If I were to tell you that eating certain foods in the right combination will make you more alert and focused, would you give them a try? How about if I told you that some of your food choices are literally draining your brain power? Would you think twice before chowin’ down on them?
The bad news – it’s true!
The good news – you don’t have to completely overhaul your diet in order to get results.
Three factors influence what I like to call your “brain power”: meal composition (the foods that make up your meal), meal size and meal frequency. Allow me to break it all down for you:
Seratonin, the chemical in your body responsible for calmness and sleep, is triggered by carbohydrates. A meal or snack high in simple sugars will produce more serotonin and sedate your brain. Not exactly what you need when you’re trying to study for that big exam, is it? Another reason to limit the sweets: they enter your bloodstream at a rapid rate, leaving you “crashing and burning” within the hour. Simple sugars include foods like: cake, candy, cookies, frostings, fruit drinks, syrups, sodas, sweet tea, table sugar, etc.
Stick with “brain building” carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, low fat milk and yogurt. They digest nice and slowly, delivering a steady stream of glucose (your brain’s preferred fuel source) to your brain.
Hint: If you are really craving something sweet like a piece of candy or cake, eat it after a meal to weaken the serotonin effect.
Dopamine is the chemical in your body responsible for revving up your brain, making you alert, energetic and focused. It’s triggered by protein-rich foods like dairy products, eggs, meats, seafood and soy. Be careful because a “brain building” protein can turn into a “brain draining” one depending on how it’s prepared- cold cuts, fried or breaded meats and those covered in cream sauces will put you in a slump.
Hint: The American Dietetic Association and The American Heart Association recommend eating 2 servings of lower mercury fish per week. Salmon and canned or pouched light tuna are two good sources of brain building omega 3 fatty acids that are lower in mercury. Each serving is 3.5 ounces cooked, or about ¾ cup of flaked fish. Fish with higher mercury levels should be avoided: Shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish.
You have a fat head. Really! Your brain is made up of two-thirds fat, so eating enough of it is important. “Brain building” fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats promote healthy blood blow to your brain and include olives, olive oil, nuts and seed, peanut oil, canola oil and avocados. Polyunsaturated fats, specifically omega 3 fatty acids, are the main structural component of your brain. Eat them and you’ll have a much higher functioning noggin! They include herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, trout, tuna, chia seeds, canola oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, soybean oil and walnuts. Because they are calorie-rich, remember to keep portion sizes small when it comes to oils, nuts and seeds.
Your brain hates trans fats (trans fatty acids), otherwise known as “brain draining” fats. That’s because it’s not a natural fat, so it stands to reason that it doesn’t act naturally in your body. Trans fats make their way into your brain cells, line your brain cell membranes and disrupt communication, resulting in diminished mental performance. In other words, your brain malfunctions in the presence of trans fat. Possible trans fat-containing foods include: cookies, crackers, doughnuts, foods fried in partially hydrogenated oils (fried chicken, French fries), frostings, margarine, pastry, potato chips, shortening, snack cakes and tortillas.
To check if a food is made with trans fat, look at the Nutrition Facts Label for grams of trans fat and also under the ingredient list for the words “partially hydrogenated oils.”
Hint: Carbohydrate, protein, and fat are all necessary components of a meal. Take out the carbs and your brain won’t have a reliable source of glucose to function properly, take out the protein and you may not be as alert, take out the fat and it’s just like eating Chinese food…you’ll get hungry in an hour!
B-Vitamins & Choline:
B-vitamins help your body take the energy from the foods you eat and turn it into energy you can use. Without B-vitamins it would be difficult for your brain to operate at its peak. Fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, meats, beans, soy, seafood, nuts and eggs are all good sources of B-vitamins. As you can see, it’s pretty easy to get your B-vitamins if you follow a balanced diet with lots of variety!
Choline belongs to the B-vitamin family and improves thought, memory and focus. Eggs, soybeans, wheat germ and whole wheat products are all rich in choline, so be sure to have them on your plate during exam week!
Free radicals are harmful substances in your body that cause damage and loss of brain function over time. Your body naturally eliminates some, but not all of them. This is where food comes in to finish the job. Antioxidant-rich foods in particular are what you are after. Antioxidants literally act like a broom, sweep up these nasty free radicals and eliminate them from your body. This means a healthier body and brain. Foods high in antioxidants include fruits (especially berries), colorful vegetables, dark chocolate, legumes, oats, green tea, spices, nuts and garlic.
Larger meals that are higher in calories take longer to digest, contribute to serotonin production, make you sleepy and diminish your mental performance. Lighter meals with fewer calories, on the other hand, will not only nourish your body and brain, but will keep you energized and with peak mental focus.
You probably have to be at your most sharp during daylight hours, so breakfast, lunch and snacks should be lighter on the calories.
If it’s extra energy and more focus that you’re after, it is critical that you “refuel” every few hours. This includes the most important meal of the day – breakfast of course! To break the overnight fast that happens when you sleep, breakfast is a must. When your blood sugar levels drop below a certain level, say after about four hours with no food, your stress hormones go up in an attempt to raise your blood sugar. This process weakens your brain and your ability to concentrate suffers!
Focusing on that boring lecture and studying for your first exam will come much easier when you: eat often, eat light, and fuel your brain with a wide variety of “brain building” carbohydrates, proteins and fats. If you’re dying for something sweet, go ahead and have a small portion of ice cream…after you’ve eaten a well-balanced meal!
Melanie Jatsek is a speaker, author and registered dietitian who teaches college students how to eat to look better, feel better, think better and stress less! Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with her on her new Facebook page for college students: “The Healthy Campus Project.”