Did you know that the brain runs on glucose? Glucose is the simplest form of sugar, and the brain uses significant amounts of it every day. How much, do you ask? Up to 20% of your body’s total energy. It’s no surprise, then, that as you brain burns through glucose when concentrating, you may want to reach for carb-rich or sugary snacks to feed those cravings. But the best food to eat while studying are not the ones we want to reach for. In this article, we’re going to outline the best foods to eat while studying and explain why you should choose those instead of a bag of Cheetos. Let’s dive in.
The Basics of Fuelling the Brain
It’s helpful to know some basic brain anatomy and mechanics before we list foods you should be eating to support your revision goals because it will help you understand why you might be making the food choices you currently are.
Basically, the brain is full of trillions of neurons that transmit electrical and chemical signals to process information. To power this, the cells need glucose, which we get from digesting foods. Glucose enters the bloodstream and is transported to the brain. Here, glucose is used to generate ATP (adenosine triphosphate). This is necessary to power brain cells.
When your brain does not get enough glucose to convert to ATP, it’s not able to function at its best. You essentially start running on fumes, and you experience symptoms like fatigue, confusion, and difficulty in concentrating. This may trigger cravings for sugary things, carbs like bread or crisps, and even see you reaching for caffeine, whether that’s coffee or energy drinks.
Therefore, eating the right foods while studying can help improve focus and concentration, leading to better academic performance. But if you’re asking yourself, “if glucose equals more ATP, and more ATP means more energy to focus and study, surely I should be consuming more glucose…” there’s a catch.
See, the body is a remarkable bio-machine that’s finely balanced. When you consume foods with readily available glucose – think of refined foods or foods high in sugar – it doesn’t take a lot of effort for the digestive system to turn it into glucose and for it to enter the bloodstream. This can result in what’s commonly called a spike in blood sugar levels, where a whole lot of glucose is dumped into the bloodstream at once. This sets off alarms, and the body responds by telling the pancreas to produce insulin, and it’s insulin’s job to round up the excess glucose for storage so that balance can be restored.
What happens with a spike is its opposite swiftly follows: a sugar crash. A sugar crash is a term used to describe the feeling of fatigue, irritability, and decreased energy. And as you’ll rightly guess, these symptoms are not conducive to successful studying.
With the biology lesson out the way, let’s now look at the foods you can use to make your revision sessions more productive and effective.
Our Selection of the Best Foods to Eat while Studying
Some of the best foods to eat while studying include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods provide the necessary nutrients for the brain to function at its best, including antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals. We’ll break down what makes each type of food a study ally, as well as the best sources to get it.
Wholegrains and Why You Should Eat Them
Earlier in this article, we discussed how the brain runs on glucose and the mechanisms of sugar spikes and sugar crashes. The key to fuelling your brain well is through providing it with sustained energy. Here’s a quick crash course in a thing called the glycemic index:
The Glycemic Index Explained
The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates based on their effect on blood sugar levels. It ranges from 0 to 100, with higher numbers indicating a greater effect on blood sugar levels, i.e. likelihood of a sugar crash.
Foods that have a high GI (70 or higher) are rapidly absorbed and cause a rapid and large increase in blood sugar levels. Examples include white bread, white rice, and sugary foods and drinks.
Foods that have a medium GI (56-69) are absorbed at a moderate rate and cause a moderate increase in blood sugar levels. Examples include whole wheat bread, brown rice, and some fruits.
Foods that have a low GI (55 or lower) are absorbed more slowly and cause a gradual increase in blood sugar levels. Examples include most fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
Back to wholegrains. Because wholegrain is less refined, it still has its tough coating and fiber protecting the good energy stuff. This means it takes more time for your body to break it down into glucose, and the rate at which this glucose gets to your brain is more measured and sustained. You’ll, therefore, have more energy for a longer period of time to devote to studying.
Examples of wholegrains include oatmeal, quinoa, and brown rice. Other examples include brown bread, and wholewheat pasta. Essentially, if the thing you’re eating comes from the seeds of a plant, you should be able to see that it came from and belongs to part of a plant.
Wholegrains as a Source of Vitamin B
Now we’ve covered the energy part, of wholegrains, let’s talk about the other nutrients that they offer and how they assist your brain.
Wholegrains provide the brain with B group vitamins. Vitamin B is important for the brain because it plays a role in maintaining healthy brain function and cognitive function. Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, is essential for the brain’s metabolism, while vitamin B6, also known as pyridoxine, is involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is important for the formation of myelin, the protective covering on nerve cells, and for the production of red blood cells. Additionally, vitamin B9, also known as folate, is important for the formation of new cells in the brain, including neurons, and for the synthesis of neurotransmitters. Sounds like a good reason to serve yourself up a portion of wholegrain carbs right?
Fiber and Your Brain
Another nutrient that is not commonly thought of as a nutrient is fiber. Wholegrains go through little refining before reaching your plate. It’s likely that the first thing you think of when it comes to fiber is that it helps you poop. So what does it have to do with helping you study?
