fatty fish (such as salmon) provide many incredible health benefits, and are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. According to Bianca Tamburello, RDN, omega-3 fats are believed to be one of the most important nutrients for brain health and memory, which is why she recommends aiming for two servings of fatty fish a week [9]. If you’re wondering how to reach that goal, try out this recipe for salmon patties to boost your intake.
blueberries
  • Blueberries. These tiny gems may be small, but they pack a powerful nutrition punch, as studies have found a positive relationship between blueberry consumption and cognitive performance, memory, and mood [7]. Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, owner of Bucket List Tummy and Nutrition for Running recommends adding blueberries to toast, oatmeal, yogurt, or salads, as she says it can be an effective way to get a variety of antioxidants, improve brain health, and reduce inflammation.
  • Nuts and seeds. Research has found that people who have a moderate nut intake experience a 23% lower risk of depression compared to their counterparts [10]. Schlichter says this is because nuts and seeds (such as almonds, walnuts and brazil nuts) are full of plant protein, disease-fighting antioxidants and micronutrients, like zinc, selenium and magnesium. To get your fill, include nuts with your mid-day snack, enjoy a trail mix bar, or whip up an omega-3 rich banana bread.
dark chocolate
  • Dark chocolate. This sweet treat may bring a smile to your face, and for good reason, since research backs its happiness benefits. According to Jessica Dogert, RD, “the antioxidants and magnesium in dark chocolate can trigger the walls of your blood vessels to relax, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. That may be why one study found that those who ate an ounce and a half of dark chocolate daily for two weeks experienced reduced levels of stress hormones [13].” Dogert recommends enjoying a piece of at least 70% dark chocolate with mint tea as an after-dinner treat, or mix unsweetened cocoa powder into plain 2% Greek yogurt to use as a dip for berries.
  • Water. Though not technically a food, staying hydrated is essential for keeping your mind sharp and your mood steady. “Several studies suggest that dehydration makes us feel tired and makes it difficult to focus [11],” shares Tamburello. To boost hydration, she suggests infusing your water with sliced fruit and/or fresh herbs, as well as to enjoy caffeine-free teas, broths, and water-rich fruits and veggies (such as watermelon and cucumbers) throughout the day.
Check out these other foods which can affect your ability to have a laser-like mental focus and concentration.

Summary

The foods you eat can significantly impact your mood, focus, and brain health in many ways. Consuming a diet high in sugar and processed foods can cause a variety of health issues and lead to mood swings, sugar crashes, and potential neurological conditions. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants can help boost your mood, keep your focus laser-sharp, and reduce your risk of developing cognitive diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia).
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose or replace personalized medical care.

Key takeaways:

  • Eating a balanced diet is one critical component of keeping mood swings at bay, improving attention spans, and preventing cognitive decline. 
  • Refined sugar is one of the main dietary culprits of mood swings, and is found in sweet treats (such as cookies and cakes), as well as sugar sweetened beverages and breakfast cereals. 
  • A diet that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help improve your mood and ability to focus.
  • The Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet are two dietary approaches that can improve cognitive function.

References:

  1. Knüppel, A., Shipley, M. J., Llewellyn, C. H., & Brunner, E. J. (2017). Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study. Scientific reports7(1), 6287. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-05649-7 
  2. Gorelick PB, Scuteri A, Black SE, et al. Vascular contributions to cognitive impairment and dementia: a statement for healthcare professionals from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Stroke 2011;42:2672-2713 
  3. Crane, P. K., Walker, R., Hubbard, R. A., Li, G., Nathan, D. M., Zheng, H., Haneuse, S., Craft, S., Montine, T. J., Kahn, S. E., McCormick, W., McCurry, S. M., Bowen, J. D., & Larson, E. B. (2013). Glucose levels and risk of dementia. New England Journal of Medicine, 369(6), 540–548. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejmoa1215740 
  4. Anastasiou, C. A., Yannakoulia, M., Kosmidis, M. H., Dardiotis, E., Hadjigeorgiou, G. M., Sakka, P., Arampatzi, X., Bougea, A., Labropoulos, I., & Scarmeas, N. (2017). Mediterranean diet and cognitive health: Initial results from the Hellenic Longitudinal Investigation of Ageing and Diet. PloS one12(8), e0182048. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0182048 
  5. Charisis, S., Ntanasi, E., Yannakoulia, M., Anastasiou, C. A., Kosmidis, M. H., Dardiotis, E., Hadjigeorgiou, G., Sakka, P., & Scarmeas, N. (2021). Mediterranean diet and risk for dementia and cognitive decline in a Mediterranean population. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society69(6), 1548–1559. https://doi.org/10.1111/jgs.17072 
  6. van den Brink, A. C., Brouwer-Brolsma, E. M., Berendsen, A., & van de Rest, O. (2019). The Mediterranean, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), and Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) Diets Are Associated with Less Cognitive Decline and a Lower Risk of Alzheimer's Disease-A Review. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.)10(6), 1040–1065. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz054 
  7. Travica, N., D'Cunha, N. M., Naumovski, N., Kent, K., Mellor, D. D., Firth, J., Georgousopoulou, E. N., Dean, O. M., Loughman, A., Jacka, F., & Marx, W. (2020). The effect of blueberry interventions on cognitive performance and mood: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Brain, behavior, and immunity85, 96–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2019.04.001 
  8. Richard, C., Couture, P., Desroches, S., & Lamarche, B. (2013). Effect of the Mediterranean diet with and without weight loss on markers of inflammation in men with metabolic syndrome. Obesity, 21(1), 51–57. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.20239 
  9. Dyall S. C. (2015). Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the brain: a review of the independent and shared effects of EPA, DPA and DHA. Frontiers in aging neuroscience7, 52. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2015.00052 
  10. Fresán, U., Bes-Rastrollo, M., Segovia-Siapco, G., Sanchez-Villegas, A., Lahortiga, F., de la Rosa, P. A., & Martínez-Gonzalez, M. A. (2019). Does the MIND diet decrease depression risk? A comparison with Mediterranean diet in the SUN cohort. European journal of nutrition58(3), 1271–1282. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-018-1653-x 
  11. Wittbrodt, M.T., & Millard-Stafford, M. (2018). Dehydration impairs cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 50(11), 2360–2368. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000001682 
  12. Dietary guidelines for Americans. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf
  13. Martin, F.-P. J., Rezzi, S., Peré-Trepat, E., Kamlage, B., Collino, S., Leibold, E., Kastler, J., Rein, D., Fay, L. B., & Kochhar, S. (2009). Metabolic effects of dark chocolate consumption on energy, gut microbiota, and stress-related metabolism in free-living subjects. Journal of Proteome Research, 8(12), 5568–5579. https://doi.org/10.1021/pr900607v