What impact does your diet have on cognitive function and wellbeing?

Both literally and figuratively, diet is a four-letter word. It enrages and motivates us at the same time, reminding us of how our body and fitness goals can be achieved even as it highlights all our failings.

But the most dramatic meaning of the word isn’t the only one there is, of course. It also refers, very simply, to the totality of what you eat. Even if you’re not on a diet, you still have a diet. But beyond your weight, what does it actually mean?

The answer, in truth, is very complicated. Your diet doesn’t just shape your physical condition. It also impacts your cognitive function and general wellbeing, though to degrees that aren’t fully understood. To help you make good decisions, this post will discuss how it seems to affect those things, and how you can improve your diet accordingly.

Nutrient-rich diets are linked with improved cognitive function

Whenever people talk seriously of healthy long-term diets, they bring up what’s known as the Mediterranian diet, and for good reason. Having a diet with low red meat intake and heavy consumption of fruits, vegetables and legumes is strongly associated with a lower risk of heart disease, a lower risk of cancer, and an above-average life expectancy.

But how does it work? What makes it so effective? Food science is incredibly tricky, so spotting a correlation doesn’t mean we can easily determine what’s going on, but there are three reasonable inferences we can make:

  1. Nutrients are indeed vital. The Mediterranian diet is rich in nutrients, and we know them to be important for our core functions. The human body is richly adaptable and can make do with limited supplies, but giving it a broad array of unprocessed nutrient-rich foods will understandably lead to better results.
  2. There’s no silver-bullet superfood. This diet isn’t built around a single food that’s considered to solve problems. It allows everything to different extents, providing the kind of variety that covers all bases. In pre-civilization days, we would eat varied diets, and it makes sense to continue that.
  3. Obsessing over food is a mistake. Something often observed about Mediterranian regions is that people don’t count calories or follow hyper-specific recipes. Instead, they use what they can find, experiment, and truly enjoy what they eat. Eating is a family event, and people feel grateful for what they eat (instead of feeling deprived).

Unsustainable eating can cause self-destructive behavior

Moderation, then, seems to be the way forward – and we can also infer this from the damaging nature of unsustainable diets. Dr. Donald Grant of The Independent Pharmacy, a leading online pharmacy, says that attempting fad-type diets is a huge mistake: “You may find yourself on an endless cycle of beginning, stalling, breaking, and then restarting diets.”

But the issue with those diets isn’t simply that they don’t work, failing to help you lose weight or achieve your health goals. They also cause self-destructive behavior of other kinds through souring your overall attitude on life. Repeatedly failing to achieve something you want so badly will inevitably damage your confidence, leading you to make bad decisions.

Someone tired of dieting might make terrible financial decisions that worsen their anxiety, for instance, or stop exercising due to listlessness and feel even worse as a result. In short, your diet shouldn’t occupy that much of your attention. If it’s something you’re thinking about on a daily basis, it’s probably having a negative impact on your life in general.

Gut health is complicated and seems to strongly impact mood

Lastly, we need to touch upon the fascinating topic of gut health, because there’s a lot to be gleaned from it. Your gut isn’t simply a storage area for food: it’s overseen in a sense by a layer of nerve cells called the enteric nervous system which communicates with the brain as it controls digestion. Problems with your gut might not make you feel worse simply through discomfort: they may prompt mood changes through that nerve connection.

And then there’s the issue of gut bacteria, with many scientific studies finding intriguing links between certain microbiomes in the gut and issues such as depression and anxiety. This BBC piece contains a lot of relevant information, so it’s worth checking out if you want to learn more about how fermented foods can overhaul your gut health.

Wrapping up, though there’s so much we don’t yet know for sure about how our dietary choices affect our thought processes and emotional states, there are some strong correlations that we simply can’t ignore. The smart path forward seems to lie in dietary moderation, consuming nutrient-rich foods and using fermentation to yield a healthy gut.

Photo by James Kovin