Feel Good Foods: The Diet-Brain Connection

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The Diet-Brain Connection

There is a strong connection between diet and brain health. Different types of food can influence both cognition and mood. Certain foods act as an aid in the "prevention and treatment of mental disorders," like depression.

This effect on mental health might impact appetite control and gut health. Researchers have discovered that gut hormones are involved in the diet-brain connection. These hormones are sent from the gut to the brain and contribute to cognitive functioning. 

The diet-brain connection is also crucial for the prevention of chronic illnesses. Most Americans' diets consist of high amounts of sugar, carbohydrates, calories, and fats, leading to diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, and obesity.

Diet's contribution to cognition goes beyond memory and processing speed and significantly impacts brain development. "During the development of brain structures in prenatal and perinatal phases, it is important that all the necessary energy and nutrients can be absorbed from the diet."

This means that diet's influence on the brain begins before birth, as the infant nourishes from the mother's nutrients, and this impact on brain development continues throughout childhood. 

Feel-Good Foods

Foods beneficial to mood are considered "feel-good foods" or "brain foods." Below you will find foods of different food groups that promote excellent brain health.

Fruits & Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are essential supplements for optimum health. They not only nourish the body but the brain as well. Their properties contribute to psychological well-being, cognitive processing, and emotional regulation. Some carry more psychological benefits than others, which can be challenging to remember. So, experts found it fit to establish a memorable way to ensure that children and adults consume a balanced intake of different fruits and vegetables. 

"Eat the Rainbow" Method

A dietary term referred to as "eat the rainbow" or "eat by color" is based on the concept that fruits and vegetables offer nutritional benefits depending on their color.

For instance, purple and blue fruits and vegetables significantly benefit cognition and mood. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that 8 out of 10 Americans do not meet their daily requirements for all colors of vegetables and fruits. Purple and blue colors are the most neglected; 88% of people do not meet the appropriate daily consumption.

Blueberries are a particular fruit that receives recognition as brain food. They exhibit cognitive benefits, especially throughout aging, during the stages of child development and cognitive decline. Their benefits are present even in small amounts. There are many other fruits, and veggies experts identify as brain foods.

Examples of purple and blue fruits and veggies are below:

Fruits

  • Blueberries 
  • Blackberries 
  • Purple grapes
  • Purple passion fruit
  • Plums 
  • Prunes 
  • Black currants
  • Elderberries 
  • Figs

Vegetables

  • Eggplant 
  • Beets
  • Ube (purple yam)
  • Purple cabbage
  • Purple carrots 
  • Purple potatoes 
  • Purple radish 

Nuts

Nuts carry nutrients that are beneficial for brain health. They also have anti-aging properties and help preserve cognition in older age. Researchers examined the influence of "long-term intake of nuts" on older women's cognition.

Interviews were conducted over the telephone to assess cognition (memory, verbal recall, attention, and fluency). The study included 15,467 women globally who were 70 or older between 1995 and 2001. Researchers found that those who consumed "at least five servings of nuts" a week had better cognition than those with lower nut intake.

Walnuts are probably the most well-known brain-boosting nut because walnuts contain a lot of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) which are identified as "good fat." PUFAs are pertinent for heart health, as well as the functioning of the autoimmune system and nervous system—which operates the brain. Walnuts are also full of other phytochemicals (plant compounds), vitamins, and other nutrients that positively influence neurons in the brain.

Fruits, vegetables, and nuts "are neuroprotective," "can improve cognitive ability," and "[the] intake [of these foods] may forestall cognitive dysfunction."

Seafood & Eggs

Seafood consumption supplies many essential nutrients to the brain. Most seafood contains PUFAs, primarily omega-3 fatty acids, "especially eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA)."

Fish, for example, are known to be rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Of all foods, fish is one of the most saturated with both DHA and EPA. They also are a great source of protein, which is necessary for brain health.

A longitudinal study including 392 children conducted in 1997-2000 accessed the influence of seafood during pregnancy and throughout early childhood.

Researchers evaluated diet during pregnancy, noted "breastfeeding duration," and examined their neurodevelopment at the age of four. It was determined that a diet including moderately high fish consumption (2-3 times a week), not other seafood, enhanced neurodevelopment for breastfed children for at least six months. However, according to the authors, further investigation is needed regarding seafood intake and child development.

Both eggs and seafood provide prenatal and early child benefits because of the positive effects that PUFAs have on cognitive development. However, pregnant women need to limit their seafood intake and avoid raw seafood altogether. Although too much seafood can cause "neuro-toxin contamination," there are prevalent neurodevelopmental benefits from consuming a limited amount of seafood during pregnancy.

Eggs, like seafood, have omega-3 fatty acids and other types of PUFAs. They are also full of vitamins like folate, vitamin D, iodine, vitamin E, B12, and vitamin A. In addition, eggs are high in protein and contain lipids—another type of fatty acid.

Diets That Benefit Brain Health

There are still debates on the nutritional necessity for food groups other than fruits, vegetables, and nuts, like dairy, grains, legumes, and meat. Researchers have, however, found that diets that involve a balanced consumption of these food groups do offer brain health benefits.

Diets that consist of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other food groups that benefit overall health are recommended for a healthy brain-gut connection.

Some of these diets are listed below:

  • Mediterranean diet: Incorporates monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), like olive oils. This diet also includes mostly vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, fish, and plant proteins. The Mediterranean diet also consists of reducing the consumption of red meats and refined sugar and grains. This type of diet offers benefits for gut health and disease prevention. The Mediterranean diet additionally reduces cognitive decline.
  • The ketogenic diet (Keto): The Keto diet has recently become a popular source for “short-term weight loss.” This is a low-carbohydrate diet, that included high amounts of fat and moderate protein. Animal studies have provided evidence that this diet does offer cognitive benefits.
  • Counting calories: Research has come to discover the many benefits of calorie counting. Consumption of the appropriate amount of calories is not only associated with physiological health but also cognition.A study involving women with obesity determined a calorie-restricted diet helps with weight loss but also improves memory.
  • The DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet: This is a low-fat and low-sodium diet, that includes a lot of PUFAs and consists of lean meats, poultry, fish, whole-grain cereals, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat or non-fat dairy products.A research study found long-term effects of the DASH diet to result in better cognition. Researchers suspect combining the DASH diet with The Mediterranean diet to have the most cognitive impact.

Benefits of Feel Good Foods

There are various benefits of consuming foods that are considered "feel-good foods" or brain foods, such as:

  • Help prevent neurological disorders and mental illness
  • Contribute to brain development 
  • Enhance cognition (memory, processing speed, and focus)
  • Establish mental clarity 
  • Reduce brain fog and mental fatigue
  • Reduce anxiety and depression
  • Regulate emotions
  • Contribute to hormonal balance 
  • Enhance immunity 
  • Offer anti-inflammatory properties
  • Lessens the risk of chronic diseases 
  • Increase energy 

A Word From Verywell

The foods mentioned above are scientifically recommended for the general public. These foods may not suit you, possibly due to allergies, health concerns, or dietary restrictions. If you are concerned about implementing any food into your diet, speak with your physician before doing so. Also, remember that every diet isn't for everyone.

Find what is best for you and offers the benefits that you are searching for. It is equally important that you try not to judge yourself during transitioning into different dietary habits. Developing a new lifestyle habit is a process that takes time to establish. These foods can offer many benefits for your mental, cognitive and physical health, but it is difficult to incorporate every brain and mood-boosting food into your daily diet.

Therefore, it is essential to be practical when attempting to have a more well-balanced diet. Not every day will be fully packed with "feel-good foods," and you do not have to feel bad about that. 

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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