Many factors affect a student’s chance of academic success: emotional wellbeing; positive mindset; setting reasonable targets; and creating a solid action plan are just a few of them. However, even the best laid plans will come to naught if we don’t give our bodies – and, most importantly, our brains – the right kind of fuel.
The brain is a complex and rather amazing organ. It takes up just 2% of a person’s body mass, but uses up to 20% of their energy; and to achieve optimum performance, a careful cocktail of nutrients are required (a mixture of vitamins, proteins, and carbohydrates, among other things).
When it comes to students and learning, it’s widely held that diet has a not insubstantial impact on a young person’s cognitive capacity – but it’s hard to know what to prioritise. Nonetheless, it’s important for us all – tutors, parents, and students – to give it some thought. Is breakfast the most important meal of the day? Is exercise the key to boosting cognitive function? Or is getting our five-a-day all that really matters? Read on to learn more…
Diet and Learning: Breakfast is Important
Remember that old saying about breakfast being ‘the most important meal of the day’? Turns out, it’s true – and sadly around 24 percent of UK school children skip the meal altogether. Studies have shown that if children miss breakfast, their scholastic performance suffers: the morning meal impacts on a number of activities, including how successfully they tackle mentally demanding tasks or those that involve working memory. In 2018, associate professor of kinesiology and registered dietitian Sybille Kranz commented: ‘There is pretty solid evidence that children who are hungry are not able to focus, so they have a low attention span, behavioural issues, discipline issues in the school.
‘Having children who are well-fed and not hungry makes a difference in their individual performance, and also how much they are contributing to or disrupting the classroom situation.’
Diet and Learning: Stress
Trying to avoid stress might seem like obvious advice for any young person – but what might come as a surprise is the impact that stress has on nutrition (and, by proxy, learning). When we’re stressed, we run on adrenaline: i.e., we conserve energy and store fat, as the body is in a ‘fight or flight’ mode that does not require us to use food as fuel in the same way. As a result, the body does not digest the food we eat fully, meaning that nutrients are not circulated effectively – ultimately affecting cellular function in the long term.
One way to counteract stress is through exercise: as well as reducing stress levels and releasing feel-good endorphin hormones, aerobic activity increases circulation, allowing nutrients to be dispersed effectively throughout the body. And that’s not the only thing exercise can help our brains with; in fact, ‘regular, sweaty exercise helps us think better by stimulating new brain cell growth, increasing connections between cells, and improving attention.’
Diet and Learning: General Eating Guidelines
Opinions on what to eat, how much, and when are changing all the time – even scientists find it hard to agree on the best diet for a range of goals (from improving brain function to living longer). What seems certain, then, is that a ‘one size fits all’ approach probably isn’t going to work; but there are a few general principles parents and students can follow to give themselves the best chance of scholastic success.
- ‘White’ products. Limit intake of sugar/salt and switch out white flour, pasta and rice for wholegrain varieties.
- Sugar-heavy sodas and fruit juices. It’s easy to think that a glass of fruit juice is a good idea, but it’s much healthier to eat the whole fruit. Similarly, a fizzy drink will flood the body with free sugars, wreaking havoc on a person’s concentration (not to mention their teeth, over time!)
- Processed foods. As above, it’s better to eat the whole food rather than one that has been processed (an apple over a glass of apple juice, for example). If a food item has more than a few ingredients, or ingredients that are hard to pronounce (or spell), it’s probably best avoided.
- Wholegrains. There’s no reason to shun pasta or bread – just go for the wholegrain varieties. Unlike their refined, ‘white’ counterparts, whole oats, brown rice and whole wheat contain beneficial amounts of vitamin B6 and folate (which has been shown to increase bloodflow to the brain).
- Green veggies. Another powerful source of B6, leafy greens like spinach or kale are also full of B12, iron and folate. Broccoli is packed with vitamin K, which boosts brainpower and function.
- Seeds. Snacking on certain seeds, like pumpkin seeds, will help you get your daily dose of zinc (which has been shown to aid development of cognitive and memory skills).
- Fish. Oily fish, like wild salmon, is a great source of essential Omega-3 acids and protein.