Nutritional influences on cognitive function: mechanisms of susceptibility

E. Leigh Gibson, Michael W. Green

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The impact of nutritional variation, within populations not overtly malnourished, on cognitive function and arousal is considered. The emphasis is on susceptibility to acute effects of meals and glucose loads, and chronic effects of dieting, on mental performance, and effects of cholesterol and vitamin levels on cognitive impairment. New developments in understanding dietary influences on neurohormonal systems, and their implications for cognition and affect, allow reinterpretation of both earlier and recent findings. Evidence for a detrimental effect of omitting a meal on cognitive performance remains equivocal: from the outset, idiosyncrasy has prevailed. Yet, for young and nutritionally vulnerable children, breakfast is more likely to benefit than hinder performance. For nutrient composition, despite inconsistencies, some cautious predictions can be made. Acutely, carbohydrate-rich–protein-poor meals can be sedating and anxiolytic; by comparison, protein-rich meals may be arousing, improving reaction time but also increasing unfocused vigilance. Fat-rich meals can lead to a decline in alertness, especially where they differ from habitual fat intake. These acute effects may vary with time of day and nutritional status. Chronically, protein-rich diets have been associated with decreased positive and increased negative affect relative to carbohydrate-rich diets. Probable mechanisms include diet-induced changes in monoamine, especially serotoninergic neurotransmitter activity, and functioning of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. Effects are interpreted in the context of individual traits and susceptibility to challenging, even stressful, tests of performance. Preoccupation with dieting may impair cognition by interfering with working memory capacity, independently of nutritional status. The change in cognitive performance after administration of glucose, and other foods, may depend on the level of sympathetic activation, glucocorticoid secretion, and pancreatic β-cell function, rather than simple fuelling of neural activity. Thus, outcomes can be predicted by vulnerability in coping with stressful challenges, interacting with nutritional history and neuroendocrine status. Functioning of such systems may be susceptible to dietary influences on neural membrane fluidity, and vitamin-dependent cerebrovascular health, with cognitive vulnerability increasing with age.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-206
Number of pages38
JournalNutrition Research Reviews
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2002


  • glucose
  • cognition
  • cortisol
  • memory
  • stress


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