What if you could prime your mind to be in its perfect state for exams? What if you could walk into that room calm and alert with the stamina to carry you through the day?
The impact of food on the brain
If you’re a loyal GFF reader, you know how profoundly food affects your physical health. But did you know that it also impacts academic achievement? That’s right—your choices influence your mood, ability to focus, level of anxiety, and performance.
Whhhat? But How?
Glad you asked! There are many physiological mechanisms at play. Due to their nutritional profile, and the presence of some key vitamins like B and minerals like Zinc, certain foods supercharge your brain by:
- increasing blood flow to the brain
- protecting brain cells from inflammation and other damage
- improving signaling pathways that promote nerve cell production and cell behavior
- providing building blocks to neurotransmitters
All these processes impact learning and memory. The positive effects of “brain food” become more pronounced on a long day of tests when cognitive fatigue typically sets in.
Ideally, you should start eating brain food days—or even weeks— before exams. Hopefully, you’ll see an improvement in your focus and mental clarity and be motivated to make some permanent changes.
Did you know?
One or more of the B vitamins are involved in every aspect of generating energy within cells. A deficiency in any B vitamin interferes with this process. B12 concentrations are associated with global cognitive function and with total brain volume.
Top 8 Brain Foods
Research shows that blueberries and berry supplements increase mental performance in both short term and long term tests. One study showed that blueberry smoothies helped participants maintain quicker response times and accuracy on a 6-hour test. In another study, mood and executive functioning improved 20 minutes to 2 hours post ”dosing”. Go find some berries!
Fresh berries have a short season, but frozen berries are available year round. Because they’re packaged at the height of the season, all those amazing nutrients are locked in.
- Defrost berries (straw/black/blue/rasp) in the fridge, then bring to school in a sealable container with a spoon. They produce a lot of juice, so check for a tight seal.
- Pour berries onto a few large dollops of whole plain yogurt (with cinnamon for extra flavor) and store in thermos.
- Make a blueberry smoothie for breakfast: mix with banana, spinach or kale, coconut oil, cinnamon, and fennel. Transfer to bottle to take with you!
Quick Scoop: Nuts are high in vitamin E and zinc, which are critical for brain health. They are powerhouses of healthy fat, protein and fiber. Studies show that they improve reaction time and performance on brain tests.
Zinc deficiency can lead to diseases related to development as well as mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Nuts are a no-brainer 😉. They are easy to transport and fun to mix and match. There are all kinds of nut butters with different flavors and textures.
- Core an apple, spread almond or macadamia nut butter on each slice. Try also with banana and pear.
- Add a handful of nuts or two spoonfuls of nut butter to a fruit and veggie smoothie—a great energy drink that starts your morning off with a bang. Or bring a smoothie with you in a sealable container.
- Prepare your own trail mix by combining walnuts, cashews, and pistachios with unsulphured dried apricots, goji berries, or mulberries.
- Most people have never heard of Pilli nuts. They come from the Philippines and are soft, buttery, and melt in your mouth. I’ve never seen them in stores so I order online.
- Allergic to nuts? Try pumpkin seeds!
What is Choline:
Choline is a vitamin B complex-related nutrient that 90% of us don’t get enough of. It is a precursor of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a central role in memory and learning.
- Eggs are packed with nutrients for brain function, including B12, and selenium. They also provide choline, which fuels an important neurotransmitter involved in memory storage and muscle control.
- Eggs are a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Eggs are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that’s a building block of the “happiness” neurotransmitter serotonin.
But what about fat and cholesterol?
Datis Kharrazian, a Harvard Medical School trained and award-winning clinical research scientist, explains in his book Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, “Your brain will literally start to eat itself for the raw materials it needs when there isn’t enough dietary fat available”.
Eggs are nature’s perfect food and the perfect breakfast and they are incredibly versatile. Be sure that they come from pastured chickens which forage and eat a natural diet, unlike their factory-fed counterparts.
- Try scrambling them in a chickpea or cassava tortilla. These are a little coarser than standard flour but you can get used to them!
- Boil them whole (about 12 minutes), peel shell and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Keep warm in a thermos.
- Make deviled eggs. Bring to school with coldpak.
- If you know and trust your farmer or have your own backyard chickens, you can add egg yolk to a smoothie for the perfect protein. Do not do this with factory eggs. Check out my Smoothie dance!
- Avocados are high in lutein. High blood levels of lutein translate into improvements in accuracy on mental tests.
- They also contain tyrosine, an amino acid that’s a precursor to dopamine, the brain chemical that keeps you motivated and focused.
Avocados come with their own convenient packaging. The only trick is to anticipate when they’ll be ripe.
- Cut in half either lengthwise or across the short side and bring the half without a pit in a container. Eat with a spoon.
- Make guacamole, store in container, bring to school with carrot, red peppers, or cuke slices. If you’re craving something more carby, I suggest these non-grain chips (Siete and Hu Kitchen, both grain-free).
