Cover for the blog Fuellin Success: Eating Smart and Thinking Smarter. Portrait of author, Elzaan van der Merwe with healthy foods on a green background.

This is not your typical New Year, New Me Diet plan – no calorie counting or intermittent fasting here. Instead, in this article we will delve into the art of “eating smart and thinking smarter”, showcasing how a diet that focuses on brain nutrition can significantly boost cognitive functions and give your academic endeavours a remarkable edge.

What is Nutrition?

Nutrition is about providing your body with a balanced diet to grow, stay healthy, work, study and function effectively. The World Health Organization views nutrition as a critical part of well-being and recognises that malnutrition can impact a community’s economic and social development.
What we put into our bodies plays a crucial role in shaping our physical health, cognitive functioning, and academic success. Making informed food choices, or eating smart, impacts your brain and intellectual development; therefore, understanding the foods, vitamins, minerals and substances that support brain health is essential.
Fun Fact: The human brain undergoes development until the late 40s, making it the only organ in the human body to have such a long developmental period.

What are Nutrients?

Nutrients are substances found in food that nourish the body, supporting overall health, brain, and physiological functions. Nutrients serve as the building blocks for the brain.

The effects of nutrients on brain health:

  • Nutrients can support the normal development of the brain and central nervous system.
  • Nutrients obtained from a diet are crucial for communication between nerve cells in the nervous system, influencing brain function and neurological health.
  • Nutrients act as an energy source for the brain.
  • Nutrients contribute to mood and sense of well-being.
  • Nutrients may enter or exit from cells related to thoughts, emotions, and stress.

How does eating smart affect academic performance?

  • Nutrition impacts academic performance by positively affecting students’ thinking abilities, behaviours and health.
  • Nutrition choices play a role in how students function to obtain and retain a true understanding of content.
  • Nutrition has been linked to enhanced memory and the brain’s learning potential. 
  • Eating balanced meals is associated with better academic performance, potentially due to improved diet quality.
  • Consuming nutritious food can lead to a satisfied body and mind, improving concentration, self-actualisation and sustained attention.
  • Nutrition can also affect sleep patterns. A lack of sleep can impair the brain’s ability to process information, remember theory, solve problems, and stay focused while studying or working. 

As we peel back the layers of nutrition’s impact on mind and body, it’s clear that eating smart and thinking smarter is not just a fleeting trend—it’s a lifestyle choice that resonates deeply with health and academic excellence. Recognising the interconnection between what we eat and how we think opens up a new dimension of wellness that far exceeds the confines of diet fads. In the following sections, let’s explore the practical steps you can take to incorporate this wholesome philosophy into your daily life, energising your body and empowering your mind to reach its fullest potential.

Essential nutrients for a healthy brain.

Embarking on the journey of “eating smart and thinking smarter” begins with an overview of the essential nutrients that serve as the cornerstone of brain health. Protein, fatty acids, vitamins, zinc and water collectively work behind the scenes to enhance your capacity for learning, understanding, and retaining knowledge.

1.       Protein

Proteins play a crucial role in brain function and the production of neurotransmitters. Also, diet patterns are linked to mood swings because neurotransmitters depend on protein intake.

Take note: Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers responsible for transmitting signals within the nervous system. An imbalance in neurotransmitter levels is associated with various neurological conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorders.

Consuming protein can help stabilise blood sugar levels, leading to sustained energy, focus, and concentration throughout the day. Therefore, stable blood sugar levels improve students’ cognitive function and emotional well-being, leading to increased focus, productivity and better mood stability during study sessions.

Examples of protein-rich, eating smart sources of food include eggs, fish, lean red meats, poultry (chicken, duck, etc.), pulses and legumes (lentils, chickpeas, black beans, soybeans, etc.), dairy products and vegetables such as spinach, mushrooms, sweet corn and peas.

2.       Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega fatty acids are essential fats the body cannot produce and must consumed as part of a healthy diet. These fats aid in protecting the nervous system and promoting cognitive function. They also reduce the risk of cognitive loss with ageing and provide essential heart, brain, and metabolism benefits.

Fun Fact: The brain is the fattiest organ in the body, consisting of a minimum of 60% fat. That is why consuming healthy fats such as omega-3s and omega-6s is a corner stone of eating smart for overall body and brain health.
Including these healthy fats in a diet or with supplements may contribute to students’ overall well-being, support their cognitive abilities, enhance concentration, improve memory and mental well-being, and protect the brain during periods of stress, potentially enhancing their learning experience.

