Time for brain food

2013-10-24 00:00

DOES what we eat affect our cognitive ability and alertness? Expecting our brains to memorise volumes of work at exam time or retain the myriad information it receives daily definitely requires support. Providing the brain with certain nutrient-dense foods can help to maintain mental alertness, as well as improve long-term brain development in children.

As the schools head into exam season, let’s take a look at food options to help improve the report cards. There are a few quick-fix foods that can give us a rapid brain boost, but continued good mental ability requires a healthy diet for the long term.

Short-term brain boosters include a cup of coffee and a moderate portion of wholegrain carbohydrates. Note the single cup of coffee. In small doses, caffeine can improve mental alertness. However, drinking a number of cups of coffee each day will overstimulate the brain, making it difficult to think clearly and will exacerbate fatigue. Eating a fibre-rich carbohydrate such as a bran muffin before an exam may also give an important energy boost without the sugar rush that sweets give.

On the long-term front, include the following foods for mental alertness.

• Eggs. These are a versatile food that are easy to include for all age groups. Add them to breakfast or pop a boiled egg into lunch boxes. Eggs contain nutrients such as choline, omega-three fatty acids, zinc and lutein, all of which aid our mental acuity. Choline is essential for the brain development of newborns and infants. It has also been shown to prevent memory loss in adults. Egg yolks are a very rich source of choline and even people with high cholesterol can safely enjoy up to five eggs per week. Milk is also an excellent source of choline.

• Spinach and dark green leafy vegetables. Use raw spinach in salads instead of lettuce, or make spinach soup to get a substantial dose in a tasty meal. Spinach is particularly high in folic acid, which has been linked to preventing dementia later in life. Cognitive function (the ability to think and remember) has been shown to be higher in people who are supplemented with folic acid. The children in your house may be willing to eat an extra helping of spinach knowing that it could help reduce study time.

• Fish paste and sardines. Dark fish such as pilchards, sardines and mackarel, is highest in omega-three fatty acids and provides essential fats for nerve cells. People who eat large amounts of omega-three fats maintain better concentration. Add a slice of toast with fish paste to your egg breakfast and you’ll have an excellent brain booster.

• Cranberries and dark chocolate. Cranberries are packed with antioxidants that protect nerve cells from being damaged. Nibbling on a handful of dried cranberries while studying, or adding them to breakfast cereal in the morning is a great habit to develop. Chocolate is another food that is high in antioxidants, particularly the dark versions with the highest cocoa content. Fifteen grams to 30 grams of dark chocolate can help to improve focus and alertness (thanks to the caffeine), but always keep to the small portion.

During exam time, don’t become so engrossed in studying that eating well falls by the wayside. Skipping meals will cause blood-sugar levels to drop, resulting in feeling tired and sluggish. Snack between meals on healthy snacks such as fresh fruit and vegetables, almonds, milk and yogurt. Remember, though, that no food can help if you aren’t resting adequately. Give your brain a break and get a good night’s sleep every night.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian.

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