“The food that enters the mind must be watched as closely as the food that enters the body.”
A confidant and senior advisor to three U.S. presidents, Patrick Buchanan believes that a healthy diet is just as important as intellectual food, or education. In contemporary American society, this connection has weakened as now more than ever students fall prey to instant gratification in forms of readily accessible junk food! Most importantly, students should be aware of the impact that nutrition plays on learning. The types of food students consume may have a positive or negative influence on concentration, memorization and motivation: the most critical components for successful learning! A combination of unhealthy meals, lack of sleep and exercise could be the main reason for poor grades, test scores and lower educational attainment.
At ThinkTank Learning, our teachers and consultants are faced with many responsibilities. Not only do we take into consideration GPA, test scores, and extracurricular activities, but as a team we strive to improve our student’s learning techniques. Within our student’s grayish and walnut like brains, 100 billion brain cells, called neurons, govern our thinking, learning, and concentration. The development of these kinds of techniques occurs in the brain. We teach our students about finding connections, discovering meaning, and solving problems. By replenishing tired and overstressed brains with healthy food and hydration, students focus and participate more in the classroom environment.
Fernando Pinilla, a professor from UCLA mentioned that food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain. He has spent many years studying the effects of food, exercise and sleep on the brain. This connection shows that food enhances cognition and helps protect the brain! Foods that have this effect are commonly found in raw fruits, vegetables, and their components like vitamins and minerals. The neurons in student’s brains need healthy fats like proteins and complex carbohydrates. Since neurons are susceptible to damage from environmental toxins, the body subconsciously thirsts for this energy that is obtained from antioxidants found in healthy foods.
The list of beneficial foods that can help stimulate an alert and learning environment in the brain is extensive. According to Pinilla who analyzed more than 160 studies about food’s effect on the brain concurred that good fats, protein, carbohydrates, and water keep the brain amped and ready to take on new challenges!
Below is a visual list of these essential foods and the main reasons for consuming them!
Omega- 3 fatty acids
Salmon, walnuts, kiwi, and seeds are just some examples of healthy fats. In addition, nutrients that contain omega-3 include iron, zinc, folic acid, vitamin A, B6, B12, and C. These minerals help improve memory and protect the brain against certain mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and dementia. The brain is mainly composed of 60% fatty membranes which produce energy, store water, and transfer new information. The fats found in omega-3 fatty acids improve the brain’s ability to learn because of food’s simple molecules that help strengthen the synaptic plasticity, a region in the brain where neurons connect and memory is formed. Pinilla also showed that omega- 3 fatty acids helped students perform better in school, in reading and in spelling and had fewer behavioral problems.
Tryptophan, Tyrosine & Amino Acids
Protein can be found in a wide array of healthy foods! Consider eating raw almonds, walnuts, or chicken. The chemical tryptophan produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness. In addition, foods such as almonds, avocados, and bananas contain tyrosine which makes dopamine, a chemical responsible for feelings of enthusiasm or motivation.
Quite often students consume massive amounts of sugar, causing them to get an energy boost that suddenly disappears with time. Why? Carbohydrates are an energy source absorbed by the brain during peak times of low energy. If students eat a sugary breakfast like a donut or tea with sugar, they experience great levels of energy, however, as sugar levels rise in the bloodstream, the pancreas creates insulin in order to keep the blood sugar level balanced. Therefore, if more sugar is consumed, the more insulin is released, making the student even more tired and drowsy. Students do not understand why this happens, so in order to combat the feeling, they reach for another snack laden with sugar, ready to be taken on that rollercoaster ride again! By eating healthy complex carbohdyrates like whole grains, rice, or beans, the body actually slows the amount of sugar being absorbed by the bloodstream. Refined sugars, or anything packaged and man made lack the ability to maintain balanced energy levels. These products only decrease overall wellness and contribute to type 2 diabetes, obesity and low immune systems.
Imagine exercising during P.E. class and your teacher offered soda or sweetened drinks. A student would become easily dehydrated and tired. The role of water in the brain is to maintain proper circulation and remove waste. The neurons in the brain hold water in vacuoles, or small structures resembling balloons. It is paramount to keep the brain well hydrated to fight off dizziness, fatigue and loss in concentration. Many students have noticed a lack of focus while studying or learning. Research showed that even mild levels of dehydration negatively influenced a student’s academic performance. Also, students who were dehydrated felt more tired and avoided movement and exercise, which can cause obesity.
Nutrition can have either a positive or negative effect on the brain. The foods students eat should be wholesome, nutritious and colorful (no artificial dyes please). Average consumers, especially young students, might not be informed about the hidden toxins lurking in their lunches at school. The contemporary, fast paced, American diet provides no nutritional value to our youth. Students are not eating enough foods that contain essential nutrients and minerals, like zinc, or vitamin C. Environmental toxins, high fructose corn syrup, and excessive sugary snacks reduce the brain’s ability to function at an alert and energetic state. Parents and students should be more aware of the poisons that could eventually lead to more serious diseases other than lower concentration, poor memory, or lack of motivation in the classroom. Our next article will focus on the contaminants that we as a society probably encounter on a daily basis. Understanding the foundation of a healthy diet is crucial and if more students were aware of the power of good food, most would see a dramatic improvement in their test scores and overall wellness!
By Marta McFarland, ThinkTank Learning Admissions Consultant/Academic Counselor