Research indicates that what we eat directly influences our cognitive abilities and that poor diet equals poor brain functioning. Do you know the scene in “Elf,” the movie with Will Ferrell where he runs into his dad’s office and shouts, “I’m in love! I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it.” I feel that way about my observations and research, like I want to shout it from the tree-tops, “Eating healthy will make you smarter! Eating a nutritionally sound diet will make learning easier! Clean eating doesn’t just buff up your body - it helps in building a buff brain too!”
My students and I are currently watching “Super Size Me,” a movie that chronicles Morgan Spurlock’s dietary adventure as he embarks on a 30 day McDonald’s-only diet. Morgan, a man who is in superb health prior to the McDonald’s binge, proceeds to gain 17 pounds in the first 12 days and overwhelms his liver with fat at such a rate as to shock and frighten his doctors.
One of the assignments that my students had to support their “Super Size Me” experience was to record and analyze their typical day’s diet. Record all foods and beverages and calculate the percentage of fat, carbohydrates, and protein they get in a normal day and compare it to the USDA recommendations.
While observing the students’ diets, I could not help but notice some important observations. Students who are frequently absent, misbehave, struggle academically and/or show a disinterest in school work also had the worst diets. Students who eat a balanced, healthy diet were my star students. Is there a correlation? You betcha!
Premium Brain Food
I am not going to tell you something you haven’t already heard; a brain-healthy diet is no different than a well-balance diet, it simply just one more reason to eat right. Not only will you be physically healthy, you also be mentally healthy and have strong cognitive functioning. Premium brain food includes a variety of protein sources, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
Protein is arguably the most important organic molecule in our body. You could almost state, “What doesn’t a protein do in our body?” Proteins have a vast array of functions in our bodies including but not limited to, assisting immune function, cell signaling, and growth and repair. Proteins also act as enzymes in various chemical reactions including metabolic reactions. Proteins are hormones and other important neurotransmitters.
As you can see, I am a big fan of protein! There is a bit of controversy over how much protein a person needs. USDA recommends that about 20% of your caloric intake should be a protein source. The average bodybuilder or athlete would say as much as 40% of your diet should be protein. I say aim for somewhere in the middle. For a buff brain, make sure your protein sources are varied: fish, chicken, beef, beans, etc…
A well-known fact about me is that I am hypoglycemic. When my sugar is low, I can become downright evil. I become highly agitated. I cannot concentrate. I become klutzy. If my depleted state persists, I’ll begin to sweat. My vision will become tunneled and I will ultimately pass out. I realize that my symptoms are a result of a medical condition, but the truth is everyone experiences less severe symptoms when they’re carb-depleted. Carbohydrates are the only immediate brain fuel. Yes, you can survive without carbohydrates but your body has to go through extra chemical processes to convert fat into a usable source of food for your brain. In the meantime, you’ll feel to some degree much like I do when my blood sugar drops too low.
My response to low blood sugar is another indicator to me just how important nutrition is to brain function. As a teacher, I need to be mentally razor sharp and even my students notice when I am “sugared” (my term for needing food STAT). I’ll forget names of students that I know well. I’ll lose my train of thought. I’ll run into things. It’s scary. Which leads me to ponder, what if some attention disorders were simply poor nutrition? What if some students’ misbehavior was due to an imbalanced diet?
Anyway, off my academic ponderings and back onto carbs, depending on whether you’re an athlete or simply someone who wants to beef up their brain, complex carbohydrates should consist of about 50-60% of your caloric intake. Consume whole grains, vegetables, and fruits to obtain immediate brain fuel.
Fat!? I don’t even like word. The word “fat” sounds like it should be a four letter word and one that you would want to avoid at all costs. Ignore that intuition; healthy fats are critical for a healthy brain. In fact, did you know that 60% of the brain is actually composed of fat? Yep, every one of your brain cells is enclosed in a fatty myelin sheath.
Fats are very important to a buff brain. They act as messengers. They regulate the immune system, blood circulation, memory and mood. If you lack omega 3 fats, you can experience decreased memory and IQ, dyslexia, and learning disorders; including ADD (things that make the teacher in me go “hmm”). The USDA indicates that approximately 25-30% of our diet should be healthy fats. Healthy fats are typically monounsaturated fats such as almonds, flaxseed, olive oil, and omega 3 rich fish.
Clean Eating Isn’t Just For Your Muscles
One last important thought, as your children become teenagers, I think it’s easy to just assume they’re eating well; after all you have tons of healthy food in the fridge, right? But is that what they’re eating? And is it balanced? If their diet is 90% healthy carbohydrates, which is a lot of what I witnessed when analyzing my students’ dietary logs, their brains are still not going to be functioning optimally. Talk to your teenager about their diet, share this article, and open the discussion about eating right. I found my students to be incredibly receptive to the discussions that followed their dietary logs.
We are all going to have days where we feel great and others where we don’t feel our best, could that be our diet? Umm…that’s a resounding, “YES!” Try keeping a food journal for a week. Record not only everything you consume, but also how you feel. It just might give you some insight and help you build a buff brain.
Summer Taylor is a National level NPC Bikini competitor,fitness model and high school Biology, Anatomy and Physiology teacher. She is a Species 2011 calendar girl, a Team Bombshell Athlete and was featured in December’s issue of Ironman Magazine and NPC Magazine and Lonnie Teper has declared her a ‘rising star’ in Iron Magazine.