Food for thought - study snacks

Apr 25, 2016

Food for thought: what are the right foods to eat as brain food

Those of us with well-meaning spouses/parents/housemates/children who have studied part-time may have been visited by their adoring family at intervals carrying a cup of hot coffee and a plate of Jammie Dodgers and chocolate Hob Nobs. We may not have articulated it at the time, but we loved them a little more at times like this as we grunted a “thanks” and returned to kicking the printer or rifling through a folder muttering “Where the F is that article?” as they retreated to return to Match of the Day.

Studying is all about the brain and what we eat can have a huge effect on how well we take on and retain information. Similarly, the food we eat can give us the right energy kick at the right time. Part time study can often be synonymous with late night study. If you have just done a day at work followed by domestic "bliss" and even an extra-curricular activity like the gym or a hobby, you will need an energy kick. Note, energy kick, not sugar kick. Put the Hob Nobs away, folks.

So, if we’re calling in the heavy hitters to legally keep us awake and alert, what should we be having, and perhaps more importantly, what should we not eat?

Sugars and carb-heavy foods are generally not great at times like this. You will get a fairly immediate boost of energy which is great but short-lived and, what is perhaps worse, followed by a detrimental slump. While you might have foreseen a three hour stint at the desk, you may get a good 20 minutes of activity followed by a wandering mind, lethargy and sleepiness. Worth the chocolate or Big Mac? No!

It's reasonably predictable what we should we eat for greatest mental productivity.

  • Greens: broccoli, cabbage and spinach are particularly good (Popeye knew his stuff!) These have also been linked with avoidance of memory loss
  • Grains: Wholegrain cereal, wholegrain bread, brown rice and wholemeal pasta are great for slow-release energy to keep your brain alert throughout the day
  • Nuts: they are high in energy and “good” fats as well as iron and can give you the boost of sugar without the low that follows
  • Fish: there was something in the Salmon of Knowledge story. Oily fish is rich in Omega 3 which is linked with higher and better brain activity. Salmon, sardines, trout, mackerel, herring and kippers are particularly good
  • Blueberries: superfood salads with blueberries are all the rage and for good reason; they (and other berries too) are antioxidants, improving blood flow to the brain thus boosting neural activity
  • Coffee: really??! Yes! But sparingly. Caffeine will give you a boost. A cup or two a day can give you the wake up you need, but don’t exceed that – you will be jittery and lose concentration if you rely on it too much, not to mention risk sabotaging sleep. Aim for a couple of cups and not after about 4pm. After this, go for herbal teas if possible

It’s no surprise really that all of these are “good” foods, and you will find yourself much more productive if you try to fit these into your mealtimes and snacks.

A final few tips:

  1. Throw out the junk: if you know you’ll be tempted and study at home, ditch the biscuits and crisps. The only way to avoid temptation is to not buy it in the first place.
  2. Snack wisely: yoghurt, fruit, nuts, cereal are better than higher calorie, higher sugar hits. Soup is also good as it gives you the extra satisfaction of a hot food. Eating protein with your snacks and meals keeps you feeling fuller for longer, add a small handful of your favourite nuts or seeds to your snacks.
  3. Don’t skip meals: try to eat well and regularly throughout the day. If you skip a meal you’ll be ravenous and eat the first thing in sight which is likely to be fast food or junk food.
  4. Fluids: drink plenty of water. What you think might be hunger attracting you to a quick-fix snack might be dehydration. Your body and mind will thank you for plenty of water throughout the day. Avoid sugary energy drinks: they are diuretics which will just dehydrate you more.
  5. Have breakfast everyday: It can’t be overstated how important it is to start your day with a proper breakfast. Again, avoid Frosties and Coco Pops: high sugar, processed foods really won’t keep you going. Try for wholegrain toast, eggs, fruit, porridge, wholegrain cereal, sugar-free muesli and natural yoghurt which will leave you feeling satisfied for longer. Breakfast really is your scaffolding for the day.
  6. Walk on your breaks: getting up and walking around for a couple of minutes or having a stretch will get the oxygen flowing and your metabolism going. Aim for a little break about every hour.
  7. Reduce alcohol to reduce dehydration and help with overall mood and motivation.
  8. Practice mindfulness or a form of relaxation you enjoy: One of the first systems in the body to shut down when you are under stress is digestion as well as immunity. By reducing overall stress you not only create a better mental outlook you also allow your body to perform other vital functions optimally. 

Tuck in and good luck!

Amy Dawson

Amy is a member of the Specialist Qualifications team at Chartered Accountants Ireland.