Maximize Learning with Powerful Foods

brain food

“As you eat, so shall you think.” Everyday people make decisions about what to eat, and these foods have a direct impact on their quality of life.

Food for Energy

When we think of the purpose of eating good food, none is more important than the affect of energizing our bodies. However, many people might easily overlook one of the most powerful “foods” we can consume – water.   With so much focus on special drinks and proteins in much of today’s energy food marketing, water can be relegated to a less important role related to energy. The reality is that our bodies are made up of between 60-70% water, so we can actually survive as long as four to six weeks without food, but only three to five days without water! One reason for this vitality to life is that water carries the nutrients to the body’s cells.

Electrolytes are minerals in your body that have an electric charge. They are in your blood, urine and body fluids. Maintaining the right balance of electrolytes helps your body’s blood chemistry, muscle action and other processes.  Severe dehydration is deadly. But many people who drink less than the recommended 3 quarts of water per day (average person on an average day), experience milder, but noticeable symptoms such as fatigue and lack of energy. Dehydration affects learning too.

Water is stored in our brain cells or neurons in tiny balloon-like structures called vacuoles.   By the time a person feels thirsty, there may have been a loss of body weight up to 2% from water loss and a 10% cognitive decline. In fact, memory was improved among the children who had drunk water in one study. (Benton D., Burgess N. The effect of the consumption of water on the memory and attention of children. Appetite. 2009;53:143–146. [PubMed])

Bottom Line: Drink more water and less sugary drinks! The brain will work optimally when it’s well hydrated – so will your body too! If you need flavor, add lemons and limes; they are powerful for detoxifying the body.

Food For Students with ADHD

Multiple studies have been conducted and have brought good news to those raising and teaching ADHD and ADD affected kids. Simples changes in diet can dramatically help manage the symptoms.

Here is the latest research. In 2004, David Schab of the Columbia University Medical Center performed an analysis of all previous studies connecting food additives and symptoms. His work revealed that artificial food colors had a significant negative effect on focus and concentration and drove hyperactivity behavior in many children/teens.   Another study from the University of South Hampton showed that children without ADHD were impacted and made hyperactive by food additives. There was a clear “pharmacological” side effect – hyperactivity – associated with these additives. Lidy Pelsser, a researcher at the ADHD Centre in the Netherlands, conducted researched and connected food sensitivity and ADHD. Her study participants (50 children) were placed on a hypoallergenic diet. Over 60% of the children had “a significant” remission of symptoms.

There is more research, but the ones above provide a solid foundation as to the connection between diet and ADHD. To give students the best dietary-driven change in hyperactivity, here are a few important action steps. First, eliminate food additives. The preservative sodium benzoate appears to be the most critical one to avoid. Watch foods and medicines that contain salicylates, which have shown the ability to cause the symptoms of ADHD.   Consider a diet that eliminates dairy and gluten products for three weeks. After that time, reintroduce foods while observing behavior to determine potential drivers of ADHD in the child. Finally, use vitamin and mineral supplements to raise the level of micronutrients. While there is no one path that works for everyone, symptoms of ADHD can be affected through diet, providing a non-medicated treatment option.

The website has so much information about how foods with omega-3 or DHA in them contribute to healthy, focused brains. In fact, a deficiency in omega-3 in our brains, can cause many ADHD symptoms to arise. See the Food for Memory subheading below for more information. Also this article is a good reference: Why We Need To Supplement Minerals.

Food For Overall Brain Health

Because we are living, breathing human beings, we will all have a by-product in our brains called free radicals. Free radical can cause the brain to go rancid and can cause so many of the diseases that we know that affect the brain. They can cause cancers and other genetic diseases to be “set off.” The only way to eliminate these free radicals is to consume lots of antioxidants. I’m sure you have heard of these before: eat dark chocolate because they have more antioxidants than milk chocolate. Antioxidants kill off free radicals that love to hide out in the fat of the brain.

Make sure you eat plenty of foods rich in antioxidants which are found in vegetables and fruit. The foods highest in antioxidants are: cranberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, spinach, broccoli, beans, artichokes and Russet potatoes, dark chocolate, black and green tea, heated tomatoes, and other colorful fruits and vegetables. Pecans, walnuts, and hazelnuts are ranked the highest in the nut category. Usually, the more colorful the fruit or vegetable (berries are bright in color), the higher ORAC level they contain (this is how antioxidants are measured). Flavonoids are the biggest class of antioxidants. Researchers have identified some 5,000 flavonoids in various foods. Polyphenols are a smaller class of antioxidants, which scientists often refer to as “phenols.”

The body needs a mix of vitamins and minerals, such as these top antioxidants of vitamins A, C, E, lipoic acid and beta-carotene, to neutralize this free radical assault. “We can’t rely on a few blockbuster foods to do the job,” says Blumberg. “You can’t eat nine servings of broccoli a day and expect it to do it all. We need to eat many different foods. Each type works in different tissues of the body, in different parts of cells. Some are good at quenching some free radicals, some are better at quenching others. When you have appropriate amounts of different antioxidants, you’re doing what you can to protect yourself.” (Blumberg, 2008 WebMD, LLC.)

