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.

Start The Day Right

"For improving academic performance, eating consistently is really the goal," says Ann Selkowitz Litt, MS, RD, LD, author of The College Student's Guide to Eating Well on Campus (Tulip Hill Press, 2000). A nourishing breakfast is key: A student's first meal of the day kick-starts brain function as well as metabolism. However, it's also the meal most commonly skipped by sleep-starved college students. Greteman, for example, usually wakes up about 15 minutes before her 9 a.m. class and doesn't eat until class is over, when she hurries through coffee and a bagel. According to Litt, students should eat within an hour of waking to fuel the day's productivity.

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.

Midday Meals

Greteman's lunch choices commonly include fast food, a microwaved meal, or canned soup, all carbohydrate-laden foods. But high-carb meals immediately increase blood sugar levels, triggering your body to release insulin. Higher levels of insulin, in turn, decrease blood levels of the body's amino acids (the building blocks of protein). However, one amino acid remains on the loose: tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin. Insulin's effects allow more tryptophan to reach the brain, resulting in more brain serotonin—and increased fatigue and sleepiness.

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.

Study Time

When Greteman misses dinner because of late-night rehearsals, she often ends up satisfying her evening hunger by snacking on cheese and crackers, chips and dip, and lots and lots of coffee. While this kind of junk-food grazing is typical for college students, it's not advisable, says Litt. "Because most meals are digested and absorbed in three to four hours, students should put themselves on some kind of pattern where they eat [again] within a three- to five-hour period to avoid getting overhungry," says Litt. Eating on a regular schedule prevents blood sugar swings, reduces cravings for unhealthy snacks, and wards off undue tiredness.

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.)

A Lesson Learned

For Greteman, simple changes such as eating a solid breakfast and preparing healthy take-along foods will help her achieve her academic best. "Being proactive about what she eats is important," says Litt. "It will allow her to have more control over the foods that she'll feel better about eating—and that will be better for her."

Dietitian Jane Motler attended university in London, where her favorite study snack was chocolate.