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Brain Food: Truths and Myths

By: Lourdes Nena A. Cabison-Carlos, MDBrain Food: Truths and Myths

Many are familiar with the saying “You are what you eat”. Are we, really? Students who are studying for exams usually binge on food that can ‘increase brain power.’ Aside from that, there are plenty of supplements in the market which claim to boost memory. Which ones are true and which ones are not? Let us explore the science behind the food, brain, and the in-betweens.

What we know

As living, breathing beings, we primarily eat to survive. It’s a basic necessity. However, we do not always eat out of need, sometimes we eat out of want. Giving in to our ice cream craving on a hot day can improve our mood, sometimes dramatically. Aside from providing our body fuel, food can affect how we feel and think.

Although it is a relatively new area of research, scientists have found out that just seeing, smelling or thinking about food can alter the chemicals in the brain. Chemicals such as insulin, ghrelin, leptin, dopamine, and many more influence the activity of the brain. Hence, what we eat can affect specific receptors and have the capacity to influence cognitive function and even emotions.  What we know at present is that certain food components influence brain function. The familiar ones we know from science class: glucose acts as fuel for the brain, fat helps strengthen the synapses, and proteins can act as neurotransmitters. Recent research suggests that some food can influence alertness, memory, and function. But the question that remains unanswered is: which food do we have to eat to help us do well in school?

Brain Food

Our brain consumes A LOT of energy. Scientists hypothesize that it uses up to 20% of the total energy generated by our body and majority of that energy is used to fuel electrical impulses in the brain cells. Hence, a well-fed brain functions better than a starving one.  Furthermore, proper diet and exercise can positively affect brain performance. That said, some food groups have already been found to influence learning, cognition, and memory. Here are some common brain food myths and the science behind them.

  • Eggs - We have been told to avoid eggs (especially yolks) because they are high in cholesterol. However, recent studies have shown that eating eggs do NOT increase the risk for heart disease. In addition, the choline found in egg yolks actually improves memory. So next semester, include boiled eggs in your lunch bag.
  • Candies - It has been said that eating candies can boost your brain function while reviewing. While candies can be a quick source of glucose, too much sugar, as we know, is bad for the health. So ditch the candy and try munching on the next food item instead.
  • Peanuts (or nuts) - This has been a two-edged sword for students because it is said to boost both memory and pimple production. The truth is that nuts can help improve the cognitive ability of the brain and possibly be able to slow down memory decline. And fear not, there is no relationship between nut intake and pimple breakout.
  • Fish - It is said that eating fish can make you smarter. This is true, especially salmon, which is high in omega-3 fatty acid. It can improve memory and has been found to give a positive effect on people with mood disorders. Try to incorporate fish into your diet at least 1-2 times a week.
  • Milk - We have been told that milk can make you feel sleepy, which is why some avoid drinking milk while reviewing. This might be due to the small amount of tryptophan found in milk, but it is not the only protein in it. Other milk components can boost dopamine and norepinephrine, resulting in a more alert brain.
  • Fast food - There really is no brain food myth associated with fast food. This is just to emphasize that while it is easy to chow down on a burger than a salad while studying, the fuel needed to break down the complex carbohydrates from processed food takes away energy which can otherwise be used for learning.

What else can we eat to improve brain function?

There are a variety of food items that have been proven to help our brain stay in shape even when we age. Likewise, food with high amounts of antioxidants can help preserve brain function. Aside from those mentioned above, here are other food items you might want to stock up on:

  • Fish, kiwi, and walnuts: These contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids
  • Whole grains: They are a good source of glucose and vitamin B
  • Tea, citrus fruits, red wine, and dark chocolate: These are high in flavonoids that, when combined with exercise, can slow down cognitive delay
  • Berries (strawberries, cranberries, etc): They contain high amounts of antioxidants and vitamin C
  • Milk and yogurt: As mentioned, they contain protein and vitamin B, which are essential for brain function
  • Lean beef/meat: These are good sources of  protein and iron which improves concentration and alertness
  • Fruits and vegetables: As we know, these are high in antioxidants and vitamins C and E which preserves brain function
  • Coffee: It is a good antioxidant and possible antidepressant which can keep you awake during long nights of reviewing (though you might want to limit coffee drinking to 2 cups a day).

Remember to eat slowly and in moderation, and keep your sugar levels in check!

The Truth

Having mentioned all of the amazing brain boosting food items, we must bear in mind that no matter what we eat, we won’t suddenly gain super brain powers, nor would our IQ increase by 10 points. In the same way, binge-eating on supplements a few days before a test cannot drastically increase your chances of passing an exam you haven’t really prepared for. There is really no single formula for increasing brain function. One thing is clear though: good grades are a result of hard work and good health. Hence, you have to incorporate a good diet and exercise into your study routine. Also keep in mind that though drinking alcoholic beverages won’t actually kill your brain cells, alcohol can slow down your reflexes and brain function. So, plan the partying (and drinking sessions) after the exam, and not before. Good luck!
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