Nutrition may influence brain health more so in women than men, study suggests

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Women may need a more nutrient-rich diet to support a positive emotional well-being, US researchers conclude, pointing to polyphenols, omega-3 oils and folate as being particularly beneficial.

The team, which conclude, “Differential responses may be linked to differences in brain morphology between men and women,”​ also believe that women require a greater variety of nutritional sources in their diet.

“The biggest takeaway is that women may need a larger spectrum of nutrients to support mood, compared to men,"​ said Dr Lina Begdache, lead researcher and assistant professor of health and wellness studies at Binghamton University in New York.

"These findings may explain the reason why women are twice more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression and suffer from longer episodes, compared to men. Today's diet is high in energy but poor in key nutrients that support brain anatomy and functionality."

Gender specific risk factors

The study explores the area of gender specific risk factors that may explain the differences in the human brain, which may contribute to a therapeutic approach.

Nutrition is one such modifiable risk factor that has been shown to influence brain structure and its chemistry.

Current trends in nutritional epidemiology research is moving toward analysing dietary patterns (DP) and away from single nutrients particularly their effect on mental distress.

DP analysis—exemplified in recent years by the Mediterranean diet—considers the complexity of nutrient interactions and the difference in the daily dietary intake.

Additionally, the build-up of nutrients and their metabolites, rather than a one-time consumption, plays a substantial role in mental health.

Dr Begdache and her team began by conducting an anonymous survey of 563 participants (48% men and 52% women) through social media to investigate this issue.

The Food-Mood Questionnaire (FMQ) was designed to assess dietary and nutrient consumption patterns by including questions on food groups that have been linked to mental activity.

The FMQ also served to assess average weekly servings of nine different food groups (whole grain, fruits, vegetables, meat, beans, nuts, dairy, fish and high glycaemic index (HGI) foods).

Frequency of breakfast consumption, use of multivitamins (MV) and fish oil (FO) supplements, eating fast food and drinking caffeinated beverages were also included.

Study findings

Dr Begdache and her team found that mental distress in men was associated with a consumption of a Western-like diet whilst in women, mental wellbeing was associated with a Mediterranean-like diet and lifestyle.

Additional findings pointed to men as being more likely to experience mental wellbeing until nutritional deficiencies arise.

However, women were less likely to experience mental wellbeing when a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle were followed.

“Evidence suggests that our ancestors' diet, which was a high-energy-nutrient-dense diet, contributed significantly to brain volumes and cognitive evolution of mankind,”​ said Dr Begdache.

"Males and females had different physical and emotional responsibilities that may have necessitated different energy requirements and food preference."

Dr Begdache said that as a result gender-based differential food and energy intake may explain the differential brain volumes and connectivity between females and males.

She noted that a potential mismatch was happening between our contemporary diet and the evolved human brain, which is disturbing the normal functionality of certain systems in the brain.

Mediterranean diet approval

Commenting on the Mediterranean diet, Dr Begdache’s team suggested that its reputation was well deserved highlighting the regimen as an “architype of a healthy diet”.

“Individuals with higher Mediterranean diet scores (MDS) tend to have larger frontal, parietal, occipital, and average lobar cortical thicknesses,”​ the study said.

“Beans (high in polyphenols) and fish (rich in omega-3 fats) intakes, specifically, associated with increased cortical thickness.

“The Mediterranean diet is rich in a variety of phenolic bioactive compounds that exhibit a broad control over gene expression ranging from transcription regulation and mRNA stability, to protein translation and post-translational modifications.”

Source: Nutritional Neuroscience

Published online ahead of print:

“Principal component analysis identifies differential gender-specific dietary patterns that may be linked to mental distress in human adults.”

Authors: Lina Begdache, Hamed Kianmehr, Nasim Sabounchi, Maher Chaar & Jade Marhaba

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