How to keep our brains healthy – direct from dietitians

16 May 2023

pexels karolina grabowska 8547604 1 How to keep our brains healthy - direct from dietitians

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re working with the Colmore BID-based British Dietetic Association (BDA). They represent thousands of registered dietitians, working at an individual and wider public-health level to assess, diagnose and treat diet and nutrition problems. Here, BDA members sort the fact from the fiction, sharing how food can affect our mood.  

Working (or indeed living) in Birmingham means we have so much choice when it comes to food. But so often we end up grabing something quick or even skipping mealtimes altogether.   

Food can have an incredibly powerful effect on how we feel – and conversely how we feel can affect what we choose to eat. Eating more mindfully, in a regular pattern and getting the right levels of essential nutrients from a wide range of food and drink can support our mental health. 

Being more aware of what supports energy, mood and concentration can make it easier when choosing what we go for. It’s also important to recognise the benefits of proper meal breaks to refresh and refuel ourselves. 


To understand why it’s a good idea to include and limit certain foods in our diets to support our mental health, we need to know the effect they have on our bodies and in particular our brains.  

Our brains are made of around 50 percent fat, and our cells need fats to maintain their structures. So, a good supply of the right fats can keep our brains healthy. A moderate intake of unsaturated fat and omega-3 in our diets, for example olive oil, nuts and seeds, is useful to include.  

Evidence also shows that omega-3 oils, found in oily fish, may also help with depression. We should be aiming for at least two portions of oily fish per week. Oily fish include salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards and trout. If you don’t eat fish there are alternatives here.  

Trans-fats seem to be harmful to brain structure and function (as well as heart health) so it’s worth us limiting these. Trans-fats are found in things like processed meats, ready meals, pre-packed cakes and biscuits. Instead, try to cook from scratch and use fresh foods whenever you can. If you need some inspiration, try our Apricot and Chocolate Crunchy Biscuit recipe. 


Unlike other organs, our brains rely on a steady supply of glucose as its primary fuel. In fact, our brains use 20 per cent of all the energy our body needs. This glucose comes mostly from starchy carbohydrates, which we should be aiming to eat little and often to keep our mood at its best. 

Not having enough glucose in our blood (hypoglycaemia) can make us feel weak, tired and ‘fuzzy minded’. This may happen when we don’t eat enough carbohydrate-containing food and is a particular risk if we have diabetes or do extreme exercise or manual labour. It can also happen if we follow a very restrictive diet or have irregular eating patterns. 

It is therefore important to include carbohydrate-containing foods including fruit, vegetables, cereals, bread, rice, potatoes, sugars and lactose in milk, in our diets.  

The best choices for a steady blood sugar (glucose) supply are those that slowly release carbohydrate. Eating these foods regularly in healthy meals and snacks, such as wholegrain or seeded breads, wholegrain breakfast cereals, pasta, brown rice, couscous or bulgur, pulses and beans, fruit and vegetables can help with energy levels during the day and enhance our mood. 

Wholegrains, fruit and vegetables 

Wholegrain cereals, peas, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables are rich in a range of vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function well. They also digest slowly, helping to provide a slow and steady glucose supply to our brain and body. 

These foods are also rich in B vitamins (including folate) and zinc. Recent evidence suggests that these nutrients are important in managing depression. 


Dehydration can make us tired, anxious and lacking in concentration. We need to be drinking plenty of healthy fluids during the day including water, low-sugar squash, milk, herbal tea or fruit juice. Caffeinated drinks can reduce sleepiness and lead to withdrawal headaches and low or irritable moods when the effects wear off. 

Alcohol can also cause dehydration and too much can cause vitamin B deficiencies, which can worsen the symptoms of depression and anxiety.  

Protecting meal breaks 

Many people do not take a break away from work during the workday, aiming to push through to support productivity. However, a meal break can improve both concentration and decision making and may help reduce fatigue and stress. 

It’s a good opportunity to rehydrate, refuel and get some activity or fresh air. This can support both performance and positive wellbeing at work. 

Key tips 

  • Aim to get enough vitamins and minerals from eating a healthy, balanced diet 
  • Protect lunchtimes and try not to skip breakfast 
  • Eat slowly, without distractions and reflect on how it makes you feel. More information is available here  
  • Eat regularly and include starchy carbohydrates to ensure steady glucose levels 
  • Include a moderate intake of unsaturated fat and omega-3 
  • Try to cook from scratch and use fresh foods whenever you can 
  • Keep hydrated, prioritising water, limiting caffeine and alcohol 
  • In certain circumstances or for some people, supplements may be beneficial e.g., folic acid for all women planning pregnancy, iron supplements for people diagnosed with anaemia, vitamin B12 for vegans and older adults, and vitamin D for everyone in winter months. 

Want to know more? 

Go here to find out how we can help your workplace with engaging educational and cooking activities for your staff. Working towards Thrive at Work commitments? We’ve got you covered with a range of resources, advice and activities to deliver against key programme levels. 

You can find out more about mood and food here

All references to relevant studies are available within the BDA’s Food Fact Sheets. BDA Food Fact Sheets are developed by dietitians, in partnership with the BDA.  

Dietitians are the only qualified and regulated health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat diet and nutrition problems, at an individual and wider public-health level. If you have any underlying health conditions or indeed simply want some dietary advice with a personalised plan that fits your specific needs, we would always recommend seeking out a professional registered dietitian, either via your GP or by seeking out a freelancer. 

The information here is general. If you have a medical condition, are pregnant or a child, please seek advice from a dietitian or health care team before making any changes to usual dietary advice. 

Picture 1 How to keep our brains healthy - direct from dietitians
Picture 3 How to keep our brains healthy - direct from dietitians