It’s official: having a good diet means you’re more likely to succeed at school. We know this from a whole stack of studies that have looked at kids’ diets and how well they perform on tests.
It’s a sad fact of life that when we’re stressed or worried, we reach for the junk food. But crisps, sweets, chocolate, biscuits and cakes are exactly what our brains don’t need when anxiety strikes.
Biscuits are not brain food
The reason we do this is because way back in human history, when we still had to run away from sabre-toothed tigers, eating high-calorie food was our best chance of getting the energy we needed to avoid being dinner. Today, we all still crave the instant energy injection we get from sugary and fatty foods. But instead of the handful of berries and nuts we might have grabbed in 10,000 BC, we hoover up a packet of custard creams.
Repeat after me: biscuits are not brain food. While the odd ‘treat’ is fine, a junk food diet starves your body of the nutrients it uses to make the neurochemicals your brain needs to regulate your mood, focus your attention, and concentrate on complex tasks like schoolwork.
Next time you’ve got a craving for crisps, try these quick and easy energy boosters instead. Your brain will thank you.
Nuts contain unsaturated fatty acids, which help new brain cells to grow. When you grow new brain cells, you boost your memory and concentration, and you’re able to think faster. The best nuts for brain health are:
- Pumpkin seeds (okay, they’re a seed, but they taste nutty).
2. Dark chocolate
The darker the chocolate, the better the bar. A recent study found that chocolate with 70 per cent cacao ‘enhanced neuroplasticity for behavioural and brain benefits’. After eating the chocolate, people in the study showed more activity in the regions of their brains involved in memory and sensory processing.
A study of children who added plenty of berries to their smoothies showed that they performed better in memory tests than another group of children who drank their smoothies with no berries. The positive neurological (brain-related) properties of berries are down to their plant chemicals: anthocyanin, catechin and quercetin.
Red, dark blue and purple berries have the highest amounts:
Try this easy peasy recipe for blueberry cake to get your berry fix.
Youngsters who ate porridge for breakfast did over 50 per cent better on tests to gauge concentration or attention than kids who had processed cereal, in one piece of research.
While porridge might not be your first choice of snack, the humble oat’s arsenal of B vitamins, vitamin E, potassium and zinc are just as available in other packages. Why not:
- Blend them into a smoothie
- Whizz them up in a processor to make energy balls with dates and nuts
- Make oat cookies using ripe bananas and quick-cook oats. Just squish them together, form into balls, press down to flatten them and bake for 15 minutes at 180 degrees. You could add dark chocolate chips, too!
Avocados are full of folate, which improves brain activity. They’re also loaded with monounsaturated fats, which keep your energy levels steady and stop you from craving junk food. Check out this recipe for easy avocado dip and homemade tortilla chips.
Eggs are nature’s perfect snack: they contain a full collection of nine amino acids — making a complete protein — as well as vitamins A, D, E, K, B2, B6 and B12. They also give you the minerals zinc, iron and copper, all in a handy, easy-to-carry shell. Make sure you boil them first though.
Eggs are also chock-full of choline, an important nutrient for the brain because your body uses it to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that regulates mood and memory.
There’s evidence that eating bananas helps students improve exam scores. A school in Cambridgeshire even hands out bananas to pupils sitting their SATs in a bid to boost pass rates.
Bananas contain glucose — a natural sugar — alongside a lot of fibre, which means they release energy for your body slowly: just what you need before a long exam. They’re also a great source of vitamin B6, which helps your gut to produce serotonin (the happy chemical), and dopamine (the chill-out chemical).
8. Citrus fruits
Chemicals called flavonoids found in citrus fruits protect brain cells and improve brain function. If you want the full benefits of the fruit without the drawbacks, make sure you eat the whole fruit (that doesn’t mean the skin). Just having the juice of citrus fruits leaves out all the fibre and concentrates the sugar content, which is then quickly released into your bloodstream. That’s likely to make you peak and crash. And fall asleep at your desk.
Meat gets a bad rap these days, but it remains the best source of protein for us humans. We evolved complex brains from the nutrients found primarily in meat, including iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and fatty acids.
Plants contain these nutrients too, but in lower quantities and often in a form that our bodies can’t use as easily. For a portable meat snack, try homemade oven-baked meatballs or chopped-up roast chicken. Steer clear of processed meats like ham, sausages or salami.
10. Oily fish
Sardines, mackerel, salmon and trout are brain food superstars. Their superpower lies in their omega-3 fats, which perform a number of jobs in the brain, like building cell membranes. They also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, promoting healthier brain tissue.
Fish oil is a billion pound industry, but the evidence says that for the most powerful benefits, your omega-3s need to come from food. A famous five-year study found that older adults who ate seafood only once per week had better thinking skills than people who didn’t.
Before you reach for a smoked salmon bagel, remember that unprocessed, wild salmon is best. While farmed salmon and wild salmon have around the same omega-3 content, farmed salmon has seven times the amount of omega-6 fats: the type your brain will thank you to avoid.
About the author
Alexandra Falconer MA (Dist) DipCNM mBANT is a Registered Nutritional Therapist specialising in IBS and related conditions. A graduate of Brighton’s College of Naturopathic Medicine, she is committed to fighting the root causes of chronic illness and bringing functional medicine to everyone who needs it.
Before her natural health career, Alex was a journalist and copywriter. She continues to write for magazines and media agencies, and now combines her two great passions — writing and health — by creating content that empowers people to claim their right to a healthy body and mind.