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We all want to eat to achieve things like ideal body composition, fat loss, and muscle growth. But how often do we think about eating for optimal brain health?

I think we can all recognize that the health of our brains is important, and arguably more important than achieving your ideal body composition, but so often we neglect to consider how the foods we eat are affecting our brains. And the brain and gut are actually highly linked, so what you eat likely has a bigger impact on your brain than you realize.

So in this article, I will outline 5 foods you should avoid if you want to optimize your brain health, and will briefly explain why they should be avoided.

1. Any food containing gluten

Gluten has long been the “bad guy” of foods. We have an epidemic of gluten-intolerant people and more and more people being diagnosed with coeliac disease. While this tends to be a controversial point, I believe there is merit in avoiding gluten as much as possible.

When I was 20 years old, I read Brain Maker by Dr. David Perlmutter. This book changed my life. I was already avoiding gluten, but this book really hit home the reasons to avoid it.

Gluten has been linked to so many ailments, from depression to autism. It’s not just that we feel unwell after eating it, it’s actually impacting the health of our brains.

“Even if you don’t have an intolerance or allergy to digesting gluten, and even if it doesn’t seem to cause perceivable issues for your gut, gluten can still cause major problems for your brain… dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (the part of your nervous system responsible for automatic actions such as breathing and digestion), cerebellar ataxia (inflammation or damage of the cerebellum, causing loss of fine motor skill), hypotonia (low muscle tone), developmental delay, learning disorders, depression, migraine and headaches. In fact, recent research has even connected gluten sensitivity with neuropsychiatric conditions like autism, schizophrenia and even hallucinations.” — Ben Greenfield

You may be wondering why gluten-intolerance has suddenly become so widespread when we’ve been eating bread for hundreds of years, and in some cultures today, there is hardly any incidence of the issue. The main driver of this change is how we are processing the wheat and grains. When processed according to a certain method, as it used to be done hundreds of years ago, gluten isn’t so irritating to our gut and therefore isn’t detrimental to our health. But we’ve changed how we process foods and this is leading to intolerances. The same is true for dairy.

“Modern wheat is making people sick…. The way we grow it, the way we process it and the way we eat it. The very wheat itself. Since industrialization, everything has changed, and it has happened in two distinct “technology revolutions”. The first was in milling, the second in cultivation and farming. Both have had a profound effect…. We have mutant seeds, grown in synthetic soil, bathed in chemicals. They’re deconstructed, pulverized to fine dust, bleached and chemically treated to create a barren industrial filler that no other creature on the planet will eat. And we wonder why it might be making us sick?” — Grainstorm, an Ontario Mennonite baking company

2. Heavy metals

Mercury, aluminum, arsenic, lead, lithium, manganese, and thallium are all heavy metals that can have detrimental effects on our brains. These exist in foods such as fish (especially tuna and mackerel), brown rice, wheat flour, soft drinks, and canned foods.

Heavy metal accumulation in the body can lead to depression, anxiety, memory loss, and irritability, among many other symptoms, and therefore it is imperative for our brain health to avoid these as much as possible. Heavy metal accumulation is also one of the reasons we should do a regular detox.

3. Mold

The main issue with molds is the mycotoxins that are released from the mold, which are especially damaging to our brains. For example, mold in your house can impact blood flow to the brain and can impair the brain development of young children. Mold exposure can also lead to anxiety, insomnia, depression, and bipolar disorder.

Sometimes it’s obvious when a food contains mold because we can see it. Other times, it’s more subtle. Some of the foods we eat already contain high amounts of molds and mycotoxins before we even buy them. This includes foods such as coffee beans, corn, barley, wheat, and peanuts. Eating organic foods can help mitigate this, as they tend to have fewer amounts of these toxic mycotoxins.

4. Artificially sweetened foods

While artificial sweeteners may seem like a great low-carb alternative, they are arguably worse for your health than sugar. At least sugar comes from nature. Artificial sweeteners come from the lab. In fact, when aspartame, a very common sweetener, reaches 30 degrees Celcius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) a substance in the aspartame converts to formaldehyde — the fluid they use to embalm bodies. These products aren’t natural.

Artificial sweeteners have been shown to have neurotoxic properties, and lead to brain tumors, weight gain, and cancer. They’ve also been linked to the development of dementia and stroke — with those consuming artificial sweeteners daily 3 times more likely to experience a stroke.

Avoid artificial sweeteners as much as possible. While sugar isn’t great for you either, it’s not going to turn into formaldehyde or cause you to have a stroke.

5. Trans fats

What are trans fats? Think vegetable oils. I don’t think there’s a food I’m against more than vegetable oils. With my current understanding, I think they’re one of the worst things someone can consume, yet they’re everywhere and in everything.

A bit of trans fat is okay and comes in natural foods such as butter and meat. However, the majority of our trans fat consumption comes from processed food products — such as vegetable oil. Vegetable oil is in margarine, frosting, and shortening (which is in all those store-bought cakes and cookies). They even put it in drinks.

These trans fats have been linked to poor cognitive functioning, poor memory, brain inflammation, and reduced brain volume, as well as other issues such as heart disease, immune dysfunction, and cancer.

Furthermore, vegetable oils are often unstable and therefore vulnerable to oxidative damage — which can be detrimental to the cells in your body, especially brain cells, and can lead to high levels of brain and body inflammation.

Even more worrying is that the brain is especially vulnerable to free radicals, which are molecules that can damage our cells as well as cause inflammation and disease. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, but vegetable oils disrupt the brain’s natural antioxidant system, perpetuating the issue.

Avoid vegetable oils as much as you can. Opt for healthier oils such as olive, avocado, and coconut, or use butter and lard. Be cognizant of the foods that contain vegetable oils — always check the label.

Conclusion

We often don’t purposefully eat to optimize our brain health, yet our brains are so important and so vulnerable to issues from the foods we eat. However, simply avoiding gluten, heavy metals, mold, artificial sweeteners, and trans fats can support the health of our brains. Try to avoid these foods as much as possible and your brain will thank you for it.