Numerous new studies show a promising link between good nutrition and optimal academic performance.
So, let’s explore whether you should start drinking green smoothies and munching on kale chips to increase your likelihood of getting that ACT score or grade you want (to use a few examples of strategies we've encountered...).
Starting at birth studies show that nutrition can drive intellectual development, as children who breastfeed were associated with better academic and intellectual performance (Horwood et al., 1998). Indeed, Horwood’s study actually showed small but significant performance increase that was both pervasive across various standards and long lasting. A 2008 study by Florence, in the Journal of School Health, further illustrates the validity of this claim by surveying 5,800 5th grade students in Nova Scotia, Canada in one of the largest nutritional cohort studies ever done in schoolchildren. After assessing the students on several factors to measure the effects of diet quality on academic performance, multilevel regression methods were used and data was adjusted for gender and socioeconomic status of their parents. The data clearly showed not only an association between diet quality and academic performance, but it also helped identify specific dietary factors that contributed to this association (Florence et al, 2008).
Tip #1. Breastfeed your children (if you can).
So it seems like “we are what we eat” right from birth. If that is indeed the case, what should we be doing to maximize our academic potential in the middle school through graduate school years?
You’ve probably heard about the “most important meal of the day”. Yes, I’m talking about breakfast! A multitude of new data is showing that consuming some tasty eggs or oatmeal in the morning after you wake up can have benefits ranging from metabolism stimulation to increased energy levels, increased focus and even weight loss! Indeed, a survey study of breakfast eaters vs. non-breakfast eaters showed that although eaters of breakfast generally consumed on average more calories per day, there was no prevalence of obesity or overweight tendencies in breakfast eaters (Barr et al., 2015).
Tip #2. Simply eat breakfast!
So far, the good news is that eating more food (such as breakfast) will make you more prone to better health and smarts! What if I now told you that eating fatty food would improve your cognition too? Sound crazy? It’s true! But not just any fats. So if you were on your way out the door to grab some Mickey D’s for your pre-study snack, think again! The fats your body, and more importantly, your brain needs are called Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT’s). These fat molecules are able to readily travel the body and enter mitochondria, our cellular powerhouse, without the need of special transport molecules called chylormicrons (Page et al., 2009). They are found naturally in coconut oil and palm kernel oil, and medium chain triglycerides are also sold as dietary supplements.
You will soon see that the last dietary tip in this article is to eat less refined sugars. Normally, your body burns sugar first for energy. However, MCT’s provide your body with an alternate fuel source that is readily absorbed and shown to increase cognitive performance.
Studies also show that consuming omega 3 fats, typically found in nuts like almonds and fish like salmon, have positive effects on infant brain development, adult ability to focus, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Tip #3. Eat good fats.
This one might sound like a “no-brainer”, but genuinely ask yourself this question: Are you drinking enough water? Indeed, this is a question you have probably pondered many times before. If you are most Americans, the answer to that question is most likely “No!” A 2013 study by Riebl demonstrated mild dehydration (i.e. 1–2% body water loss) might in fact impair cognitive performance. So do yourself a favor and stay hydrated during those cram sessions!
Tip #4. Drink enough water.
There’s one more factor we shall discuss in regards to modulating diet to maximize academic performance. I’d like to call my friend Captain Obvious to the rescue here. Here’s what Captain Obvious has to say, “eating junk foods, especially with too much refined sugar, is bad for you, your health and your grades!” Indeed, a 2015 study by Burrows published in Public Health Nutrition demonstrated worse academic performance in Language & Mathematics in students that ate unhealthy snacks at school. There’s a barrage of new research surfacing on the negative effects of refined sugar in particulr. Some studies show that refined sugar is just as addicting has hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin! How the sugar industry can get away with something like that is a discussion for another time. For now, steer clear of the Twinkies and Cheetos and opt for the apple and broccoli!
Tip #5. Eat less sugar.
Let’s sum up the dietary changes you can make today to improve your grades and academic performance:
- Breastfeeding: Okay, so this isn’t something a student can do, but it’s definitely something an expecting parent can take into account!
- Eat Breakfast
- Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT’s) and Omega 3: Coconut Oil, Avocados, MCT oil, Almonds, Walnuts and Salmon
- Drink more water!
- Eat less refined sugar and junk food
Whether eating healthy and good grades was something already obvious to you, or whether this information was new to you, either way, the science shows by taking control of your diet and nutrition, you can take control of your academic performance! Such research calls for emphasis on nutrition programs offered by schools to encourage healthy eating. Hopefully, over time, we can change our ways and develop a generation of smarter, healthier students!
About the Author
Gaurav Dubey is a biology, chemistry, mathematics, and ACT/SAT tutor from Naperville, IL who has worked with MyGuru for several years. He attended the University of Miami, where he earned his B.S. in Biology and his B.A. in Philosophy. He went on to earn his Master's of Science in Biotechnology at Rush University before working at the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics and creating his first scholarly publication on using stem cells to create neurological disease models. Recently, he was accepted to the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine to earn his PhD as a PIBS (Program in Biological Sciences Student).
He is also the founder of The Biolitics Podcast, a show aimed at discussing modern day, hot button biopolitical and bioethical issues that are in constant debate. More than just a show, BIOLITICS is a movement that attempts to make science more accessible to everyone in hopes of inspiring minds, both young and old everywhere, to view the world through the lens of the natural born scientist we all have within us.
Barr, S. I., DiFrancesco, L., & Fulgoni, V. L. (2015). Association of breakfast consumption with body mass index and prevalence of overweight/obesity in a nationally-representative survey of canadian adults. Nutrition Journal, 15, 10.1186/s12937-016-0151-3. doi:151 [pii]
Correa-Burrows, P., Burrows, R., Orellana, Y., & Ivanovic, D. (2015). The relationship between unhealthy snacking at school and academic outcomes: A population study in chilean schoolchildren. Public Health Nutrition, 18(11), 2022-2030. doi:10.1017/S1368980014002602 [doi]
Florence, M. D., Asbridge, M., & Veugelers, P. J. (2008). Diet quality and academic performance. The Journal of School Health, 78(4), 209-15; quiz 239-41. doi:10.1111/j.1746-1561.2008.00288.x [doi]
Horwood, L. J., & Fergusson, D. M. (1998). Breastfeeding and later cognitive and academic outcomes. Pediatrics, 101(1), E9.
Page, K. A., Williamson, A., Yu, N., McNay, E. C., Dzuira, J., McCrimmon, R. J., & Sherwin, R. S. (2009). Medium-chain fatty acids improve cognitive function in intensively treated type 1 diabetic patients and support in vitro synaptic transmission during acute hypoglycemia. Diabetes, 58(5), 1237-1244. doi:1557 [pii]
Riebl, S. K., & Davy, B. M. (2013). The hydration equation: Update on water balance and cognitive performance. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, 17(6), 21-28. doi:10.1249/FIT.0b013e3182a9570f [doi]