When finding time to study is your priority, preparing nutritious meals can easily fall to the bottom of your to-do list.
But preparing healthy food is well worth your time and doesn’t have to be a chore. Bristol-based nutritional therapist Haidee Harvey-Brown says making the right food choices can improve brain function, and make you a better student.
Get friendly with (healthy) fats
“Healthy fats are top of my list when it comes to foods for brain health,” she says. “Our brain is made up of at least 60% fat, which explains why low-fat diets can leave us with a lack of concentration and low mood.”
Cold water fish such as wild salmon, sardines, mackerel and trout are top sources of essential omega 3 fatty acids, which support memory and brain development. Easily work them into your diet by making simple dishes such as fish pies, to reap the rewards. Nuts and seeds – especially hemp, flax, chia and walnuts – are also good sources of omega 3 fats, and they contain fibre too, which can improve your digestive health.
“The much-loved avocado is another great option,” explains Harvey-Brown. “It boasts great levels of important vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E and potassium, as well as plenty of healthy fats.”
Eat plenty of brain boosters
When your studies leave you short of time, incorporate these nutrients into your diet by making smoothies based on berries and healthy fats. A spoonful of coconut oil, nut butter, chia seeds or half an avocado will give you a real boost, and you can also add protein powder or natural yoghurt – just make sure you go full fat for the big health benefits.
Red meat can be another component of a brain-boosting diet. Beef is rich in nutrients and contains beneficial fatty acids like omega 3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which scientists have linked to better brain function. But it’s important to include a good source of antioxidants in your diet too.
“For antioxidants try dark leafy greens such as kale, spinach, watercress or rocket, and berries such as strawberries, blueberries and goji berries,” says Harvey-Brown. “Leafy greens provide essential minerals such as magnesium, and berries are great for vitamin C. Colourful salads that contain leafy greens with a complete protein source such as salmon, tuna, chicken, beef or eggs, and healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, seeds or walnuts, works great.”
Ditch the processed snacks
Sometimes, though, getting a brain boost can be as simple as switching ingredients. Cacao – dark chocolate that contains 70% or more cocoa – is a low sugar alternative to milk chocolate. Instead of using olive oil, coconut oil has been linked to improved cognitive function and can be a long-lasting source of energy. One of the most important switches you can make is binning tempting convenience foods in favour of healthier alternatives.
“Processed foods can quickly spike your blood sugar levels thanks to added sugars. Although this provides an initial boost of sugar and energy, it often ends with a crash,” she says. “This leads to a roller coaster effect, of cravings and dips in cognitive function. Get carbohydrates from high fibre sources instead, such as root vegetables like sweet potato, carrots, parsnips, beets, and squash and small amounts of fruit – one to two portions a day.”
Take up batch cooking
Thinking more carefully about what you eat can also save you valuable studying time during the week, as preparing food in bulk at the weekend leaves you free to give studying your full attention during the week. Good, quick choices are a beef or bean chilli, chickpea or chicken curry with coconut milk and spinach, and stews or soups with added greens such as kale.
“Make up large salads and cooked vegetables before the working week starts,” says Harvey-Brown. “Cook up a couple of varieties of proteins; roast a chicken, hard boil some eggs or poach a few fish fillets for example. The night before or in the morning, assemble a meal by mixing pre-prepared salad, protein and your choice of healthy fat with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar for a quick packed lunch.”
Pay attention to the little things
Even details like how you cook can make a big difference, without taking up any more of your time. This is because commonly-used vegetable oils are full of trans fats, which have been linked to a host of diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
“Always fry or roast in good quality stable fats such as coconut oil or butter. Avoid processed vegetable oils such as corn, soy, rapeseed, rice bran and sunflower,” says Harvey-Brown. “Frozen fruit and vegetables are also a great cheap option. What people don’t realise is that they can sometimes be more nutrient dense than fresh ones.”
Next time you find yourself in a rush to quickly rustle something up and get back to studying, choose the right foods and you could also be serving up a boost for your memory, concentration and brain power.
Lauren Razavi is an award-winning writer and content strategist, and managing director of communications consultancy Flibl. She has worked on projects for leading global brands such as NatWest, Google and Facebook, and her writing focuses on technology, finance, entrepreneurship and innovation. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.