Eating for A’s

Author: Jocie Antonelli

Have you ever thought of your brain as a metabolic workhorse? It’s true. As the famous psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen puts it, “Your brain is the most expensive real estate in your body. It uses up to 20 to 30 percent of the calories you consume.” As such, you need to ask yourself if you’ve been feeding your brain lately. Have you been giving it the fuel it needs to function more efficiently, with more clarity, and with increased ability to focus and retain information?  Without a doubt, what you eat can impact all of the above, giving you the edge to perform your best as a student here at Notre Dame.  

Aside from eating a well-balanced diet in general, there are specific foods available right here in the dining halls that can help you fuel your way to success. Try to incorporate them on a daily or at least on a very frequent basis.

  • Eggs -- especially the yolk is a great source of choline which is involved in the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine plays a key role in our memory’s ability to store information.
  • Green Tea -- this tea has a modest amount of caffeine along with the amino acid theanine which can improve both mental alertness and focus.
  • Beets -- contain nitrates which dilate blood vessels thereby increasing blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Add diced beets to your salad daily.
  • Bananas -- help increase your concentration. A 2008 study found that students who ate a banana before an exam did better than those who didn’t.  
  • Increase Water Intake -- Your brain is 80% water, so adequate fluid intake is a must for brain nutrition. Even slight dehydration impairs short-term memory, focus, and decision making. In addition, stress hormones get elevated, leading to a decline in cognitive function over time.  
  • Flax Seed -- is one of nature’s richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that this essential fatty acid has an important effect upon memory and mood. Sprinkle flax seed on salads, toast, yogurt, cereal, hummus, etc…
  • Fish -- DHA, one form of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, constitutes a large portion of the brain’s gray matter. In fact, most of our brain is fatty tissue. It makes sense that eating this type of fat found in fish helps the brain function better.
  • Apples -- We’ve all heard the saying about an apple a day keeping the doctor away which is justification enough to eat them. In addition, the skin contains a special antioxidant called quercetin which has been shown to enhance memory function.  

Breakfast -- I would be remiss in not mentioning the importance of this meal when it comes to academic performance. A Korean study found that students who ate breakfast had grade point averages that were 0.15 to 0.28 points higher compared to those that didn’t eat breakfast. An important function of breakfast is to break the overnight fast and replenish blood glucose levels that the brain needs to perform well academically. Studies have shown that increased blood glucose levels can improve attention span, reaction time, and word recall. 

Fruit and Vegetable Intake -- Several studies have shown consistent associations between fruit and vegetable intake and better academic performance. In fact, academic achievement was assessed using self-reported data on grades, and the strongest association of any dietary variable and high grades was fruit and vegetable intake!