Food For Good Moods

There is a significant amount of research that has shown a clear link between food and mood. The reason is simple – diet impacts the brain both chemically and physiologically, and that leads to changes in behavior. There are other factors, that combined with food, affect the way we feel. Many of these factors, such as weather, hormones, stress levels, amount of sleep, and other people are less controllable than food, so here are a few tips to ensure diet maximizes your mood.

Serotonin is the brain’s mood regulator. The brain synthesizes serotonin with tryptophan, that is a nonessential amino acid found in most protein-rich foods, and Vitamin B. Researchers discovered that rather than simply eat more protein-rich foods, carbohydrates play an important role. Carbohydrates help tryptophan to reach the brain. The key is to eat the right types of carbohydrates, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. These complex carbohydrates allow for a gradual rising and lowering of blood sugar within our bodies and brains which is wonderful for learning. Sharp spikes of blood sugar levels (from eating a donut, cookie, Pop-Tart, and/or sugary cereal with no protein to slow it down) are not good for the body or brain and can even cause Type II diabetes. Instead of simple carbohydrates like the latter list, eat whole wheat or whole grain toast, oatmeal, fruits or vegetables (contain fiber too) which slow the rate of absorption of sugar. Did I mention that complex carbohydrates are loaded with nutrients that the brain must have to even make powerful neurotransmitters so learning can even occur?

Breakfast has an amazing impact on mood. It is the most important meal of the day, as the brain can never regain the positive effects that breakfast leaves on it. A good breakfast includes high-fiber, low-fat, low-sugar carbohydrates, along with some protein. Many of the typical “breakfast” foods, such as sweet cereals and baked goods, are loaded with sugar. Within 30-60 minutes, blood sugar will drop quickly, leaving the individual with less energy, and more easily frustrated. Conversely, eating a good breakfast improves cognitive performance and the ability to handle complex tasks. Boys and girls showed enhanced spatial memory and girls showed improved short-term memory after consuming oatmeal, which provides a slower and more sustained energy source and consequently may result in cognitive enhancement compared to low-fiber, high glycemic ready-to-eat cereal (Mahoney, Taylor, Kanarek, & Samuel, 2005).


Neurons or brain cells need the following two main fuels in order to function – oxygen and glucose. Neurons cannot store these fuels, rather they use them up readily. A constant supply of these fuels is required for the brain to function. This indicates that in addition to eating three balanced meals a day, the brain benefits from several small snacks so that there is a supply of glucose when needed. Children’s brains need a refill on glucose about every 60-90 minutes. Cognitive performance can suffer when blood glucose concentrations are low (Gold, 1995). We believe that children in grades K-12 need a powerful brain snack either before or after lunch (depending on the time of lunch).   The following list of foods has great choices for snacks: nuts of any kind as long as there are no allergies; bananas, apples, raisins, grapes, oranges, strawberries, blueberries, and other fresh fruits; carrots, celery, red peppers, broccoli, cucumbers, and other vegetables (even pack a dip if kids must have it); whole wheat crackers and real cheese; yogurt with no food coloring and low sugar; whole wheat pretzels; trail mixes; pretzel rods wrapped in turkey; pita bread and hummus as dip; popcorn; soy chips or vegetable chips. Protein + Whole Grain = GREAT SNACK



Foods For Memory


What do you think of when you see Omega-3? If you have followed basic guidelines of food and nutritional supplements, you likely have heard about the connection between Omega-3 and the brain. Specifically, Omega-3 is a fatty acid that has been found to protect against “brain damage”. The brain transfers information through neural pathways where synapses are the connection points. These synapses are chemical connections between brain cells that actually enable learning and memory.


Historical studies focused on the impact of Omega-3 on the elderly and people with certain medical conditions. But research by a group at the University of Pittsburgh showed that levels of Omega-3s correlate with effective working memory.


A working memory test, known as “n-back test”, was then given to the participants, in which they were provided a series of letters and numbers. They had to remember what number/letter had been revealed one, two, and three times prior. The participants took an Omega-3 supplement for six months, and then completed the n-back test again. Results showed a definitive connection between working memory performance and Omega-3 levels. When working memories are strong and effective, learning gets so much easier!


Omega-3 fatty acids come in more than one form. The types found in fish, called DHA and EPA, seem to have the strongest health benefits. Another form known as ALA is found in vegetable oils, flaxseed, walnuts, and dark leafy vegetables such as spinach. The best sources of DHA include salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed. Flaxseed in particular is highly versatile, and can be added to nearly any baked item that includes flour – helping to get the valuable DHA unobtrusively into the diet.



You now have enough information to either explore these topics further (volumes of books are written about each of these subheadings) or take action when you shop for your food next. Foods make a big difference in our overall health, and especially our brain-health. Remember, as you eat, so shall you think!


Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: or visit her website:

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