Study shows ‘profound’ link between dietary choices and brain health

New research has highlighted the profound link between dietary choices and brain health.

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Food preferences significantly influence dietary choices, yet understanding natural dietary patterns in populations remains limited. In a new study, scientists at the University of Warwick identified how our food preferences influence physical health and significantly impact brain health.

The findings highlight the profound link between dietary choices and brain health. The study showed that a healthy, balanced diet is associated with superior brain health, cognitive function, and wellbeing.

Scientists identified four dietary subtypes by applying data-driven approaches to food-liking data from 181,990 UK Biobank participants: ‘starch-free or reduced-starch’ (subtype 1), ‘vegetarian’ (subtype 2), ‘high protein and low fiber’ (subtype 3) and ‘balanced’ (subtype 4). These dietary choices were analyzed against various physical evaluations, including cognitive function, blood metabolic biomarkers, brain imaging, and genetics — unveiling new insights into the relationship between nutrition and overall wellbeing.

Each participant’s dietary choices were gathered using an online survey that the team divided into ten categories (alcohol, fruits, and meats). The scientists used machine learning, a subset of AI, to analyze the enormous dataset. Compared to people who ate a less diverse diet, individuals who followed a balanced diet showed improved mental health, enhanced cognitive abilities, and even higher levels of grey matter in the brain, which is connected to intelligence. The study also emphasized the necessity of making small, incremental dietary changes, especially for people who are used to eating delicious but low-nutrient meals.

Lead Author Professor Jianfeng Feng, University of Warwick, emphasized the importance of establishing healthy food preferences early in life.

He said: “Developing a healthy balanced diet from an early age is crucial for healthy growth. To foster the development of a healthy balanced diet, families and schools should offer a diverse range of nutritious meals and cultivate an environment that supports their physical and mental health.”

Addressing the broader implications of the research, Prof Feng emphasized the role of public policy in promoting accessible and affordable healthy eating options.

“Since dietary choices can be influenced by socioeconomic status, it’s crucial to ensure that this does not hinder individuals from adopting a healthy balanced dietary profile,” he stated.

“Implementing affordable nutritious food policies is essential for governments to empower the general public to make informed and healthier dietary choices, thereby promoting overall public health.”

Co-Auhtor Wei Cheng, Fudan University, added: “Our findings underscore the associations between dietary patterns and brain health, urging for concerted efforts in promoting nutritional awareness and fostering healthier eating habits across diverse populations.”

Dr. Richard Pemberton, Certified Lifestyle Physician, and GP, Hexagon Health, who was not involved in the study, commented“This exciting research further demonstrates that a poor diet detrimentally impacts not only our physical health but also our mental and brain health. This study supports the need for urgent government action to optimize the health of our children, protecting future generations. We hope this provides further evidence to motivate us all to make better lifestyle choices, improve our health, and reduce the risk of developing chronic disease.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Ruohan Zhang, Bei Zhang, Chun Shen, Barbara J. Sahakian, Zeyu Li, Wei Zhang, Yujie Zhao, Yuzhu Li, Jianfeng Feng, Wei Cheng. Associations of dietary patterns with brain health from behavioral, neuroimaging, biochemical, and genetic analyses. Nature Mental Health, 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s44220-024-00226-0

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