The nutritious path toward better grades
Whether it’s a morning or afternoon exam, pre-test meals should consist of high-fiber carbohydrates plus some lean protein. This winning combination leads to an awake and alert student who’s ready to conquer.— Joy Bauer, nutrition expert
You’ve studied hard, can practically recite the exam material in your sleep, and your pencils are sharp. But is your mind? Research shows eating habits play a major role in brain function and academic performance. A nutritious diet won't make up for poor study habits, but it may be just the tool you need to take your scholastic capabilities several notches higher. “Basically, foods are like pharmaceutical compounds,” said Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a professor in physiological science. “A lot of research shows how these components affect certain behaviours and functions of the brain. You put all the studies together and I think there is no question that the function of the brain depends almost absolutely on the type of foods you eat.”
Your brain on food
Whether you are asleep or awake, your brain requires a steady supply of glucose -- a form of sugar reaped from carbohydrates. Glucose fuels all of your body's cells, but brain cells require twice as much.
The brain also relies on micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fatty acids. These nutrients help the brain create proteins and fats. They also help the brain produce and transmit chemicals that allow for positive moods and energy, such as serotonin and dopamine, and perform cognitive functions like learning, retaining and recalling information.
The proof is in the research "pudding."
In a review of over 160 studies regarding the effect of foods on the brain, published in "Nature Reviews Neuroscience" in July 2008, Gómez-Pinilla found children with greater intakes of omega-3 fatty acids performed better academically, particularly in reading and spelling. They also had fewer behaviour problems than children with lower intake.
He also found significant links between diets high in antioxidants and a lower incidence of brain injury and damage caused by free radicals -- toxins that work like "scavengers" in the brain. Free radicals occur as part of normal brain function, he says, but they tend to accumulate and cause more harm if you eat poorly. The more damaged brain cells you have, the less likely you'll be able to learn, study and test at a peak level.
Limiting or avoiding low-nutrient foods, such as refined flour products, sweets and fried chips, also promotes positive academic performance.
“Many years ago, we demonstrated that specific components of the Western diet, particularly saturated fat and added sugars, can be very detrimental for brain function," Gómez-Pinilla said. "This type of high-fat diet actually reduces the capacity for learning and memory. And more recently, we have shown that they also can increase some types of psychiatric disorders, like anxiety and some types of depression."
Smart diet staples
All carbohydrate sources fuel the brain with glucose. The fastest-acting sources, however, like sugary sweets and white bread, may not be your best choices scholastically, according to Joy Bauer.
Bauer is a registered dietitian, "Woman’s Day" magazine columnist and author of the bestseller "Joy Bauer’s Food Cures: Completely Revised & Updated."
“Blood sugar highs and lows can make it difficult to focus, so you want to avoid sugary foods and refined white carbs that spike blood sugar levels," she said. “Carbohydrates rich in fiber prevent blood sugar from soaring and then crashing like it does with sugary carbs."
High-fiber carbohydrate sources, such as 100 percent whole grain breads, pastas and cereals, legumes, raspberries and sweet potatoes, also provide plentiful amounts of brain-boosting antioxidants.
For omega-3s, Bauer says, your best choices are salmon, sardines, fortified-eggs, ground flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
"So if your kids like tuna salad, substitute canned wild salmon for tuna and reap the benefits," she said. "Scramble up omega 3-fortified eggs for breakfast, or lightly toast walnuts in the oven and serve as a snack."
You may also add ground flax or chia seeds to cereals, yogurt, salads and meatballs.
American diets tend to be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids and excessive in unhealthy saturated and trans fats, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. For heightened benefits, choose canola oil -- another omega-3 source -- over butter, wild salmon over fatty meats, and mixed nuts or flaxseeds over chips and crisps.
A healthy countdown
What you eat shortly before an exam also matters. Eating too much or too little can interfere with blood sugar control, trigger lethargy and interfere with restful sleep -- another factor important for brain function, according to Gómez-Pinilla's research.
The evening before your test, Bauer recommends avoiding over-sized and fatty meals such as fried chicken Parmesan with pasta or a cheeseburger and fries.
"These can make it more difficult to fall asleep, and you definitely want a good night’s rest before a big exam," Bauer said. “Choose a meal with plenty of lean protein, plus high-quality carbs, such as chicken or prawns and veggie stir-fry over brown rice, or baked chicken tenders served with green beans and whole wheat pasta."
Balanced meals with complex carbohydrates and lean protein promote blood sugar balance, keep hunger pangs at bay and, says Bauer, facilitate lasting alertness.
“Protein activates the brain cells that keep you awake and alert, so it’s really your best friend before an exam," she explained. “Whether it’s a morning or afternoon exam, pre-test meals should consist of high-fiber carbohydrates, plus some lean protein. This winning combination leads to an awake and alert student who’s ready to conquer.”
Useful examples include oatmeal topped with yogurt and berries, veggie pizza prepared with whole grain crust, and low-fat cheese and scrambled egg whites and spinach served in a whole grain tortilla.
Similar principles apply 15 minutes before your exam. A reasonable pairing of protein and carbohydrates will help keep your body energised and your brain sharp. Bauer recommends avoiding foods that create gas, such as "super high-fiber" cereal bars or beans, for an hour before exams to prevent discomfort. You also need to take caution if you eat prepared snacks that appear healthy.
"Advertisers and food companies have the ability to package and tout foods to appear healthier than they are," said Laura Lynn Iacono, a registered dietitian and owner of One Potato Two Tomato in Long Island, New York. "For example, many fruit snacks or fruit chews can say '100 percent natural fruit juice added,' but it may only be 10 percent or less with the other 50 percent or more coming from sugar."
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