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Feed Your Head: The Best “Brain Foods” for Academic Success

Standardized tests and long school days are mental and physical marathons— you should prepare in every way to perform your best. While most Americans do not “feed their heads”—instead reaching for what is quick, convenient, and tasty—students should opt for “brain foods,” which improve mental clarity, alertness, and performance.

These “brain food” suggestions enable you to do your best by ensuring that you’re feeling your smartest, most alert, and least hungry. Apply these tips before big tests, difficult schoolwork, and important classes.

"Brain Food" Basics

  • Components: “Brain food” meals combine protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats, which elevate and maintain your blood sugar at an ideal level, enabling your brain to function optimally. Try combining different ingredients to learn which combination gives you the best results.
  • Timing: Give yourself enough time to have a healthful meal. Wake up early enough to eat breakfast, and set aside time to eat lunch or dinner. Don’t work while you’re eating; instead, have a “brain food” meal about 20-30 minutes before doing your work.
  • Protein

    “Brain food” meals should include 3-4 ounces of quality protein, about the size of a deck of cards.

  • Breakfast: Eggs or egg whites ( virtually pure protein) are among the best options for protein in the morning. Unsweetened, low-fat Greek yogurt or cottage cheese mixed with fruit is another good option.
  • Lunch and dinner: White meat chicken, low-fat fish, and seafood are good choices.
  • Meatless options: For vegetarians, vegans, or anyone seeking animal-free alternatives, consider firm tofu, tempeh, seitan, or beans and legumes.
  • Beware: With packaged or prepared products, check that the protein content is higher than carbohydrates and fat.
  • Complex Carbohydrates

    Whole grains, which are high in fiber, are the best option for complex carbohydrates in a “brain food” meal.

  • Breakfast: Toast and hot or cold cereals are excellent whole grain breakfast options. For cereals, check labels to be sure that there is limited added sugar or fat. Add fiber-rich fruit to cereals for flavor and supplemental complex carbs.
  • Lunch and Dinner: Reach for whole wheat, multi-grain, or pumpernickel bread or pita bread. Whole grain pastas and tortillas are also good options.
  • Alternatives: Beans and legumes are also good sources of complex carbohydrates. Include fiber-rich vegetables as supplemental complex carbohydrates, but avoid starchy vegetables like white potatoes because they metabolize too much like sugar.
  • Beware: Some products are deceptively labeled as “whole grain,” so be sure to check labels. Look for whole grains listed as the first ingredient, including wheat berries, cracked wheat, rye kernels, whole oats, or sprouted grains.
  • Healthy Fats

    A “brain-food” meal should also include healthy fats since they also raise and maintain the blood sugar at an appropriate level. Healthy fats are found in seeds, nuts, nut butters, avocados, olive oil, fish, and seafood.

    Snacks

    “Brain food” snacks are essential for ensuring that you can continue working without getting hungry and losing focus. Plan ahead to make sure you have convenient “brain food” snacks readily available.

  • Protein snacks: Hard-boiled eggs and unsweetened Greek yogurt are good high-protein snack options.
  • Complex carbohydrate snacks: Whole grain crackers with nut butter are convenient and combine complex carbs with healthy fats.
  • Nuts: Nuts are a convenient source of healthy fats. Opt for roasted, unsalted soy nuts, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, and pistachios, the highest-protein nuts.
  • Fruit: If you want something sweet, consider fruits like berries, apples, pears, or stone fruits, which have a low glycemic load and release energy more slowly.
  • Cheese: A few cheeses are fairly good “brain food” options because they have comparatively high protein-to-fat ratios. Look for low-fat versions of string cheese, cheddar, Monterey, Colby, Swiss, ricotta, gruyere, and cottage cheese.
  • Exclude or Reduce

  • Sugar: Added sugars (including honey, maple syrup, and agave) are the “anti-brain food” and counteract the positive effects of “brain foods” by causing blood sugar to spike and then rapidly drop. Avoid products with sugars listed among the first few ingredients. Tropical fruits like bananas and dried fruits like dates and raisins also contain too much sugar to be advisable.
  • Simple carbohydrates: Starchy foods like white flour, white rice, or white potatoes without skins convert quickly to sugar and tend to make you tired.
  • Saturated fat: Fats found in processed and red meats, full-fat dairy, deep-fried food, and coconut and palm oils tend to make people sluggish because they are hard to digest.
  • Processed foods: Most packaged foods are ultra-processed, containing unhealthy fats and excessive added sugars. Also be wary of restaurant foods, especially fast foods.
  • Liquids: Juices, shakes, smoothies, and even healthy “protein” drinks act too much like “liquid sugar” and will not keep you satisfied. Avoid or minimize caffeine, as well, which will stimulate you until it wears off and you crash.
  • Note: The above suggestions are not meant as daily dietary recommendations—check with your healthcare practitioner.

    References: Nutrition Action (Center for Science in the Public Interest) and Consumer Reports On Health

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