There’s a lot more to fiber than the regularity of your stomach. It helps lower cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease. But we’re here for the brain stuff right. Fiber is important for brain function in several ways. First, fiber is important for maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, which is linked to overall brain health. There are millions of types of microbes living in your gut and they produce chemicals that enter the bloodstream and affect the whole body. It’s a growing and fascinating area of study as it has the potential to unlock weight loss, some mental illnesses and revolutionize medicine.
A diet high in fiber can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which in turn can produce short-chain fatty acids that have anti-inflammatory effects and support the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which is important for mood regulation.
Second, fiber also helps to regulate blood sugar levels, which is important for brain function. High blood sugar levels can damage nerve cells in the brain and contribute to cognitive decline. Fiber can slow down the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream, keeping blood sugar levels stable and helping to protect the brain from damage.
The Role of Antioxidants in Brain Function
And lastly, wholegrains are an excellent source of antioxidants like selenium, magnesium, and phytochemicals. A byproduct of us existing and having a metabolism is a phenomenon called oxidative stress. Essentially, it releases damaging free radicals which act like wrecking balls on our cells and DNA, causing damage, inflammation, and malfunction. And the way to combat oxidation is with antioxidants. Antioxidants help neutralize free radicals and powerful ones for the
Antioxidants help protect the brain by neutralizing free radicals, which can prevent or minimize the damage they cause. Some antioxidants that are particularly beneficial for the brain include vitamins C and E, carotenoids such as beta-carotene, and flavonoids such as quercetin. These antioxidants can be found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other foods. Overall, antioxidants can help the brain by neutralizing free radicals, reducing inflammation and promoting neurogenesis, all of which can help to protect the brain from damage and support healthy brain function.
Functioning with Fruits and Vegetables
A great food source to include in your study snack rotation is fruits and vegetables. You may have heard of the phrase “eat the rainbow” and that basically means you should eat as many differently colored fruits and vegetables as possible. This is because the colors, which are called flavonoids, are powerful antioxidants that can boost memory and attention. Plants also package vitamins and minerals that are important for healthy brain function.
First, fruits and vegetables are rich in these essential nutrients which are important for maintaining overall health and cognitive function. For example, fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C, vitamin E and carotenoids, such as berries, leafy greens and oranges, can help protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals, which can promote healthy brain function and improve cognitive performance.
Second, fruits and vegetables are also high in fiber, which can help regulate blood sugar levels, promote feelings of fullness and satiety, and support healthy digestion. This can help to keep the brain fueled with steady energy and prevent dips in energy levels and concentration.
Third, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is also associated with a lower risk of inflammation and chronic diseases, which can have a negative effect on brain function. A diet high in fruits and vegetables can promote overall health and well-being, which can lead to better concentration, memory, and cognitive performance.
The Power of Protein
Foods such as fish, chicken, and beans are an excellent source of lean protein. Lean protein is important for the brain for several reasons. First, protein is an essential building block for the brain. It is made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that transmit signals throughout the brain. The brain needs these neurotransmitters to function properly and lean protein can help provide the necessary building blocks.
Second, lean protein can also help to regulate blood sugar levels. The brain requires a steady supply of glucose for energy, and a diet high in lean protein can help to keep blood sugar levels stable, which can help to prevent dips in energy levels and concentration.
Third, lean protein can help to support the growth and repair of brain cells, including neurons. The brain is constantly undergoing changes and lean protein can provide the necessary building blocks for the growth and repair of brain cells.
Omega-3 and Your Brain
Finally, lean protein sources such as fish, chicken, and turkey contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties, they are important for brain development, supporting cognitive function, mood regulation, and fighting inflammation.
So what’s behind this wonder compound? Omega-3 are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. The three main types of omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
D Stands for Development
DHA is necessary for the proper functioning of the brain. This omega-3 fatty acid is found in high concentrations in the brain – particularly in the gray matter, and it makes up a large portion of the cell membranes in the brain. It’s also essential for cognitive function, particularly memory and learning. Studies have found that individuals with higher levels of DHA in their blood have better cognitive function than those with low levels.
DHA has an important role to play in neural plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to adapt and change in response to new experiences. DHA can help to support the growth and repair of brain cells, and it may help to improve the communication between nerve cells in the brain. All of these are critical when attempting to learn and retain new information.
And like antioxidants, DHA has protective properties by shielding the brain from damage caused by free radicals, inflammation, and other insults.
EPA is another type of omega-3 fatty acid that is important for the brain. Like DHA, EPA is found in high concentrations in the brain and is an important component of cell membranes.
EPA plays several important roles in the brain, and it starts with the heart… EPA has been found to be beneficial for cardiovascular health, which can in turn, support healthy brain function and cognitive function by ensuring proper blood flow to the brain.
