How to eat for your brain
By Sophie Isbister, Contributor
The average student at Douglas College doesn’t need a news article to tell them that life can get hectic, fast: they can just look at their own schedule to see the slow build of quizzes, assignments, and readings that pile up on top of a life that may already include work and family obligations. When times get busy and stressful, the impulse to reach for convenience food can be strong. Gorging on standard cheap college staples like Mr. Noodles and Kraft Dinner, or filling up on quick options like burgers, might seem like the obvious choice—but is your nutrition doing all it can do to make your life easier? Are you piling your plate with the building blocks your brain needs to function for academic success? The Other Press sat down with Registered Holistic Nutritionist Kate Orlando to get the skinny on turning your brain into a lean, mean, course-killing machine.
If you think of your brain as a machine, Orlando says you can look at complex carbohydrates as the fuel that keeps it running. She recommends foods like whole grains, beans, and lentils, which are slowly absorbed by your body and provide your brain with constant nourishment—as opposed to simple carbohydrates, which just give you intermittent bursts of fuel. Starchy vegetables like potatoes, yams, and carrots are another great example of a complex carb: think carrot sticks for an easy snack at school.
Healthy fats are key in keeping your brain limber and well-oiled. These fats include omega-3 fats (found in flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and fish), omega-6 fats, and phospholipids, which are important for memory building. Phospholipids are found in good sources of cholesterol, which is why eggs are an excellent food option for students. Plus they’re easy to hard-boil in advance and eat on your way out the door, or throw into a salad for lunch. But that’s not all that’s great about eggs: they’re also a good source of protein, which leads me to amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Orlando calls these the “brain messengers,” and says that they improve brain communication and functions. Protein rich foods like fish, lean meats, and poultry are solid options, but if you don’t eat meat or eggs, don’t worry! Orlando has advice for you too: “Combining grains and legumes, like eating rice with beans or chickpeas with wheat berries, is a great way to make a complete protein for people who are vegan or vegetarian.” Other protein-rich foods from non-animal sources include peas, broccoli, tofu, and nuts (raw and unsalted!).
“Intelligent nutrients,” according to Orlando, “are the minerals and vitamins that sort of fine-tune your brain.” She says that a diet rich in whole grains can get you most of the B-complex vitamins, and a plate full of dark, leafy greens (think kale, chard, or spinach lightly steamed) can give you the calcium and magnesium that your brain craves. Don’t immediately reach for the milk to get your calcium: Orlando cautions that while milk isn’t the worst thing to drink, milk contains only calcium. “It’s better to get calcium and magnesium together from a cleaner source like leafy greens,” says Orlando, which is great advice for the vegans among us. Orlando adds that if you’ve chosen an animal-free diet, “it might be a good idea to use supplements to get these intelligent nutrients, especially vitamin B12 and zinc, [which are] both mostly from animal sources.” She suggests talking to your local health food store about your options.
By now you’re probably thinking, “How is this supposed to make my life easier? Didn’t you already say my life was stressful, and now you’re putting this new task of eating brain food on my plate?” It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by nutrition, but having been a college student herself, Orlando stresses the importance of taking baby steps and states that any improvement, great or small, is an improvement nonetheless.
Keeping it simple is crucial to success, which is why it’s a good idea to focus on only a couple areas where you can make changes. The best suggestion that Orlando can give to students is to eat breakfast.
Your body fasts while you sleep at night, which means it’s digesting and detoxifying the food you’ve eaten all day. Orlando says, “If you skip breakfast, you’re starting with your energy levels at zero and depleting [them] further—you’re essentially running on empty.” Breaking your fast with something nourishing like oatmeal (sweetened with cinnamon or fruit), whole-grain sprouted bread (Orlando recommends the local Silver Hills brand, available at most grocery stores) with almond butter, or a hard-boiled egg (skip the toast if you’re going the eggs route) is the absolute best thing you can do for your mental wellness.
Orlando also warns against dehydration and strongly encourages everyone to drink a full glass of water upon waking up, and then six to eight glasses throughout the day. “Dehydration causes fatigue, headaches, brain fog, muscle soreness, and it can affect sleep—all of these things make it harder for your brain to do its job,” says Orlando. She notes that the main reason her clients don’t get enough water is that they have a hard time remembering, so to combat this she suggests putting a full glass of water by your bed or desk, and constantly carrying around a metal or glass water bottle.
Ultimately, eating for your brain isn’t going to work if you spend your whole day pulling your hair out with worry over the whole process. Orlando stresses the importance of keeping it simple: “If you go from eating breakfast zero days a week to eating breakfast one day a week, that’s an improvement.” Even the professionals say it’s important to go easy on yourself and not get overwhelmed. So break out the black beans, or sprinkle some blueberries onto a salad, or enjoy a raw egg in a smoothie. Try something different and your brain (and GPA) might just thank you for it.