Sources of healthy fats include fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, oysters, and shrimps, and vegetarian sources like walnuts, chia seeds, and soybeans.

3.       Vitamins

Vitamins are known for regulating normal body functions but are also crucial for maintaining brain health daily.

Include the following sources of vitamins in your diet: a wide variety of vegetables, dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli, etc.), whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, oats, etc.), eggs, poultry, and fruits.

A word of advice: During difficult life circumstances that provoke stress, registered dietician Lindie de Vos RD(SA) recommends taking multivitamins with high doses of B vitamins and minerals such as copper, zinc, and magnesium. It’s also helpful to increase protein intake throughout the day.

4.       Zinc

Zinc is a mineral that is essential for maintaining good health, particularly in terms of boosting immunity and improving brain function. Zinc is not only required for basic brain activities but also plays a vital role in the development and maintenance of the brain’s structure and communication pathways within the brain.

The part of the brain responsible for memory, the hippocampus, needs zinc to form new brain cells (neurons), which support the creation of new memories. Zinc improves information retention and enhances students’ ability to understand the content in their study material.
Include the following in your diet to increase your intake of zinc:  dark chocolate, eggs, poultry, nuts and seeds, spices, and condiments (cumin, paprika, ginger, black pepper, etc.)

5.       DRINK water!

Water is vital. It’s essential to drink enough water every day to prevent dehydration, which can lead to unclear thinking and mood changes. Studies show that staying hydrated improves memory, attention, decision-making ability, mood, and alertness, which are all important for academic success.

Drink at least 8-10 glasses of water throughout the day!

A tasty finale

A balanced and healthy diet does not only improve physical wellness but can also enhance cognitive well-being. Healthy brain function aids academic performance by sharpening focus, boosting memory, and enhancing overall mental clarity. In addition to academic performance, a nourishing diet contributes to improved mood and emotional well-being.

So, let this be a tasty reminder that your food choices are more than a meal – they’re a recipe for a brighter, healthier, and more vibrant you.

Cheers to eating smart and thinking smarter!

Special thanks to registered dietitian Lindie de Vos RD(SA) for their expertise and contribution to this article. Remember to always consult with a medical doctor or a registered dietician before you make any changes to your diet.

List of References

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Burrows, T., Goldman, S., Pursey, K., & Lim, R. (2017). Is there an association between dietary intake and academic achievement: a systematic review. Journal of human nutrition and dietetics : The Official Journal of the British Dietetic Association30(2), 117–140. https://doi.org/10.1111/jhn.12407

Burket, J. (n.d.). 22 Facts About the Brain. DENT Neurological Institute. Retrieved from January 26, 2024, from https://www.dentinstitute.com/22-facts-about-the-brain-world-brain-day/.

Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (2022, June 06). Water and Healthier Drinks. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/water-and-healthier-drinks.html

Gómez-Pinilla, F. (2008). Brain foods: The effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience9(7), 568-578.

Goyal, M. S., Iannotti, L. L., & Raichle, M. E. (2018). Brain nutrition: A life span approach. Annual review of nutrition38, 381-399. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-nutr-082117-051652

Mahan, L. K., & Raymon, J. L. (Eds.). (2017). Krause’s food & the nutrition care process (14th ed.). Elsevier. 

Kapoor, V. (2022, March 22). Nutrition and Academic Performance. Robert Kennedy College. https://blog.college.ch/health/effect-of-nutrition-on-the-brain/nutrition-and-academic-performance/

Leyse-Wallace, R. (2013). Nutrition and mental health. CRC Press.

Robertson, R. (2023, May 19). Omega-3-6-9 Fatty Acids: A Complete Overview. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/omega-3-6-9-overview

Susmita (2023, October 23). 8 nutrients that can sharpen your brain and memory. Health Shots. https://www.healthshots.com/healthy-eating/nutrition/best-foods-for-brain-health-8-nutrients-you-must-add-to-your-diet/

Silver, J (2023, May 25). Protein for ADHD: Boosting Brain Power and Focus. Accessible Wellness. https://jackiesilvernutrition.com/articles/protein-for-adhd/

Whatnall, M. C., Patterson, A. J., Burrows, T. L., & Hutchesson, M. J. (2019). Higher diet quality in university students is associated with higher academic achievement: a cross-sectional study. Journal of human nutrition and dietetics : the official journal of the British Dietetic Association32(3), 321–328. https://doi.org/10.1111/jhn.12632

World Health Organization. (n.d.). Nutrition. Retrieved January 30, 2024, from https://www.who.int/health-topics/nutrition#tab=tab_1

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