Brainfood: Optimal Nutrition for Thinking & Test-Taking

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By Anna


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How should we fuel our bodies? What’s the best thing to eat before track practice? What’s the best thing to eat before the SAT? These and other questions are the subject of much debate in the public sphere, where fad diets like ketogenic or paleo come and go with the wind. My goal in this post is not to give you rules on eating healthy, but to impart a few core principles that you can take with you in life as you make your own diet decisions, especially with regards to optimizing energy for your academic pursuits.Our brains—and all cells in our bodies—run on glucose, which is a simple sugar made up of six carbon atoms and a few oxygens and hydrogens. This is our firewood for thought and movement. Our bodies can extract glucose from carbs, proteins, and to some degree from fats, but this extraction process differs depending on the food source. This matters to us because it can spell the difference between getting hungry in our 10 am class or continuing to feel energized during lecture, even when we eat something with the same caloric value.

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Staving Off the Sleepies

“Glycemic index” is a helpful tool for us to analyze how a carbohydrate might affect our energy. This index reflects how fast a carb gets broken down into glucose molecules, thereby stimulating the hormone insulin to be released and to instruct our cells to take up glucose from the blood. As a result, high glycemic index foods, or foods high in simple sugars or refined flour (white bread or rice, baked goods, etc.), will tend to spike your blood sugar and leave you lagging and feeling low-energy shortly thereafter. At times, this effect might be desirable, but for the homestretch of a school day, we’re looking for those complex carbohydrates (100% whole wheat breads and pastas, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and sweet potatoes) that increase blood sugar more slowly and help us stave off afternoon drowsiness. 

In addition to giving you more stable energy throughout the day, low GI foods often have other benefits, such as a higher fiber content which slows down the digestion process while also supporting a diverse, healthy gut microbiome. On the flip side, research shows that added sugars (often hiding out in flavored yogurts) not only increase the glycemic index of the food but can also be highly addictive due to the dopamine response they elicit in our brains, causing us to crave more and sweeter treats.

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Protein, found in meats, soy products, and dairy, promotes the release of glucose from our liver, helping maintain steady blood sugar and thus, energy levels. So, adding a hard-boiled egg to your breakfast routine or a scoop of peanut butter to your oatmeal can be a great way to achieve long-lasting energy through your morning classes. 

Fat Helps, Too

Full fat is another great way to slow digestion and ensure that you are absorbing your fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Due to fats’ poor reputation in the media, many people believe that all fats should be avoided and opt for products such as nonfat Greek yogurt, but fats need not be your foe! First, all fats are not created equal, and there are some such as trans fats and saturated fats that pose risk to our cardiovascular health, while others such as monounsaturated fats (i.e., avocados) or polyunsaturated fats (i.e., olive oil) are protective for our heart health. In addition, since fats are not water-soluble, they require more time for our digestive tract to process, therefore giving us, once again, the longer-term energy we need to sit through the SAT exam.

Take A Stroll

Lastly, research shows that light exercise after eating, even as simple as walking around campus with your friends after lunch, causes our blood sugar to spike less dramatically, preventing the crash in energy that you might otherwise experience from a sugary dessert. 

Everyone has a different “basal metabolic rate,” or steady-state consumption of glucose when we’re just sitting around, which is largely genetic. If you have a faster metabolism, you may find yourself getting hungrier earlier in the day, but the tricks I discussed above can go a long way in flattening these highs and lows.  Of course, more frequent meals and snacking throughout the day may also be a helpful approach.

Food & Control

Last point to mention here is that many ambitious adolescents and adults seek a sense of control over their lives, from their grades to their relationships, in the face of countless circumstances that lie out of our control. Food can become an attractive arena for exerting control, and ostensibly healthy diets such as vegetarianism or veganism can become unhealthy obsessions. So, above all, eat what makes you feel healthy and happy, and remember that food is not just for physical well-being but to bring us together with our family and friends.

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Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre- Auguste Renoir

Afternoon Snack Recipe

This quick and inexpensive snack will give you the long-lasting energy boost you need to sustain you through your sports practice or piano lesson until dinnertime.

In a bowl, thoroughly mix 1 part peanut butter and 1 part plain Greek yogurt with a spoonful of honey and several shakes of cinnamon. Dip apple slices or a banana and enjoy. 

For more delicious recipes and an exquisitely well-written food blog, check out https://smittenkitchen.com.

Work with Anna!

Are you interested in more study skill tips? Read more below!

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Homework Help: How to Study When You Literally Can’t Even

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