5 May 2009 – Food for the Brain – By Karen Boyes
Children’s blood sugar level cycles about every 45 minutes. In adults, it’s every 90 minutes and in teenagers, about every 60 minutes. When their blood sugar levels are low, learning is difficult. Keeping your and their blood sugar levels up is important. However, what students eat is important. There are good foods for your brain and memory, and there are some not so good foods.
What is brain food?
To begin with, one the best food groups for your brain is protein. The best sources of protein are unsalted nuts, chicken and fish. Fish, for many years, has been called brain food. Fish contains essential oils and amino acids that your brain uses directly. I’m not talking about the processed “fish and chips” fish, or takeaway chicken, but fresh good quality fish and chicken.
Takeaway food looks quick and easy and even tastes good. On February 23rd 2002 I purchased a burger from a well known burger restaurant. I left it on a plate in my office. Four years later, this hamburger looks the same as the day I purchased it. The bread, cheese and meat hasn’t gone mouldy. There are so many chemicals in it making it look good and taste good, and it doesn’t have nutritional value for the brain and learning. Do this experiment in the classroom with your students – they will be amazed.
Another food group that is good for your brain is fruit and vegetables. Essentially, what your brain needs from fruit and vegetables is vitamin B and vitamin C. If you’re not getting enough vitamins B or C, you may find it a little harder to remember things. In fact, research shows that when elderly people supplemented their diets with vitamins B and C, their memory recall went up 100%.
There is one other food that is absolutely fantastic for the brain, and you can eat as much of this as you like — popcorn. Popcorn is a complex carbohydrate giving you lots of energy without the sugar rush. It is best eaten plain and unsalted. Many teachers through NZ have popcorn machines in their classrooms, allowing students to eat throughout the day. Teachers and students are finding it easier to concentrate, comprehension is going up and behaviour challenges are lessening.
What should my students avoid?
Sugar creates an addiction cycle in your body that makes the brain work overtime. When you eat something sweet, your body starts to pump adrenaline and you feel good – the sugar high. However, while your body is using the sugar, your pancreas produces insulin to bring your body back into balance. This makes you feel worse than you did before eating the sugar. Then you think you need something else sweet to eat, and suddenly you’ve set up an addiction cycle. It’s particularly detrimental for students around exam time and when they are studying because the brain focuses on the need for more sugar, rather than devoting energy to memory and learning.
Caffeine is found in tea, coffee, coke, pepsi and other manufactured drinks, cigarettes and chocolate. Smart drinks also have contain caffeine. Dr Batmanghelid, in his book “Your Bodies Many Cries For Water” states “It’s an elementary but catastrophic mistake to think caffeine drinks are a substitute for water.” He continues to say” It’s true they contain water, but they also contain dehydration agents and use the water they are dissolved in as well as the reserves from the body.” Caffeine is a diuretic and this means each cup or glass of caffeine that you drink dehydrates your body of up to three glasses of water. You may have a cup of coffee and then feel quite thirsty. You have another cup of coffee, become even more thirsty and have another cup of coffee.
Approximately 70% of our bodies are made up of water and over 80% of our brains are water. Not enough water can lead to dehydration which causes headaches, lack of concentration and focus and tiredness. Drinking at least six to eight glasses of water a day is important for health and success. Younger children should consume about 4 glasses of water a day. Allow students to rehydrate between classes. They do not need to be sucking on a drink bottle continuously in class. However at any time of stress the body also dehydrates. Have you ever stood up in front of a group to speak and your month suddenly goes dry? According to Dr Batmanghelid, the ‘dry mouth’ signal is the last outward sigh of extreme dehydration. Dr Carla Hannaford suggests under any stress the body needs two to three times the normal daily amount of water.
What can I do in my Classroom?
Many teachers are beginning to allow their students to eat during class. You may like to give parents a list of appropriate foods. Talk to you students about the positive role of nutrition and how it affects their performance, thinking and reaction times.
Too much time between eating can cause a loss of concentration and decrease alertness. This obviously has implications for skipping meals, especially breakfast and students who eat early before school and have nothing again until 10.30am.
Many schools are changing their bell times to allow students to eat regularly. In primary schools morning tea has been renamed ‘brain food break’ instead of ‘playtime’ with the emphasis on students refuelling for the next session. In general Primary schools bell times look like this…
10-10.15 Brain food break
15 -11.15 Class
15 -11.30 Brain food break
30 -1.15 Lunch
15 – 3pm Class
A shortened lunch time in most schools has been welcome as most of the behaviour challenges happen in the last 15 mins. Cutting this out has resulted in fewer playground incidences.
Many Secondary Schools have also shifted their bell times to avoid the after lunch tired or hyperactive students syndrome. Schools have two classes in the morning, then morning tea, two classes before lunch and only one class after lunch. Teachers have reported students being more focused and less likely to cut the afternoon class.