Does Your Brain Need Carbs or Can It Consist on a No-Carb Diet?


With each passing month, certain foods and fad diets come in and out of favor. One food that's been on the "bad" list for a while is bread—more specifically, gluten. "Today, as many as one in three Americans avoids gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—thereby eliminating grains and cereals from the diet," notes Lisa Mosconi, PhD. In reality, only 1 percent of the population suffers from Celiac disease and approximately another 6 percent have other gluten sensitivities and should also avoid gluten, but "for the other 93 percent of us, a gluten-free diet is not only unnecessary but can do more harm than good," warns Mosconi. Specifically, if you avoid gluten and follow a no-carb diet, it can have effects on your brain.

Meet the Expert

  • Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D. is the Director of the Women’s Brain Initiative and Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC)/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. She also serves as an Associate Professor of Neuroscience in Neurology and Radiology.
  • Holly A. Taylor, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology at Tufts University. Her work examines the mental representation of information as well as nutritional effects on cognitive behavior.
  • Dr. Perlmutter is a Board-Certified Neurologist and five-time New York Times bestselling author. He serves on the Board of Directors and is a Fellow of the American College of Nutrition.

Is Gluten Bad for the Brain?

Those living without gluten allergies avoid gluten for a number of reasons, but one has to do with scares over its effects on the brain. Mosconi says that as a neuroscientist with backgrounds in nuclear medicine (aka brain imaging) and nutrition, she's frequently asked whether gluten is bad for the brain and whether it should be avoided. "The short answer is no, do not fear gluten," she assures. "From the point of view of those who rely on peer-reviewed science, there is no conclusive scientific evidence of a connection between gluten consumption and cognitive decline in dementia."

What Happens to Your Brain When You Cut Carbs

Avoiding gluten if you don't need to, particularly if it leads to following a low or no-carb diet, can actually have negative effects on your brain, and you could be putting yourself at risk unnecessarily. Your brain needs glucose (which carbs turn into when broken down) for energy. According to Holly A. Taylor, Ph.D., a diet low in carbs, therefore, can be detrimental to learning, memory, and thinking. While nothing is conclusive (we need more studies that examine long-term cognitive effects of low-carb diets), it's certainly worth keeping in the back of your mind that by eliminating all carbs, you could be harming your brain.

Healthy Carbs We Should Be Eating

Mosconi lists complex carbohydrates—such as whole grains, brown rice, oats, and sweet potatoes—as foods that provide a great number of health benefits, especially for the brain. Packed with brain-supportive nutrients like antioxidants, B vitamins, and minerals, it's not surprising that these high-fiber foods are great for overall health, as well as cognitive health. For those who have Celiac disease or are sensitive to gluten, neurologist Dr. Perlmutter advises focussing on gluten-free grains like rice, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum, and teff.

Dr. Perlmutter advises eating healthy grains in moderation rather than avoiding them entirely. This means up to once a day or as infrequently as a few times a week.

Last but not least, vegetables and fruit are technically carbs, but they should be a hefty portion of your daily diet, not just eaten in moderation.

Article Sources
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  1. Igbinedion SO, Ansari J, Vasikaran A, et al. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: All Wheat Attack Is Not Celiac. World J Gastroenterol. 2017;23(40):7201-7210.doi:10.3748/wjg.v23.i40.7201

  2. Wahl D, Cogger VC, Solon-biet SM, et al. Nutritional Strategies to Optimise Cognitive Function in the Aging Brain. Ageing Res Rev. 2016;31:80-92.doi:10.1016/j.arr.2016.06.006

  3. Wylie-rosett J, Aebersold K, Conlon B, Isasi CR, Ostrovsky NW. Health Effects of Low-Carbohydrate Diets: Where Should New Research Go?. Curr Diab Rep. 2013;13(2):271-8.doi:10.1007/s11892-012-0357-5

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