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Wholegrains and legumes a boost for brain health

Research suggests a nutritious diet containing wholegrains and legumes can help lift mental health and wellbeing.
Photo: GLNC

Following a nutritious diet is good for our physical health, but research increasingly shows the impact our diet has on our mental wellbeing. Regularly eating wholegrains and legumes can reduce our risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even certain cancers.

But research also highlights the brain health benefits of following a nutritious diet rich in wholegrains and legumes. The Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council has examined the latest research in this field.

Glucose is our brain’s preferred source of fuel, so it is no surprise that our blood sugar levels play an important role in regulating our mood. Wholegrains and legumes are both excellent sources of quality carbohydrates, meaning they are slowly digested and provide sustained brain fuel, which helps us to feel energised throughout the day.

Although foods such as white bread and white rice provide an immediate burst of energy, this is shortly followed by a drop in blood sugar levels known as hypoglycaemia. It is this crash in blood sugar that can be associated with mood disorders, such as anxiety, irritability and depression.

Increasingly, research suggests gut health has another possible influence on our mood.

The term ‘gut microbiome’ describes the many trillions of microorganisms living in our gastrointestinal tract. Wholegrains and legumes including barley, rye, oats, chickpeas, lentils, baked beans and lupins are high in resistant starch, which is a type of dietary fibre that acts as food for the good bacteria in our gut.

Mood regulators

The good bacteria produces beneficial substances, known as short-chain fatty acids, which may play a role in regulating our mood, among many other beneficial physiological effects such as supporting our immune system and maintaining overall health.

Although it is often best to focus on whole foods or dietary patterns, there are some specific nutrients that play a role in optimising brain health:

  • B vitamins – wholegrains are high in B vitamins, which are essential for every aspect of brain function;
  • tryptophan – wholegrains and legumes are naturally high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is important for the production of serotonin in the body, commonly known as the feel-good mood-stabilising hormone; and
  • magnesium and zinc – legumes are an excellent source of magnesium and zinc, both of which have been linked with improved brain health.

While we all enjoy combinations of different foods, it is even more important to focus on whole dietary patterns for a healthy and happy mind.

Research suggests that following a Mediterranean diet high in plant foods, such as wholegrains, legumes, polyphenol-rich fruits and vegetables, nuts and olive oil, as well as fish and small amounts of meat and dairy, is associated with better overall mental wellbeing.

It is also associated with increased concentration and lower likelihood of depressive and anxiety disorders, most likely due to the anti-inflammatory benefits of this diet.

Following a nutritious diet rich in wholegrains and legumes can, overall, contribute to a healthy and happy brain, in combination with regular exercise, getting enough sleep and managing stress levels.

More information: visit the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council.

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