nutrition and academic performance

Nutrition: how a balanced diet can make you a better student

Posted on by Dr Tony Steele Posted in General

When you go off to university it can be all too easy to put healthy eating on the back burner. It may be a matter of too many assignments, studying for exams or even too many nights out. Some students feel that their budget does not extend to eating healthily, and rely instead on pot noodles and Domino’s offers as a cheap and easy alternative to balanced meals.

One simple fact cannot be ignored: being poorly nourished could affect your concentration. Your energy levels could decrease and your academic career might become an uphill battle. A balanced diet could help boost academic performance and enhance your university experience. A few small changes can make all the difference.

Balance is key

Before you begin to formulate a balanced diet, it is important to understand what a balanced diet is. It should include a wide range of fruit and vegetables, starches (a whole meal if you can), dairy products, proteins such as lean meats or pulses, and just a small amount of refined sugar and fats. If your current diet is missing something from the list or you normally consume food from just one food group, you may need to make some changes.

Creating balance within your diet begins with monitoring your meals and making a conscious effort to eat from the various food groups throughout the day. A balanced diet can help you study.

A word on calories

Counting calories is important, as is understanding how your body uses energy. The number of calories you consume should correspond to the amount of physical activity you undertake. If you are an Olympic level swimmer with a large caloric output you might actually require an 8,000 calorie a day diet. But, if you’re studying for exams and you spend your average day sitting in front of a computer, your energy requirements are far less. It can be all too easy to make your way through an entire pizza, however a few slices would provide you with sufficient energy to carry out your daily activities.

In fact, energy from simple carbohydrates like those found in white pizza dough, white bread, white rice and pasta tends to burn a lot quicker than the energy provided from proteins and complex carbohydrates.

To maintain your dietary balance, if you do indulge in pizza, be sure to include a healthy dose of lean protein and some complex carbohydrates from vegetables and fruit with your meal and throughout the rest of the day.

The right space

Depending on where you live you may have a small shared kitchen, or no kitchen at all. This can make it difficult to prepare a healthy meal. You may find yourself resorting to take aways like fish and chips or value price microwave meals from your local supermarket, but keep in mind that they are not your only option!

Once you get into the habit of creating healthy meals you will see that there are endless numbers of student friendly recipes, and many of them do not require fancy kitchen equipment. In the Food Network’s roundup of 101 Essential Student Survival Recipes you’ll find recipes like no-bake macaroni and cheese, veggie lover’s club sandwich and many other dishes that take minutes to make.

There are even entire websites dedicated to cooking with your microwave only, as well as sites that offer extensive lists of no-cook options.

Fruits are great for university students, as they are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and can be grabbed on the go. Most require little to no preparation and should last at least a few days at room temperature.

The first meal of the day

It can be hard to wake up for that first early class, and in the rush to get to the lecture you may end up skipping breakfast. Not eating might help you get there on time, but it isn’t the best way to get the most out of the lecture.

There is a reason why breakfast is called “the most important meal of the day”. Having fasted for hours before, your body needs nutrients and fuel for energy. Your metabolism is ready to process the foods you consume. Not having breakfast could reduce your concentration and could prevent you from retaining information. Having breakfast has also been shown to help maintain a stable body weight.

You don’t have to wake up extra early to cook your morning meal; a simple breakfast of whole meal toast, yoghurt and fruit can kick start your metabolism and fill you with energy.

Brain food

Not created equal, and it is said certain options might actually help boost your memory and perhaps even make you a better student.

Nuts, seeds and other foods with a high vitamin E content are said to help increase memory skills. Pulses could help stabilise your glucose levels, which is important. Glucose is the fuel your brain uses to function.

Whole grains can help you keep your energy levels up for those long study sessions, and fatty acids (found in salmon and avocados among other things), could help keep your brain sharp and in top form.

If you are really looking to get the most nourishment and brain power out of your weekly food shop, try to incorporate some of the following into your list. Although the research is inconclusive, these among others have been called super foods. Whilst they may not stop the aging process or prevent disease, they are packed with nutrients and antioxidants, and can fill some of your daily nutritional requirements in small portions:

  • Broccoli
  • Blueberries
  • Oily fish
  • Green tea
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes
  • Garlic
  • Beetroot
  • Avocado
  • Quinoa

It is also important to stay hydrated, so if you went out the night before drinking plenty of water will help bring you back to life for another day of classes.

Eating healthy while in school can be a challenge, but it is one worth taking on. Simply committing to consuming a balanced diet is the first step.

As you learn about other subjects, do take the time to consider the best foods for your body and mind; nourishing yourself well is a life skill that will benefit you long after you graduate. Plus, the better your diet, the more you’ll get out of your university experience.