Healthy snacking for brain health

healthy snacking

As we munch our way through snacks, we disregard this as having any importance on our brain health, surely it is just a case of fuelling the brain and body to continue on its way?

Not exactly – more and more studies are revealing the impact of choosing healthy over unhealth snacks also the role healthy snacks can play in brain health. Let’s first consider the impact of some of the dietary nutrients and their input into brain function.


A diet rich in Omega 3 supports cognitive function

Going back 20 years or so, the thinking was literally ‘food is fuel’ and to eat for energy. Food was perceived as being a more functional approach to health. But now studies are showing that what we eat directly affects cognitive function and in turn mental health.

Research by Fernando Gomez-Pinilla from the National Institute of Health (1) reports that a diet rich in Omega 3 fatty acids supports cognitive function. DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) is the most abundant Omega 3 fatty acid found in brain cell membranes. Our bodies cannot make it, but it can be synthesised via foods that contain Omega 3 – avocados, olive oil and flax seed for example.  It’s important to get these foods into the diet as they help to reduce inflammation which causes cognitive decline and general mental health illnesses such as anxiety and depression.


Fats that fuel versus control inflammation

Furthermore, Dr David Perlumtter discusses fats that ‘fuel inflammation’ and fats that ‘control inflammation’.  An excess of Omega 6 fatty acids found heavily in the western diet are found in many oils which have been linked to brain and heart trouble. However, Omega 3 fatty acids can boost brain function, reduce inflammation and in fact counterbalance the effects of too much Omega 6. If we consider our ancient ancestors’ diet, reportedly they consumed a balanced 1:1 ratio of omega 6 to 3. Now we consumer ‘ten to twenty five times more omega 6 fats.’(2)  Is it any wonder as a society our brains are not coping?


If we turn to the East, the Japanese diet is full of fresh fish, unprocessed grains, fruit and vegetables as well as less refined carbohydrate and processed foods, instead there is an abundance of probiotic foods such as Miso, natto and tempeh. These all equate to the Japanese being five times less likely to have accounts of major depression versus those in West Germany, Canada or New Zealand for example. Surely it cannot be a coincidence – food must impact brain health. (3)


Let us now turn our attention to the gut and where it all begins. We cannot dismiss the more recent research and hype around the connection between the gut and its role in brain health. What we put into ourselves directly affects the gut microbiome. But more than that it affects our mental health. We know that there is now an established link between the brain and the gut via the vagus nerve – a super highway of messages that link the two intrinsically together. We also know now that a whopping 90% of serotonin (4)– the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter lives in the gut so it shouldn’t surprise that if we don’t feed our microbiome correctly and nourish the tens of trillions of microorganisms that live within it, it leaves us open to systemic inflammation including that of the brain and from there possibly to development of cognitive decline along with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Dementia. Alongside this an increase in incidence of depression and other mental health concerns. (5)

B vitamins are also thought to contribute to neurotransmitter production and in turn reduce cognitive decline. Vitamin B3, B6, folic acid and B12, send messages from one brain cell to another. They help the process of ‘methylation’. Without these you might feel like you are going ‘crazy’. I.e the inability to think straight, hearing your own thoughts and so on. (6). The bottom line is If you don’t put the right fuel in the car – how is it supposed to work properly?


Eating healthily snacks is not just about energy production

But how can we start making this count? If you start to snack healthily you can start to inform new habit changes and slowly build new neuron pathways. This process is called ‘neuroplasticity’. Food for the Brain; an organisation that supports those with mental health concerns through nutritional support, define this as ‘our brain’s ability to change and reorganise itself in response to injury and learning experiences’.(7) Exciting to think this is possible. Eating the right foods not only means provision of energy but as research continues it also suggests new brain behaviour can be adopted.

Remember the saying ‘keeping the cogs turning’? This is literally what we are talking about here, eating foods that help to oil the synaptic connections to help us to protect our brains and keep them functioning for our future years.


Top 5 snacks to keep your brain in tip top health

  • Nuts and seeds in particular walnuts, almonds they contain the antioxidant Vitamin E.
  • A medley of berries such as blueberries, blackberries and strawberries, delays cognitive decline and reduces oxidation.
  • Mackerel on toast or smashed avocado for their Omega 3 fatty acid benefits
  • Have a green juice. The darker the greens the better as they are more nutrient rich. Try a green juice made from: spinach, swiss chard, walnuts, blueberries, and banana. It’s a nice all rounder.
  • Even dark chocolate is thought to improve cognitive function through its flavonoid content.



Author bio

Vanessa holds a Diploma in Nutritional Therapy CNM. She is registered with BANT, CNHC and ANP), having trained through the College of Naturopathic Medicine. She works with women as they approach their next life stage through supporting good gut health and positive mindset.