Like most college students, theater major Becky Greteman juggles a heavy load of classes while maintaining her social life. With her full schedule and limited budget, eating well is always a challenge. "It's tough to cook for one person when you don't have a lot of time to begin with," she says. "I eat at rehearsals when I can, but my eating schedule is pretty much whenever I can get a bite."
Eating habits like Greteman's can take their toll on a student's academic performance. Foods profoundly affect the brain's function—for better or worse. If a student wants to excel, he or she needs to make food choices that count.
Because high-protein foods don't spike blood sugar levels the way simple carbohydrates can, it's best to start the day with a high-protein meal to help keep the body's insulin secretions steady. Instead of picking up a plain bagel or a doughnut after class, Greteman should grab a protein-rich bite on her way to class. She might choose a high-protein breakfast bar, a carton of skim milk or yogurt, a soy milkshake, or peanut butter spread on whole-wheat toast, all of which contain high-quality, brain-pumping protein.
To stay sharp after lunchtime, students with afternoon class loads need midday meals that include proteins (check the salad bar for beans to top your lettuce) and good fats, especially the omega-3s in oily fish (salmon, tuna, trout, sardines, and halibut), walnuts, and salad dressing containing canola or flaxseed oil. "There is some evidence that short-term loading with omega-3s does improve brain activity associated with learning, though the evidence regarding long-term effects is stronger," says Michael A. Schmidt, PhD, author of Brain-Building Nutrition (North Atlantic Books, 2001). A smart move for students: Keep a stash of canned tuna or salmon to tuck into quick, healthy sandwiches, and take along a baggie of walnuts and dried fruit to munch between classes. Don't be tempted by starchy lunch foods such as pasta, potatoes, and sweets, which may increase brain-dulling serotonin levels.
As any student knows, caffeine increases alertness and reduces fatigue—useful effects, especially when you're working late. The scientific consensus is that moderate caffeine intake yields no negative long-term effects, but sensitive individuals may experience more jitters from coffee than they want. If that's the case, try black or green tea; if even those contain too much caffeine for you, try energizing herbal teas, such as peppermint, thyme, or ginseng. The newest buzz is coffees (including decaffeinated ones) blended with herbal extracts shown to support brain function, such as ginseng, ginkgo, and vinpocetine. If you need a little extra oomph to make it through a study session, a caffeinated beverage and a high-protein snack can boost performance.
Don't, however, drink a lot of coffee the night before a big exam; the caffeine could prevent you from getting a good night's sleep. Instead, indulge in a few serotonin-producing carbs to help you snooze soundly. (And don't forget to eat protein in the morning to fire up your brain for the exam.)
Dietitian Jane Motler attended university in London, where her favorite study snack was chocolate.