Liking a Variety of Foods Linked to Better Brain Health, Study Finds

by Ella

Older adults who enjoy a wide range of foods appear to have better brain health compared to those with more limited diets, according to a substantial study of British adults. This research highlights the potential cognitive benefits of a diverse diet.

Study Overview

The study tracked the dietary preferences of nearly 182,000 older adults in Britain. Unlike many studies that focus on the health impacts of specific diets, this research examined the connection between individuals’ food preferences and their mental well-being and cognitive health.


Key Findings

Researchers found a significant trend: those who enjoyed a variety of foods and flavors reported better mental health, higher levels of well-being, and performed better on cognitive tests than those with restricted dietary preferences.


The findings suggest that having a preference for a limited diet—whether it be vegetarian or high-protein—may not always be optimal for overall well-being. “A more balanced diet appears to be more beneficial,” said Jianfeng Feng, a lead researcher affiliated with both the Institute of Science and Technology for Brain-Inspired Intelligence at Fudan University in Shanghai and the University of Warwick in Britain.


Research Methodology

The study, published in the journal Nature Mental Health, involved scientists from Britain and China analyzing food preferences among participants in the U.K. Biobank study, one of the largest and longest health research initiatives globally. Participants completed a “food-liking” questionnaire, rating their preferences for 140 foods and beverages on a nine-point scale from “extremely dislike” to “extremely like.”


These foods were categorized into 10 groups: alcohol, beverages, dairy, flavorings (such as black pepper, curry, ketchup, and vinegar), fruits, fish, meat, snacks, starches, and vegetables.

Dietary Patterns and Mental Health

The researchers discovered that 57% of respondents exhibited a balanced preference across all 10 food categories, while others were more selective. About 18% preferred starch-free or reduced-starch foods, 5% favored a vegetarian diet, and 19% preferred diets high in protein and low in fiber.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, individuals who favored fruits and vegetables over protein-rich foods (indicative of a more vegetarian diet) showed a higher susceptibility to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, according to Wei Cheng, a professor at the Institute of Science and Technology for Brain-Inspired Intelligence at Fudan University.

Participants who preferred high-protein, low-fiber diets also reported more anxiety symptoms and diminished well-being.

Implications and Limitations

It’s crucial to note that the study establishes associations rather than causation. Individuals who prefer certain food groups might have other characteristics influencing their mental health scores.

The study adds to a growing body of research on the impact of diet on brain health. High-sugar, high-fat diets, often referred to as “Western diets,” have been linked to decreased cognitive performance and increased depressive symptoms. Conversely, the Mediterranean Diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and olive oil, has been associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Rebecca MacPherson, an associate professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, who was not involved in the study, emphasized the importance of further research. “There is a clear need for more preclinical studies investigating the underlying mechanisms and the short and long-term effects of different nutrients on disease progression,” she said.

Balanced Diet for Better Brain Health

The researchers described a “balanced” diet as one including vegetables, fruits, cereals, nuts, seeds, pulses, moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, and fish. Thomas M. Holland, a physician scientist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, noted the well-known benefits of such diets. “We know that diet impacts not only global cognition but also various cognitive domains, including semantic memory, episodic memory, working memory, and perceptual speed,” he said.


In summary, this study suggests that enjoying a wide variety of foods could be beneficial for mental and cognitive health. While more research is needed to fully understand these relationships, it underscores the potential advantages of a balanced and diverse diet in promoting brain health as we age.



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