It’s that time of the semester when midterms and papers are piling up – not to mention all the episodes of The Bachelor you’ve missed because of those midterms and papers! You’ve been living off of chips and cookies from the library’s vending machines for who knows how long. You may have had to give up on reality television and your weekly manicure appointment to get everything done, but that doesn’t mean you should let your eating habits fall by the wayside, too. Before you take another trip to the vending machine, consider choosing foods that will give your brain the boost it needs to get you through your exams.
Kelley Urban, a registered dietitian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, helps students make the right choices about food to keep them healthy, focused, and calm. “College can be a stressful time in a person’s life and it may be the first time that one is deciding on their own when to eat, what to eat and how much to eat,” she says. “It is important to learn how to make healthy food choices early in life so you can develop them into healthy habits for a healthy future.”
During this mid-term exam season, part of making those healthy food choices should include choosing “brain foods” that will boost your energy, concentration, memory, and overall mental function. Next time you head to the dining hall or grocery store, keep an eye out for these superpower foods.
“Berries such as blueberries, raspberries and strawberries are full of Vitamin C and antioxidants which have been shown to enhance brain performance, improve memory, and may act as a defense against Dementia and Alzheimers,” Kelley says. The vitamin C in berries will boost your immune system, memory, and overall mental function. According to WebMD, vitamin C has been used in cases of depression, fatigue, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As an added plus, the vitamins and antioxidants in berries will also keep your skin looking great!
When you’ve been up all night studying and it’s now time for that 8 a.m. exam, coffee can be your best friend. Coffee has that precious natural stimulant, caffeine, which will wake you right up and energize you for the busy day ahead. Coffee can also boost your memory, increase your physical endurance and decrease your chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
So by all means, feed your coffee addiction this midterms season, but don’t overdo it! Too much coffee can cause increased heart rate and blood pressure, leaving you feeling jittery and uncomfortable. “An appropriate amount of caffeine is 200 mg, the equivalent of two cups of coffee everyday,” Kelley says.
Just be mindful of the calories and sugar in your favorite Starbucks blend and sip in moderation! To keep the calories of your drink of choice in check, try a regular coffee with skim or soy milk and a little bit of sweetener, or a non-fat cappuccino. Also, avoid drinking coffee on an empty stomach – this can cause headaches or nausea. Try grabbing a brain-empowering snack of berries and granola before drinking coffee to get the most out of your afternoon in the library!
Dark chocolate combines the energizing benefits of caffeine with the health benefits of antioxidants to provide you with some serious brainpower! This sweet little combination will increase blood flow to the brain, which is necessary for good brain function. Additionally, the caffeine will give you a short burst of energy, increasing focus and concentration.
As with coffee, though, dark chocolate can be an unhealthy vice in large servings. “Even though dark chocolate has been linked to many health benefits, eating too much chocolate can promote weight gain, which is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure,” Kelley says. The recommended serving size of dark chocolate is 1 oz. per day, which is about the equivalent of five squares of Dove® chocolate or about nine Hershey’s Kisses®.
Kelley suggests incorporating dark chocolate into trail mix for a healthy, brain-boosting snack. “Trail mix can be great for breakfast or snacking on-the-go, and during or in between studying,” she says. You can also incorporate other brain foods like cereal, dried fruit, and walnuts to make the trail mix even more powerful. Consider putting some trail mix in a plastic bag and eating on your way to class in the morning for a simple and healthy breakfast that will go a long way!
Eggs are rich in protein, vitamins and antioxidants, all of which contribute to your overall physical and mental health. Kelley explains that the choline in eggs is an essential building block of the brain’s memory function. Eggs also contain biotin, which contributes to healthy hair and nails!
It is important to note, however, that eating scrambled eggs should be limited. The process of scrambling eggs causes the protein and fats to be damaged, making the fat content unhealthy. So, would you like that egg sunny side up, instead?
