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Foods to Fuel the Brain

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Guest post: Sarah Hughes

Exams, for the majority of us, are stressful times. Busy schedules leave us chasing our tails, there’s no time to cook and the diet normally goes to pot. We tend to grab those quick fix stimulants – caffeine and sugar – which lead to peaks and troughs in energy, both mental and physical.

For concentration, focus and good memory we need to be calm and balanced without these dips in energy or mood. The following list of foods to fuel the brain will give you a brain boost to keep you focused and alert – far more than a double expresso, some wine gums and a bag of crisps.

1. Get a brain boost at breakfast

Kick start your day with a bowl of porridge for a lasting brain boost. Oats are one of the best breakfasts you can choose to fuel the brain, and are one of the few cereals that haven’t been meddled with by the food industry – just plain oats made with water or milk and a little honey, some berries and crushed seeds will give you the brain boost you need.

Unlike slabs of toast with marmalade or jam, which will leave you starving again two hours later, a bowl of porridge will keep you and your grey cells going for longer. Oats contain most of the B-group vitamins, which cushion the nervous system and are depleted in times of stress. A lack of B vitamins can consequently result in poor concentration and memory, irritability, stress and low mood. B vitamins are water-based so you can’t overdose (they will be lost in urine), but equally they need to be topped up daily.

2. Feast on eggs at lunchtime

A quick and highly nutritious lunch is an egg on whole meal rye bread or pumpernickel. To zip it up add a scraping of marmite (full of B Vitamins) to the toast or add a slice of ham and some rocket. Eggs are a powerhouse of amino acids, good fats, vitamins and minerals. Go that extra mile and buy free range – and organic if possible. Eat boiled, poached or scrambled, but forget the fried.

3. Maintain energy levels with healthy snacks

For healthy snacks throughout the day, have a pot of mixed seeds near to hand, especially pumpkin and sunflower. Seeds make for healthy snacks that are high in the minerals magnesium, potassium, zinc and selenium; these are essential for good concentration, memory and keeping us calm. Magnesium can help with insomnia – vital for those suffering from lack of sleep during exams.

Top tip: Eating protein and carbohydrates together slows the release of sugar into the blood – so eating an apple with a handful of seeds will help balance the blood sugar more and sustain that brain boost you have been working on maintaining.

4. Remember some fats are good fats

Another delicious and nutritious healthy snack is avocado – eat as it is, add to a salad or make into guacamole by mashing up with a fork and adding some diced tomato and lime juice. Avocados are full of good fats (omega 3 fatty acids), vitamin E and potassium.

Many of us have become fat phobic but ‘good fats’ are absolutely essential for optimum brain power, keeping stress and depression at bay. Good fats are found in fish oils, nuts and seeds and avocados. These oils are essential to fuel the brain, helping ensure it functions properly, as well as contributing to strong immunity and production of sex hormones and stress hormones. Blood sugar levels can also drop rapidly in the absence of fat, giving us similar drops in energy and concentration. 

5. Eat oily fish regularly

Any list of foods which help fuel the brain is bound to feature oily fish. This includes salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, herring, anchovies and fresh tuna. Aim to eat three portions per week. Fresh is best, but tinned mackerel and salmon are fine too. Wild salmon has a higher amount of omegas than farmed, but is more expensive. The levels of omegas vary in farmed salmon depending on what they are fed.

Quick win: A very quick meal which is perfect for a 10-minute revision break is tinned salmon on a couple of oatcakes. Or try crushing tinned sardines with a fork and add lemon juice, natural yoghurt and some black pepper to make an inexpensive pâté.

6. Stick to dark chocolate

All is not lost if you are a chocoholic! Cocoa (from the cocoa bean) contains theobromine which contains tryptophan (the basis for serotonin), which elevates the mood. The Latin name for cocoa is theobroma, translated as ‘food of the gods’.

So far so good – but to fuel your brain effectively you need to stick to dark chocolate with a minimum 70% cocoa solids. It has a bitter taste, which your taste buds will adapt to; after a while, normal milk chocolate will taste cloyingly sweet. Limit yourself to four squares per day and avoid eating chocolate late into the evening because cocoa does contain a small amount of caffeine.  

Include these foods in your diet, do some daily exercise, keep well hydrated, get 7-8 hours’ sleep each night and you’ll be well ahead of the game for getting optimum exam results.

Sarah Hughes is a nutritional therapist and medical herbalist who manages the team of nutritional therapists at YorkTest Laboratories, a leading provider of food and drink IgG antibody testing programs. She also sees clients for nutritional consultations and lectures part-time in the MSc in Medicinal Plants & Functional Foods at Newcastle University. 

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