Students of all ages return to school this month. Set them (or yourself) up for success by nourishing your body in a way that supports brain health.
What does brain health look like for you?
As with overall health, your idea of a “healthy” brain may look different from that of someone else. One goal may be to improve focus at work and school. Another may be to delay cognitive decline as you age. Healthy eating can support these goals. Let’s look at how to nourish your brain to achieve both.
What foods are best for brain health?
There are plenty of great articles highlighting foods that are good for your brain like blueberries, walnuts, and salmon. While these foods are all nutritious and excellent for your brain (among other things), it is easy to get caught up in trying to eat specific foods and miss the basics of nutrition. It is important to lay a foundation, so let’s hold off on the details (we’ll come back to them), and talk broadly about what and when to eat to support brain health and offer tips on how to create a plan that works for you. You can always layer in more detailed approaches based on the latest research once you are confident with the basics.
Fueling your brain in 3 easy steps
Whether you are a student or a working adult, you are learning new information all of the time. To do this, you need to stay focused on the task (listening, reading, discussing etc), think critically about the information, and store the information so they can retrieve it again later. It also helps to maintain an upright position in a chair. All of this takes energy.
1. Eat regularly throughout the day.
Your brain is the most energy demanding organ in your body and it does not store energy for later use. This means your brain needs a continuous supply of energy. Regular meals and snacks spread out across the day provide the fuel you need.
A place to start could be with a morning meal. In a 2009 systematic review of 45 studies on breakfast and academic performance, researchers found that eating breakfast was better for academic performance than skipping it. More of an impact was seen in children who may have missed out on important nutrients. A 2016 study added to the evidence for breakfast in teens. Of the 12-18 year old students studied, those who regularly ate three meals a day, especially breakfast, did better in school. The study also teased out a few key food groups for performance - fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk.
Children use up more energy stores overnight than adults and their brains use energy at a higher rate so it's especially important for kids to refuel in the morning before school. For those attending St. Louis Public Schools, all SLPS school children may eat a free breakfast and lunch without filling out a Family Application for Meal Benefits. If you would rather make breakfast at home, try these quick options. We’ve highlighted* ingredients that are of particular interest in preserving brain health.
Berry Overnight Oats
Microwave egg & Veggie Bowl with spinach* (this works in a mug too)
2. Eat all the macronutrients.
Include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in your healthy eating style. That’s right. All three of them. Unnecessarily cutting out or severely restricting any one of these important nutrients can impact how your brain (and body) function. Your brain is fueled by glucose, the sugar formed when carbohydrates are broken down by our digestive tract. Numerous studies demonstrate a link between blood sugar levels and performance on tests that measure attention, reasoning, and memory. Without this form of energy, your brain will not work at its best.
Your brain also needs amino acids (many from protein in your diet) to make new pathways and neurotransmitters, chemicals involved in signaling between brain cells. These signals travel faster when their pathways are insulated. Fatty acids from the fat in our diet, are used to make this insulation called myelin. If you aren’t sure where to find certain macronutrients in food, check out this guide. Of course the easiest way to ensure you get a mix of all of the macronutrients is to create balanced meals. See step 3 for how.
3. Use MyPlate to create balanced meals.
The MyPlate method focuses on ½ of your plate fruits and non starchy vegetables, ¼ of your plate whole grains or starches, and ¼ of your plate lean proteins and nonfat or low-fat dairy. Whole grains can be found in whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole grain pasta, oatmeal, quinoa, farro, and many other grains. Starchy vegetables like corn, peas, and potatoes also fall into this section of the plate. When choosing lean proteins, look for foods like chicken, fish, beans, nut butters, eggs, lean ground meat, or loin or round cuts of meat. Aim to make your plate look like MyPlate for most of your meals in the day. We go into more depth about this approach when discussing heart healthy swaps for grains, protein, and fats in Love Your Heart, because what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain!
Maintain your brain as you age.
You likely want to stay sharp for years to come. Delaying dementia and other forms of cognitive decline is an area of extensive study. Without effective drug therapies, prevention may be key and researchers are looking at dietary approaches as a possible strategy. This is where we get into more details around meal patterns and foods that may be protective.
Two dietary patterns, the Mediterranean diet, and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet were protective against cognitive decline in study participants. These diets have a few similarities - they both emphasize eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while limiting saturated fats. Using these diets as a springboard, researchers developed a hybrid diet, MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) that incorporates many food components of these diets such as extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, whole grains, and low-fat protein options like legumes and poultry.
The MIND diet takes it a step further to adjust foods and/or servings of food items based on the wealth of data on nutrients important for brain health. In particular, green leafy vegetables and berries are emphasized and fish servings are 1 or more servings per week vs. the higher consumption in the Mediterranean diet. Researchers found that when more of the MIND diet components were present in the diet it was associated with slower decline in several areas measuring brain function. It looks promising and may be worth including many of these foods into your healthy eating style.
Remember: HOW you eat is as important as WHAT you eat.
Prioritize your plan to fuel your brain so you may improve your ability to hold attention, stay focused, think critically, store information, and make decisions. You know, all the ways your brain needs to function at work and school. Nutritious, balanced meals and snacks before, during, and after school or work help you achieve your goals. Keep the WHAT simple until you’ve got a routine that works for you. Then, play around with food swaps to maximize brain health.
As the kids are gearing up to go back to school, here are some nutrition tips that will get their year started strong! Excerpt from our Back to School Nutrition post.
Not sure if you’ve found a healthy snack? Check out this tool to help you choose a healthier packaged snack (you will need to register to use the tool but it is FREE).
Nutrition and risk of dementia: overview and methodological issues
Nutritional prevention of cognitive decline and dementia https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29957766
A systematic review of the effect of breakfast on the cognitive performance of children and adolescents.
Let's Move! STL Dietitians