UAlberta has tips on food for brain to maximize learning capacity

Food has a huge impact on learners’ ability to focus, and one dietician at the University of Alberta (Uof A) says humans need good fuel for their brains like “high-performance sports cars.”

“If you’re not fueling the body at regular intervals, the amount of sugar in your blood — which is really the fuel for your brain — will go up and down, up and down, which can really compromise your brain’s ability to function,” said registered dietitian at UofA Heidi Bates.

Bates says students can maximize their focusing abilities by eating every two or three hours during the day.

“Teachers can pick out the kids who haven’t had enough to eat before they come to school because they struggle to focus. They often report, ‘I’ve got a headache’ or, ‘I’ve got a stomach ache’ and they’re just kind of not with it,” Bates said.

Adults can suffer from lack of focus in many ways, including suffering from a headache and shakes in the morning, and being sleepy in the afternoon.

“If you haven’t had enough to eat, and you’re cruising on only a coffee, eventually you’re going to see that in your brain performance — and your physical performance as well,” she added.

To stay on top of everything throughout the day, Bates gives some advice regarding breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

‘Start your engine’

Bates says breakfast is important for our brain to start focusing, as by the time we wake up, our bodies might have no nutritious food to “start your engine.”

Meanwhile, she recommends eating at least three of the four main food groups at breakfast, including milk, protein, grains, and fruits and vegetables.

Other ideas for breakfast include cereal, toast with eggs, a small muffin and a banana. Bates prefers to make a smoothie with fruits — fresh or frozen, yogurt, ice, wheat germ or oatmeal, or anything available in the fridge.

“With the cost of food, and the price increases that we expect to see again this fall, I’m really conscious of not wasting food,” she said.

Bates says skim milk powder is a cheaper alternative to protein powder while having similar nutrition value.

Lunch ‘doesn’t need to be a feast’

Bates says, “Lunch doesn’t need to be a feast,” but it can be a sandwich to keep us focusing.

“Whether it’s on bread or a sub or a wrap, you have 100 per cent control over what you put in it,” Bates said. “Get a whole grain base, ask for double the vegetables, and pick your protein.”

She says ordering lunch for kids at school can be concerning.

“It’s convenient, yes, but expensive. And if you’re letting the kids decide what they’re going to order, it could turn out to be pretty shy on nutrition for the money,” Bates points out.

She adds people can cook extra food for dinner and bring them for lunch the next day.

‘Top up with Premium Fuel’

Bates says we can “Top up with premium fuel” by having healthy snacks, such as cheese sticks, hummus, and veggies, apple and peanut butter.

“The key thing with snacking is to make a healthy choice the easy choice,” Bates said.

She says people can pre-cut their veggies and fruits and leave them in the fridge for use whenever needed. People can buy already cut veggies and fruits at the grocery store to save extra time.

‘Power through the home stretch’

Bates says dinner is important as it helps us “Power through the home stretch,” saying to plan meals ahead of time.

When it comes to buying precooked food, she suggests buying soups and sandwiches instead of deeply fried, unhealthy choices.

She adds in case of having a certain food intolerance, such as dairy, getting checked at a doctor and asking for advice in choosing alternatives for the food intolerance will help.

“French fries are a vegetarian dish, but if that’s what you’re replacing a sandwich with, that’s not quite an equal trade-off nutritionally,” Bates said. “Get some good information if you’re going to pursue those kinds of dietary changes, so you know how to do it well.”

She also says people can freeze cooked rice and pasta over the weekend and microwave them whenever needed throughout the week.

You have exams or you’re an athlete? ‘Ace the final lap’

Bates says feeding our children nutrition in the last minute before their exam, dance, or competition isn’t the best thing to do.

“A lot of attention gets paid to the competition day, but in reality, what you’re doing day-in-day-out is more important,” she said. “The magic happens in practice, frankly, and if you’re not well-fed and well nourished, your practices are never going to be as great as they could be. And you’re going to compete at the level you practice at.”

She also adds teenage boys and girls need a huge amount of nutrition for their growth.


“Skipping meals is the kiss of death to good sport performance, because a young athlete’s calorie needs can be so high that if they skip a meal, they’ll never catch up,” she said.

Bates recommends staying hydrated, especially for junior hockey players, as she says a third of players arrive at the rink for practice already dehydrated.

She recommends not starting new routine habits just before the exam days or game days, such as drinking coffee, as this causes over-stimulation.

Bates says the best practice to ace exams and games is to have a good, nutritious breakfast, and a goodnight’s sleep.

Finally, she recommends drinking two cups of water every hour and asks people to keep a water bottle at hand to sip throughout the day.

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