Last year, I presented at a high school about how to apply the skills and techniques of Olympians to get better marks. After the talk, a student asked me what he could do to ace his SAT exam. It was still a couple of months away, so he had time to do some things that would help – starting with food. Here is what I suggested:
The first thing that we did was to start eating healthy carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Your brain needs slow digesting complex carbohydrates to provide a steady source of glucose, which is the fuel your brain uses for thinking, solving problems, being creative and instilling memories. You need high quality fats because fats are used to build the structures in your nerves like cell membranes and the myelin sheath that protects the nerve and speeds communication between neurons. Healthy fats can be found in cold-water fish (organic / wild, not farmed salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel and trout), flaxseed, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, olive oil, avocado, and coconut. Proteins provide amino acids that are the precursors for the chemicals called neurotransmitters that are used at the synapses between neurons to communicate between nerve cells.
Eating breakfast has been consistently shown to improve academic performance, so I also made sure that he was eating a great breakfast every morning (protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates).
We also made sure that he got some polyphenols into his system every day, as they seem to improve memory, learning and cognition. Polyphenols are found in berries, kiwis, cherries, plums, black grapes, yellow onions, kale, coffee, and green and black tea. Foods high in polyphenols are also often high in vitamins and minerals. Vitamins and minerals are also key as they are used in the many intracellular processes that enable the nerves to function and they my even prolong the survival of individual nerve fibers!
I advised him to drink water all day. A high-functioning and energy-efficient brain needs lots of water. A study looked at the amount of brain activation required to complete tasks when hydrated vs. dehydrated and found that when dehydrated, subjects exerted a higher level of neuronal activity in order to achieve the same performance level.
I also asked him to avoid saturated fats and sugars. These poor nutrients reduce the ability of neurons to grow and make new connections, which is exactly what needs to happen for learning.
Today's POWER-UP: Nutrition Habits for SuperLearning
For optimal brain function, learning and memory you should do the following:
1. Eat breakfast. Ideally this should contain healthy fats, lean protein and healthy complex carbohydrates.
2. Have coffee or tea before learning or major mental tasks. Be careful not to have caffeine for about 6 hours before you plan on falling asleep.
3. Eat foods high in polyphenols. I suggest some berries (or other source you like) mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
4. Drink water throughout the day.
5. Avoid sugars, refined carbohydrates, processed foods and saturated fats.
Dive Deeper: The Exam Day Nutrition and Activation Plan
Wake up 6:30
Shower - hot water really hot!
Bring all your stuff downstairs
Recommend eggs (3-4) Avocado, some veggies, whole grain toast with coconut oil.
Water and green tea
7:45 drive to test for 8:15 arrival
Go for a hard 5-10 min walk
Drink some coffee or tea at 8:25. Cold if needed.
Go inside at 8:30.
Relax and chill
Bring nuts with you. Eat 1 big handful at 8:50
Sip water all morning.
Kick some ass.