- They are rich in nitrates which the body converts into nitric oxide. This molecule improves nerve cell communication and blood flow which improves cognitive function. Check out this video!
- Studies show improved reaction time on mental tests following beet root supplementation.
- Beet smoothie with apple, strawberry, and spinach. There are many ways to skin a cat, so experiment with flavors. These are all my favorite Smoothie ingredients.
- Pressed beet juice (if you have a juicer). Transfer into portable bottle.
- Roasted beets. Just slice, coat in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and herbs of choice, and bake on 400F for 30 min. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar for extra flavor. Make the night before and transport in thermos.
- Kale is a nutrition bomb, one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables in the world. It’s extremely high in brain-protecting antioxidants including beta carotene, flavonoids, and polyphenols.
- One serving of kale contains as much vitamin C as an orange.
- Vitamin C acts as a natural antidepressant by increasing the neurotransmitter serotonin.
- Coconut oil has anti-stress and antidepressant properties and can also delay brain aging.
- In one promising study, adults showed significant improvement in memory recall within 90 minutes of taking a single dose of MCT oil.
- Add to a smoothie.
- Stir fry veggies with coconut oil.
- Bake sweet potato with coconut oil.
I saved the best for last!!
- Chocolate is a great source of tryptophan, the amino acid precursor of serotonin.
- It’s also an appreciable source of the anti-stress mineral magnesium.
- Chocolate is one of the few dietary sources of anandamide, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter called the “bliss molecule.”
- Chocolate’s flavonoids stimulate blood flow to the brain to aid memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem solving.
Don’t eat candy bars! These are full of unhealthy sugars, preservatives, and fake ingredients. Choose a bar with a short list of ingredients. My favorite brands are Alter Eco and Hu Kitchen.
- Bring a few squares of dark chocolate in a small container.
- Take a packet of cocoa to school and stir it into warm water.
- Add some chocolate chips to fruit salad.
What not to eat
A fascinating study in South Korea showed that:
- processed carbohydrates such as white rice, noodles, fast food and Coca-Cola are negatively correlated with cognitive capacities.
- as the intake of vitamin B complex, vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, and protein increases, omission errors decrease. This finding implies that these nutrients enhance the attention capacity of subjects.
- a high intake of noodles significantly correlates with the impairment of verbal memory function, executive function, and reasoning.
- consumption of fast food correlates with the deterioration of SDMT and reasoning tests and is significantly related with increases in inattention and impulsivity.
These findings indicate nutrition and diet affect brain health and cognitive function.
Despite water constituting 60–80% of the human body, it is often overlooked as a significant nutrient that can affect not only physical performance, but also mental performance. Even mild dehydration can influence mood, energy levels and the ability to think clearly.
The chart below, from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, shows how much water kids 4-18 years old should drink each day, broken down by categories. Here’s a handy water calculator with additional info.
A Note about Sleep
Good sleep is essential for mental performance! High-quality sleep improves attention and concentration, which are critical for learning. Sleep supports a range of cognitive abilities including memory, problem-solving, and judgment.
Without proper sleep, the brain cannot function properly. Neurons in the brain need time to recuperate and otherwise become overworked and less capable of optimal performance.
Check out these guidelines and the sleep calculator from the American Academy of Sleep Education to find out how much you and your kids need!
Here are 6 Tips for better sleep.
I hope all this info is useful for you and your kiddos heading into exams! I’d love to hear about your experiences and what worked so please comment below.
—your faithful and tireless Good Food Fighter
- Flavonoid-Rich Mixed Berries Maintain and Improve Cognitive Function Over a 6 h Period in Young Healthy Adults
- Food quality and good nutrition are related to brain development and cognitive function, which are important in childhood for health and well-being
- Relationships between Dietary Intake and Cognitive Function in Healthy Korean Children and Adolescents
- Zinc in the central nervous system: From molecules to behavior
- B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review
- Vitamin B12, cognition, and brain MRI measures
- Lutein across the Lifespan: From Childhood Cognitive Performance to the Aging Eye and Brain
- Serum Lutein is related to Relational Memory Performance
- 12 Foods With More Vitamin C Than Oranges
- Vitamin C provision improves mood in acutely hospitalized patients
- Anti-stress and antioxidant effects of virgin coconut oil in vivo
- Time to take another look at Choline
- All About Choline: Oregon State University
- Fact Sheet on Choline
- 17 Science-Based Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Effects of beta-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults
Effects of Dark Chocolate Intake on Brain Electrical Oscillations in Healthy People
- Does your breakfast contain more sugar than Dessert?
- Dehydration Influences Mood, Cognition
- How Lack of Sleep Impacts Cognitive Performance
- Watch my Power Smoothie Dance!
- Don’t forget to check out the first and only card game that gets kids into veggies!
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- I have a whole store full of cool stuff!
- Check out the Good Food Fighter comic strip.
- Get all kinds of fantastic resources to live a cleaner life.
- Here’s my son, the incomparable Chef Sizzle-Snap, making Korean Bibimbap