Food For Thought: Can Good Foods Keep Your Growing Brain In Tip-Top Shape?

You are what you eat. Everybody’s heard that old saying. However, it’s easy to forget that food fuels the human mind as well as the body. The brain isn’t a big organ, but it’s a greedy one. Up to one-quarter of all the energy you consume is burned up by the gray matter inside your head. To think right, you have to eat right.

Brain Superfoods?

It’s no surprise that sugary or fatty junk foods aren’t the best sources of nutrition. They can contribute to obesity and poor health. As it turns out, they can also muddy your thinking. Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles found that rats fed a junk-food diet did much worse on memory tests than did rats fed a balanced diet. And according to research described in the magazine New Scientist, kids who ate sugary breakfasts before school performed at the level of 70-year-olds on tests of memory and attention!

Fine, so you’ll skip the soft drinks and doughnuts before your next big test. What should you eat instead? Are there specific superfoods that will boost your brainpower and make you as brilliant as Einstein? “Probably not,” says Harris Lieberman, a nutrition researcher for the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. “The brain needs most of the things that the rest of your body needs. A balanced diet is just that–balanced.”


Balancing Act

Plenty of vitamins and nutrients have been linked to a healthy brain (see “Brain Boosters” below). But rather than seek out specific “brain foods,” it’s smarter to aim for a well-balanced diet. So what is the proper balance? “The brain needs protein, it needs carbohydrates, it needs fats,” Lieberman told Current Health 2.

Protein is used by the body to make the chemicals that transmit signals between neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain, Lieberman says. Digesting proteins triggers the release of certain brain chemicals that make you alert, according to Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Students who eat high-protein beans and toast for breakfast do better on tests than those who eat toast alone, researchers from the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom have found.

Although a high-fat diet can be bad for the brain, so is a diet without any fats at all. The brain is about 60 percent fat. But some fats are better than others. Evidence is stacking up that one group, the omega-3 fatty acids (substances found in some fish oils), is important for good health in the body and the brain. Lab animals that don’t get enough omega-3s have problems with learning. And omega-3s appear to slow dementia, the loss of memory and mental function, in elderly people. Most researchers agree that omega-3s are important for overall health in people of all ages.

Despite all the attention that low-carb diets have been getting lately, carbohydrates are important for keeping the brain running smoothly. “The brain prefers glucose as a fuel in order to think and work its best,” Sandon says. And glucose, a simple sugar that is the main energy for the body, comes from carbohydrates. However, Sandon says, complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains) are better than simple carbs (such as sugary snacks or refined white bread). “A simple carbohydrate like sugary cereal is absorbed and used up quickly [by the body], and halfway through a test, you get tired because your energy is used up,” she says. “Whole grain or bran will stay with you a little longer.”

Break for Breakfast

Good balance is about balancing your food intake throughout the day as well as the contents of each meal. One of the most important things to do, both Sandon and Lieberman say, is to eat a healthful breakfast. In the beans-and-toast study, eating beans boosted test performance, but the plain-toast eaters still did better on the tests than those who ate no breakfast at all. “Students who eat regular breakfast perform better in school than those who don’t,” Sandon says. She suggests a breakfast that combines protein and whole-grain carbohydrates, such as whole-wheat toast with peanut butter or oatmeal and a hard-boiled egg. “Kids should have a balanced breakfast,” Lieberman agrees, and should maintain a healthful balance in their meals throughout the day. If your body is hungry, so is your brain.

RELATED ARTICLE: brain fuel.

A balanced diet is the key to a healthy mind. Balanced meals include:

  • proteins, which the body uses to make the chemicals that transport messages between brain cells.
  • fats, especially good fats such as omega-3s, which are found in foods such as salmon. Fats coat the nerve cells in the brain, allowing messages to be transmitted quickly from cell to cell.
  • carbohydrates, which are the preferred fuel for the brain. Complex carbohydrates such as bran and whole grains are especially good for the mind because they are used more slowly than simple carbohydrates, so they keep everything running longer.


Brain food

Neuroscience for Kids: Nutrition and the Brain:

TeensHealth: The New Food Guide Pyramid: pyramid.html

How Your Brain Works:

How Food Works:

Brain Boosters

Many foods and nutrients help keep the gears in your
head turning smoothly. Here are a few examples.

Brain Boost Nutrients, Vitamins, Minerals Good Food Sources
Quick thinking Omega-3 fatty acids Salmon, almonds, seeds
Alertness Protein Legumes, nuts, fish, meats, chicken, eggs
Energy Carbohydrates Whole grains, cereals, pasta, breads, fruits
Souped-up memory Choline Egg yolks, liver, milk, soybeans
Overall brain health B vitamins Whole grains, cereals, meats, poultry, fish, legumes, eggs, dairy, nuts
Magnesium Whole grains, legumes, nuts, green vegetables
Potassium Apricots, avocados, fish, bananas, cantaloupes, strawberries, oranges, meats
Calcium Milk, cheese, yogurt


  • How much of the energy you consume is used by the brain? (up to one-quarter)
  • Why is a well-balanced diet important for brain health? (The brain needs all types of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, including protein, carbohydrates, and fats, to optimize its functioning.)
  • How do whole grains compare with simple sugars as brain food? (Whole grains take longer to break down, and they sustain energy longer.)
  • How can you change your eating habits to improve your brain’s health? (Answers will vary.)


Using the “Brain Boosters” chart as a starting point, students can research foods that are good for their brains. For homework, have them create a sample diet that would maximize the nutrients needed for brain health. Then ask them to compare their recommendations with the food served in your school’s cafeteria. Lead your students in lobbying for more brain-friendly meals and snacks.

Weir, Kirsten

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