March is National Nutrition Month: a time to make healthier choices about what we choose to chew and swallow. How much difference, though, can small changes to our diet really make?

More than I realized. Did you know that what we eat affects our thoughts and moods? Until a few days ago, I did not.

I knew that eating healthy foods helps our bodies to work better. People carb load before a marathon and eat more protein to build muscle. But can eating really change my brain?

Research in the relatively new field of Nutritional Psychology points strongly in that direction. The brain is our most complicated organ, as such, it needs high-quality nutrition to operate efficiently.

On the Harvard Health blog, Dr. Eva Selhub compares the brain to an expensive car that needs premium gasoline to run properly. If we use low-octane fuel, performance will decrease and damage may occur.

“Low-octane fuel” for our brains hides in the forms of refined sugar, highly processed foods and fried foods. Studies have shown that these low-nutrient choices increase brain inflammation and can ultimately cause cell damage.

Brain health directly affects our outlook on life and our behavior. Poor nutrition can cause us to feel mentally sluggish and less capable of working through life’s challenges.

Specific studies show that children with diets high in junk food and processed foods are much more likely to exhibit emotional problems and ADHD. Adults with nutrient-poor diets are much more likely to suffer from depression.

If a poor diet helps to cause these problems, will a better diet help fix them? The answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

In one study, clinically depressed adults worked with a dietician to eat more vegetables, fruits, fish, and legumes (beans such as kidney beans and lentils). One-third of these adults achieved remission from their depression, as opposed to only 8% in the control group.

Although more research needs to be done to better understand why and how our brain responds to food, we do know which foods contain the nutrition that our brains need for “premium” performance!

For optimal brain health, most of our diet should be made up of whole foods in these categories: vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, legumes, fish and unsaturated fats (like olive oil). If fresh foods seem too expensive, we can buy more economical canned and frozen versions of these items.

Specifically, in our American diet, we need more omega-3 fatty acids (to reduce inflammation) and B-vitamins (to regulate neurotransmitters, immune function, and amino acids).

Foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines and dark green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and, brussel sprouts. Foods high in B-vitamins include dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

Small changes in what we eat can make a big difference in how we feel. Let’s challenge each other to cut out the junk food and add some brain-healthy foods into our diet. Then we will all have better food for thought!

By Chrissie Kaufmann, YMCA of Southwest Michigan