Optimizing Brain Function with Nutrition

This blog post summarizes some great insights from “The Power of Change” chapter in our Academic Success Formula book.

When we talk about the factors involved in academic success, we often think of study efforts, classroom skills, etc. However, there’s another piece of the puzzle that often gets overlooked – what we eat! Nutrition, believe it or not, has a substantial effect on brain function. Despite this, students are not particularly known to eat “healthy.” In fact, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, the top three sources of calories for individuals aged 2-18 were grain-based desserts, pizza, and soda/energy/sports drinks.

Here’s a list of great tips to ensure that our bodies – and brains – are getting proper nutrition!

“Eat the rainbow” and limit refined whites. In other words, consume as many colors as you can from fruits and vegetables, and limit your intake of sugar, salt, and flour.

Cut back on processed foods and sweets. A general rule of thumb is to avoid foods with more than five ingredients. In addition, cut down on soda, energy drinks, and juice.

If possible, buy organic and GMO-free. It’s a good idea to replace industrially raised and produced animal products with grass fed organic varieties. It might be a tad more expensive, but your body will thank you!

Be aware of the glucose effect. Concentrations of glucose, like the sugar found in soda, triggers a cyclic rise and fall in blood sugar levels. This can lead to a lack of focus, irritability, and increased cravings for more snacks.

Consider your fructose intake. Fructose, unlike glucose, can’t even be used as energy by the body – except in the liver, where it is metabolized into fat. In addition, sweet foods with lots of fructose won’t satisfy hunger cravings – they don’t trigger our body’s natural satiety cycle (“I’m full”). It’s better to eat a healthy snack when you’re hungry – sweets don’t do a very good job of satiating hunger!

Know your carbohydrates. There are two forms of carbohydrates – simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are sugars, found in fruits, milk, and sweets. Complex carbohydrates are a bit different – they tend to be rich in fiber, which is good for digestion. Dietary options would include rice, oats, potatoes, corn, etc.

Know the difference between saturated and monounsaturated fats. Saturated fats are those that remain solid at room temperature – butter or cheese, for example. Although saturated fats are needed for vital body functions, try to moderate your intake. Monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil. These are “good fats” that actually help to reduce bad cholesterol!

Appreciate proteins. Protein is the building block of life, providing the necessary amino acids we need to construct muscle, organs, and tissue – including the brain. Although we commonly think of meats, eggs, fish, and dairy as the main sources of protein, it is also widely available through plant sources, including soy, quinoa, chia, nutritional yeast, and many more.

Take your vitamins and minerals! These are vital to not only brain function, but your overall well-being. Vitamins and minerals play a huge role – here’s some of the main ones we often hear about:

  • Vitamin B – Plays a large role in cognitive function.
  • Vitamin C – Helps maintain a healthy immune system.
  • Vitamin D – Reduces brain inflammation and encourages healthy sleep cycles.
  • Calcium – Important for cellular communication.
  • Magnesium – Involved in regulating mood, sleep cycles, and muscular function.
  • Zinc – Helps with mental health, memory, attention, and concentration.

…and many more! There’s far too much information for us to list here, but it’s a good idea to research food options for these or consider a daily multivitamin.

The brain, body, and mind are all connected – what we feed ourselves directly affects more than we might think! It turns out the old saying is true – “You are what you eat!”