Chewing on food for thought

Teens can improve cognition and focus in school through diet, lifestyle.


Kristina Cary, Managing Editor

Although teens may try to maximize their performance in school by getting an adequate amount of sleep and reviewing class notes, they might not know that their diet can also be crucial to academic success, affecting how their brain functions.

“Everything that we put into our body affects the function of our body, whether it’s physical or mental,” Katie Morford, a registered dietitian who runs the blog “Mom’s Kitchen Handbook” said. “Some people don’t think about the fact that it’s actually the food that we’re taking in that nourishes not just how we perform on the soccer field but also how our brain works.”

The brain constantly requires glucose in order to function, as brain cells use that as an energy source, according to physiology teacher Raymond Cinti. Excess glucose is stored by the body as glycogen, dictating an individual’s blood sugar levels.

“As the blood level of sugar goes down, the body recognizes that and regulates it like a thermostat,” Cinti said. “The body releases more of its store in order to try to keep the blood sugar level constant. After awhile, the stores start to run out and the sugar goes down, and there are effects. Brain function is affected by that.”

Failing to eat or hydrate during the day can slow brain function, according to Morford.

“I used to have a habit of skipping breakfast, and that would just leave me feeling really fatigued in the morning,” junior April Matsumoto said. “I would have a hard time focusing on what was happening in class, and it pretty much affects me the whole day until I’m able to eat.”

For sustained alertness and cognition, Morford recommends eating balanced meals with protein, complex carbohydrates and some healthy fat throughout the day. Complex carbohydrates can be found in foods such as peas, beans, whole grains and vegetables.

“To eat a meal to sustain you throughout the day for most people would mean eating a very large meal, which can actually interfere with feeling very well,” Morford said. “If you had a huge meal at breakfast, you might not be able to concentrate. So you’re better of eating a breakfast and a lunch, and if you need a snack in between have a snack in between.

Some individuals may choose to supplement their diets with vitamins, such as vitamins B and C, which aid in the production of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers used by nerve cells within the brain, and vitamin D, which deals with an individual’s ability to think, concentrate and problem-solve, according to Livestrong.

“Vitamins play a role in all dimensions, certainly brain, but also in our immune system and energy levels,” Cinti said. “Regulating proteins rely on these little structures, and therefore they’re crucial. I think it’s not a bad idea just to take a multivitamin, just to make sure you’re getting all of your essential vitamins and minerals.”

While some people may choose to utilize supplements to enhance cognitive function, Morford recommends focusing on eating a balanced, wholesome diet.

“Something like Omega-3 fats, they’re not in a ton of foods,” Morford said. “There is a case where maybe supplementing with some fish oil may not be such a bad idea, but in general I’m not a big fan of neglecting the importance of filling up your diet with healthy foods. My own philosophy is that it’s best to focus on food.”