The brain is a complex and rather amazing organ. It takes up just 2% of a person’s body mass, but uses up to 20% of their energy; and to achieve optimum performance, a careful cocktail of nutrients are required (a mixture of vitamins, proteins, and carbohydrates, among other things).
When it comes to students and learning, it’s widely held that diet has a not insubstantial impact on a young person’s cognitive capacity – but it’s hard to know what to prioritise. Nonetheless, it’s important for us all – tutors, parents, and students – to give it some thought. Is breakfast the most important meal of the day? Is exercise the key to boosting cognitive function? Or is getting our five-a-day all that really matters? Read on to learn more…
Remember that old saying about breakfast being ‘the most important meal of the day’? Turns out, it’s true – and sadly around 24 percent of UK school children skip the meal altogether. Studies have shown that if children miss breakfast, their scholastic performance suffers: the morning meal impacts on a number of activities, including how successfully they tackle mentally demanding tasks or those that involve working memory. In 2018, associate professor of kinesiology and registered dietitian Sybille Kranz commented: ‘There is pretty solid evidence that children who are hungry are not able to focus, so they have a low attention span, behavioural issues, discipline issues in the school.
‘Having children who are well-fed and not hungry makes a difference in their individual performance, and also how much they are contributing to or disrupting the classroom situation.’
Trying to avoid stress might seem like obvious advice for any young person – but what might come as a surprise is the impact that stress has on nutrition (and, by proxy, learning). When we’re stressed, we run on adrenaline: i.e., we conserve energy and store fat, as the body is in a ‘fight or flight’ mode that does not require us to use food as fuel in the same way. As a result, the body does not digest the food we eat fully, meaning that nutrients are not circulated effectively – ultimately affecting cellular function in the long term.
One way to counteract stress is through exercise: as well as reducing stress levels and releasing feel-good endorphin hormones, aerobic activity increases circulation, allowing nutrients to be dispersed effectively throughout the body. And that’s not the only thing exercise can help our brains with; in fact, ‘regular, sweaty exercise helps us think better by stimulating new brain cell growth, increasing connections between cells, and improving attention.’
Opinions on what to eat, how much, and when are changing all the time – even scientists find it hard to agree on the best diet for a range of goals (from improving brain function to living longer). What seems certain, then, is that a ‘one size fits all’ approach probably isn’t going to work; but there are a few general principles parents and students can follow to give themselves the best chance of scholastic success.