It is that moment of the semester again. The assignments are piling up even though you had sworn that this time around, you would not procrastinate. Studying becomes more important than sleep and the library is your new home. Your eating habits might not be your top priority either.
“During midterms and finals my diet consists mainly of Al-Taib pizza, coffee and cigarettes,” said Rashad Bedeir, a Concordia philosophy major.
But certain foods can boost brain power, increase alertness and concentration and help you stay sane during exam period. Registered dietitian Karine Levy shared her brain food secrets.
According to her, carbohydrates are the main source of energy. Half of the carbohydrates you consume are used to maintain brain activity. Since the brain does not make reserves of glucose, a sugar found in carbohydrates, it is important to regularly feed it with this type of energy. Carbohydrates are found in bread, pasta, rice and cereals.
But before you give yourself unconditional permission to scarf down a huge bowl of spaghetti, remember that fruits, vegetables, milk and yogurt all contain them as well. And when choosing grain products, the whole grain version is always best.
Levy emphasized the importance of omega-3 fats, referring to them as the nutritional superstars when it comes to optimal brain functioning. Levy said that more than a third of the bases of our brain are actually made up of these polyunsaturated fats. And even though you can find omega-3’s in vegetable sources such as flaxseed or canola oil, fatty fish is your best bet. The reason is that fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel and sardines contain DHA, a fatty acid that directly affects memory, brain and cognitive performance.
As for supplements, you might want to rethink that option.
“Most of us are always going to suggest first to go for the real, natural foods. Because not only does fish contain omega-3’s, it is also going to deliver protein, selenium, and sometimes vitamin D as well. It is nice to see the food as a whole. And if you do want to take a supplement, it is very important to speak to a pharmacist and make sure it comes from good quality fish oil,” said Levy.
Iron is also important brain food. The brain needs to be oxygenated. Iron helps transport oxygen in the blood. When your iron levels are low, you feel tired and fatigued and your productivity suffers. Find that nutrient in red meat, enriched cereals, dried fruit and green leafy vegetables. Iron from an animal source is much more easily absorbed by the body than iron from a vegetable source. “There is a trick for that. If you add a little vitamin C to a vegetarian source of iron, it increases absorption. For example, you can make a bean salad and add some tomato and red pepper,” said Levy.
Antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables are known to fight disease and free radicals. But they also optimize brain function. “There was a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. They asked elderly people to do exercises such as memorizing words and calculations. The conclusion was that people who consumed the most fruits and vegetables performed better,” said Levy. That gives you one more reason to eat your veggies.
While studying for a final exam and struggling to cram in all the information, the fatigue might start to kick in and you might be tempted to guzzle coffee to stay alert.This is not necessarily a bad thing, if you keep it under two or three cups a day, especially since coffee and tea now count towards your daily hydration goals. Be careful though, that amount decreases if you consume soft drinks, tea or chocolate, which also contain caffeine. As for hydration, water is a no-brainer. Being dehydrated makes you feel dizzy and fatigued, which you want to avoid when you need to do schoolwork.
Lastly, you have heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Unfortunately, it is easy to skip it when you are a busy student. “Either I wake up, get ready and go where I need to go without having it or I am just not hungry,” said Michelle Samman, an English literature major. Some quick and balanced breakfast ideas include a slice of whole wheat toast with natural peanut butter and banana or a yogurt topped with high-fibre cereal and blueberries.
“Breakfast is really important to nourish your brain after a whole night of fasting when you are sleeping. It helps with intellectual shape, readiness to learn and to confront the obstacles and challenges of the day,” said Levy.
And since time is more precious than ever at the end of the semester, here are some convenient and brain-friendly snack and meal ideas: nuts and dried fruit, cheese sticks and a piece of fruit, raw vegetables and hummus or a canned salmon salad with whole grain crackers.
Good luck on the exams!