Hard-boiled eggs are an easy way to incorporate this brain-food into your eating habits. You can make a batch of hard-boiled eggs and store them in your fridge while you snack on them over a day or two. Or, you can cut them up and add them to a salad. Bonus points if you use spinach instead of iceberg lettuce for that salad!
Fish, especially salmon, is a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Don’t worry, collegiettes – these are good fats! According to Kelley, these fatty acids are “essential for brain function and development, and may play a vital role in enhancing memory.” WebMD recommends eating two servings of fish per week to maintain physical mental health, even when you don’t have a huge test the next morning. And, you don’t need to eat that much to fill those two servings – the recommended serving size of fish is just three ounces per day, which is about the size of a deck of cards!
If your school’s dining hall serves fish regularly, consider trying it one night at dinner if it looks appetizing! Otherwise, you can try ordering fish when you’re out to dinner for a girls’ night out. For broke-college-student options, try ordering fish tacos at a local Mexican restaurant. Fish tacos are usually affordable and healthy options at local restaurants. Or, try sushi!
Nuts and seeds give your body and brain vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant associated with reduced cognitive decline as you age. Walnuts, especially, are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which can enhance memory. An added bonus: nuts go great with dark chocolate!
If you pack a small plastic bag with trail mix to eat while walking to your first class, you’ll be good to go with your daily serving of nuts. The recommended serving of nuts (or dried fruit) is only ¼ of a cup or about the size of golf ball. Putting your trail mix in a plastic bag is not only convenient, but it’s a good way to make sure you don’t overdo it with the nuts or chocolate. When the serving you’ve made is gone, you know it’s time to switch to a different, but just as healthy, snack!
Your mom may not be there to make you finish your leafy greens anymore, but you should still listen to her! “Leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale and cabbage contain vitamin B12, B6, folic acid and iron, which help support memory function,” says Kelley.
An easy way to incorporate spinach into your eating habits is to consider using baby spinach leaves in your salad instead of, or in addition to, romaine or iceberg lettuce. You can also try spinach in a smoothie, where it’s blended up so much that you can’t even recognize it! Naked Juice offers a smoothie called Green Machine that contains 100 mg of spinach, and it’s sold in many convenience stores so it’s probably right around the corner. The smoothie’s green color may look gross, but I can say from personal experience that you can’t taste the spinach or other vegetables in it!
Still shudder at the thought of mom telling you to finish your spinach? That’s OK, there are seven other foods on our list for you to choose from!
Whole Grain Cereal
Whole grain cereal is a serious, double-threat brain food.
First, whole grains contain fiber, vitamin E, and carbohydrates, all of which are good for your body and your mind because they contribute to healthy blood flow to and from your brain. “Carbohydrates are also an excellent source of fuel for the brain because they are your body’s preferred energy source,” Kelley says.
Second, whole grain cereal makes for a nutritious, brain-empowering breakfast. According to WebMD, students who eat breakfast perform significantly better than those who skip it. Take those extra five or 10 minutes and start your day off with whole grain cereal and soar through those exams! Bonus points if you throw some blueberries into your bowl!
Finding a healthy cereal can be difficult, whether in the dining hall or grocery store, because of the overwhelming number of options on the shelves. Stay away from overly sugary cereals – no matter how delicious they taste! Look for cereals that are made with 100% whole grain and low in sugar content like GOLEAN, Cheerios, or Fiber One. You can also find healthy whole grains in oatmeal and quinoa, both of which make great breakfast foods!
In addition to eating right, Kelley encourages collegiettes to exercise regularly and sleep well during stressful exam times. “Even if you only have 20 or 30 minutes to spare, taking a walk, working out at the gym, or going for a bike ride can help you reduce stress and refocus,” she says.
It is also important to take breaks and change study spots throughout the day or week to keep yourself focused and alert. Kelley also suggests spending time with friends. “Having a bit of social time can do wonders to relax,” she says, “so grab coffee or lunch with a friend, watch a movie, or go to an event together, then get back to studying!”
So, this midterms season, stock up on brain food, hit the gym, hang with your friends, and kick some academic butt!