Like DHA, it has anti-inflammatory properties which can help to reduce inflammation in the brain and body. But another important function is in assisting with mood regulation. As you may have experienced, studying and exam prep can come with feelings of stress and anxiety. EPA has been found to be beneficial for mental health and mood regulation as well as help to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve overall mood.
An AHA Moment For Your Brain
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid and shares many of the protective properties of DHA and EPA. It’s found in plant-based foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and some vegetable oils. Unlike DHA and EPA, ALA is not found in high concentrations in the brain, but it can be converted to EPA and DHA by the body in small amounts.ALA plays several important roles in the brain:
Cognitive function: Studies have found that individuals with higher levels of ALA in their blood have better cognitive function than those with low levels.
Mood regulation: ALA has been found to be beneficial for mental health and mood regulation. It can help to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and it may also be beneficial for people with bipolar disorder.
Inflammation: ALA has anti-inflammatory properties which can help to reduce inflammation in the brain and body. Inflammation has been linked to several neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and ALA may help to protect against these disorders.
Neuroprotection: ALA has also been found to be neuroprotective, which means it can help to protect the brain from damage caused by free radicals, inflammation, and other insults.
Cardiovascular health: ALA has been found to be beneficial for cardiovascular health, which can in turn, support healthy brain function and cognitive function by ensuring proper blood flow to the brain.
Nut for Nuts and Seeds
For those living a plant-based lifestyle, consuming lean protein may not be an option. So nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds are an excellent alternative source for ALA omega-3 fatty acids. Even if you’re not vegan or vegetarian, nuts and seeds are a power-house of nutrients to be included in your diet whether you’re studying or not. Here’s why:
First, they contain vitamin E. Almonds and sunflower seeds are rich in this antioxidant which has been linked to improved cognitive function and may help protect the brain from free radical damage.
Second, nuts and seeds contain good doses of vitamin B6. Found in pumpkin seeds and other kinds of seeds, B6 helps protect neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, your happy and calm hormones, both of which are needed when facing stressful revision sessions.
Next, nuts and seeds are a good source of magnesium. Found in almonds, Brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds, to name some, magnesium is important for healthy brain function. Since the brain works on electrical and chemical signals, it’s necessary to keep the neurotransmitters working properly. That’s where magnesium comes in. Low levels of magnesium have been linked to imbalances in neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which can affect mood and cognitive function.
Magnesium is also involved in the process of neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to change and adapt in response to new information and experiences. Adequate levels of magnesium are essential for the growth and development of new neurons and synapses, which is important for learning and memory.
Importantly, magnesium is also linked to aiding the body in regulating its stress response and getting good sleep. Adequate levels of magnesium can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress, and can also help to improve sleep quality.
The Way of Water
You’ve probably heard it more than once that water is essential to a happy and healthy body. And you’ve probably been advised to drink plenty of water while revising. But why?
Hydration: The brain is made up of about 73% water, and staying hydrated is essential for proper brain function. When we are dehydrated, our cognitive function can be affected, which can make it more difficult to focus and retain information. Drinking water can help to keep the brain hydrated and functioning properly.
Blood flow: Drinking water can help to increase blood flow to the brain, which can help to improve oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain. Adequate blood flow to the brain is important for maintaining proper brain function, including cognitive function and memory.
Temperature regulation: Water helps to regulate the body temperature, and keeping the body cool can help to improve cognitive function. When the body overheats, cognitive function can be affected, and drinking water can help to keep the body cool and maintain proper brain function.
Mood and energy: Drinking water can help to improve mood and energy levels, which can help to improve focus and concentration. Dehydration has been linked to feelings of fatigue and irritability, and drinking water can help to improve mood and energy levels and make it easier to focus on studying.
Detoxification: Water helps the body to flush out toxins and waste products, which can help to improve overall health and cognitive function.
So don’t skimp on drinking water while hitting the books.
There are of course hundreds of foods that we can list to help you improve your study sessions. Avocados, green tea and dark chocolate are three such examples, but this article will turn into a book and you’ll be here all day. In short though, we’ve provided you with a lot of accessible biology and chemistry knowledge to help you understand what the major food groups offer in terms of antioxidant properties and how they help your brain function better. This arms you with the knowledge to make healthy study food options because you’ll know that salmon is a lean protein and can offer you an omega-3 fatty acid boost, while a wholegrain bagel is a solid choice to snack on because it has a lower GI and is a good source of fiber.
Provided you avoid high-sugar, how-fibre foods and instead fuel your body with fresh, whole foods, you’re already on the right path to making your study sessions more productive and effective. You’ll be providing your body with sustained energy, while also giving it the things it needs to protect, repair and grow itself.
So rather than reaching for the bag of empty calories, grab a wholegrain bagel and slap on some hummus. Your body and brain will thank you for it. Then, head on over to our Learning Library to discover a range of studying techniques, like the Leitner System, which will help you learn and retain information for years to come.