The best foods to improve learning outcomes

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Adults who may be considering a ‘return to education’ to improve their skillset and perhaps embark on a more fulfilling new career often experience a measure of unease at the prospect. Understandably, if you’ve been out of formal education for a long time, the prospect of returning can seem a little daunting. It’s easy to convince yourself that the brain has got a tad rusty, or that other students will be at an advantage if they’re more familiar with formal educational settings.

Thankfully, there are plenty of practical measures that you can take to prepare. For working adults with financial and family commitments, of course, returning to a campus-based program may well be out of the question – a fact of life increasingly recognized by traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities. This is why many of them have started offering highly flexible online qualifications that can be pursued mainly from home, around one’s existing life commitments, not in place of them.

Yet whether someone’s considering embarking on a campus-based program or an online degree, an often-overlooked fact remains: while practical preparations (such as getting familiar with class schedules and assignments) are important, nutrition is a crucial ingredient of successful learning outcomes. Here’s why.

Food, brains, and learning outcomes

The human brain represents just 2% of an average adult’s body weight – but it consumes 20% of the body’s energy. And if the supply of energy to this stupendously intricate organ is insufficient, major functions such as memory, physical mobility and perception can rapidly become impaired. 

The fact is that in relation to most other cells, neurons in the brain consume relatively huge amounts of energy, delivered to them in the form of two main raw materials: glucose and oxygen. In fact, when neurons are active, as, during the mental concentration and cognitive processing involved in studying, for example, they send signals to nearby blood vessels ‘instructing’ them to dilate and deliver more of the raw materials required for energy production.

Clearly, if a human brain is ‘compromised’ by insufficient sleep or poor-quality nutrients in the blood, its owner is going to struggle to learn optimally. If that owner has invested in a course of study with the potential to help them change careers in a more personally fulfilling direction – such as the rising numbers who are opting to study nursing online – a poor diet can impair their ‘return on investment’ by diminishing learning outcomes.

Since the uptake of professional online degrees such as this is growing precisely because of the life-changing career opportunities they open, it’s hardly a trivial matter to end up underperforming simply because of something as basic, and easily fixable, as nutrition. Top-tier online programs of this quality are often offered by long-established and prestigious campus universities such as the University of Indianapolis. If online students have access to distinguished academics, personalized student support, and placement coordinators to help them find practical clinical placements during their study, it would be beyond regrettable if they underperformed simply because their daily diets weren’t up to the job!

Here are some of the foods that research has consistently linked to improved brain health and, therefore, optimal learning outcomes.

Berries

Berries such as blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries are known to contain high levels of a group of complex flavonoid molecules called ‘anthocyanins’, which, besides having excellent anti-inflammatory properties, also help to increase blood flow (and therefore nutrients) to the brain. They enhance the signals that neurons exchange between one another and improve intricate biochemical mechanisms within nerve cells that are crucial to learning and memory.

For example, a 2019 study found that young adults who consumed a 400ml smoothie made of equal quantities of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries showed faster response times during attention and task-switching tests over six hours compared to a placebo group who hadn’t consumed the smoothie.

Citrus fruits

Fruits belonging to this group (such as oranges and grapefruit) contain high concentrations of other flavonoid compounds such as hesperidin, naringin, quercetin, and rutin. In addition to helping to protect neurons from injury, studies suggest that these molecules also enhance learning and memory. 

One 2015 study found that adults who consumed 500ml of pure orange juice each day for eight weeks showed better brain function in a range of tests compared to a control group who didn’t take a citrus drink.

Flavonoid-rich cocoa products

Essentially, whenever you see the word ‘cocoa’, think ‘flavonoid-rich’. And whenever you see the word ‘flavonoid’, think ‘improved brain function’. Cocoa and dark chocolate are loaded with important flavonoid compounds, and studies suggest that consuming 990mg of cocoa daily in a beverage improves performance in mental tests, enhances insulin sensitivity (which boosts brain function), and improves blood flow in the brain.

Eggs

The humble egg contains a range of brain-boosting nutrients beneath the shell. These include vitamin B12, which helps keep neurons healthy; choline, which is an essential building block of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (vital for memory storage and muscular functioning); and selenium, which is associated with a good memory, efficient cognitive functioning, and motor performance. One note of caution though: to get the full cognitive benefits, eat the white and the yolk. 

Fish

Oily fish are an excellent source of omega-3 fats, which are known to play a significant role in maintaining the healthy functioning of the brain. However, they also contain plenty of vitamin B12 and selenium, both of which (as we saw above with eggs) are strongly associated with brain health. 

Several studies reveal a strong correlation between fish intake and brain health, with one Japanese study linking higher consumption of oily fish with improved memory and brain health. A larger study of 17,000 schoolchildren found that those who ate 8 grams of fish per day scored higher in German and math tests than those who ate less or none. 

Conclusion

It’s not a myth or a fantasy: brains are what you eat, and regularly eating above-average quantities of the food categories mentioned above really does contribute to better brain health and better cognitive performance. 

This all translates into better learning outcomes when studying cognitively demanding subjects that require considerable ‘brain energy’ to process. So, eat well and learn deeply!