Nutrition can affect the brain throughout the life cycle, with profound implications for mental health and degenerative disease. Many aspects of nutrition, from entire diets to specific nutrients, affect brain structure and function. The present short review focuses on recent insights into the role of nutrition in cognition and mental health and is divided into four main sections. First, the importance of nutritional balance and nutrient interactions to brain health are considered by reference to the Mediterranean diet, energy balance, fatty acids and trace elements. Many factors modulate the effects of nutrition on brain health and inconsistencies between studies can be explained in part by differences in early environment and genetic variability. Thus, these two factors are considered in the second and third parts of the present review. Finally, recent findings on mechanisms underlying the actions of nutrition on the brain are considered. These mechanisms involve changes in neurotrophic factors, neural pathways and brain plasticity. Advances in understanding the critical role of nutrition in brain health will help to fulfil the potential of nutrition to optimise brain function, prevent dysfunction and treat disease.