What to eat to make learning easier

The human body needs the right fuel for optimal performance

When it comes to learning, registered dietitian Heidi Bates likens humans to “high-performance sports cars” that need injections of just the right fuel throughout the day.

Heidi Bates
Heidi Bates

“If you’re not fuelling the body at regular intervals, the amount of sugar in your blood – which is really the fuel for your brain – will go up and down, up and down, which can really compromise your brain’s ability to function,” she says.

For learners looking to maintain maximum focus, Bates’s best advice is to eat every two or three hours during the waking part of the day.

“Teachers can pick out the kids who haven’t had enough to eat before they come to school because they struggle to focus. They often report, ‘I’ve got a headache’ or, ‘I’ve got a stomach ache,’ and they’re just kind of not with it,” Bates says.

In adults, that lack of focus may show up as afternoon sleepiness at your computer or a headache and the shakes in the late morning.

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“If you haven’t had enough to eat and you’re cruising on only a coffee, eventually you’re going to see that in your brain performance – and your physical performance as well.”

Bates is director of the University of Alberta’s dietitian practicum program in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, nutrition lead for the Green and Gold Sport System and a sport nutrition consultant.

Bates shares her top eating tips for students of all ages to stay on track throughout the day.

Breakfast: Start your engine

It makes sense that breakfast is known as the most important meal of the day, because you likely haven’t eaten for eight to 12 hours. It’s too tempting to sleep in and just rush out the door without putting some good fuel in your tank.

Bates recommends covering at least three of the four main food groups at breakfast – milk, protein, grains, and fruits and vegetables – but, beyond that, there are lots of menu options. Sit down for a bowl of cereal or toast with eggs or grab a small muffin and a banana on the go.

One of Bates’s favourite choices is a smoothie, blending fresh or frozen fruit with yogurt and ice. She throws in wheat germ or oatmeal and whatever else she has on hand.

“With the cost of food and the price increases that we expect to see again this fall, I’m really conscious of not wasting food,” she says.

Bonus hack: Buy dry skim milk powder in bulk and use it instead of protein powder in your smoothie. “It’s a cheaper alternative that’s equally rich in nutrients,” Bates says.

Lunch: Keep revving

A trend that has Bates worried is parents and schools allowing kids to order their lunch from a meal delivery service like Skip the Dishes or Uber Eats.

“It’s convenient, yes, but expensive. And if you’re letting the kids decide what they’re going to order, it could turn out to be pretty shy on nutrition for the money,” Bates points out.

Whether you’re making lunch at home or ordering fast food, Bates cautions it doesn’t need to be a feast, just enough to keep your engine running. Her best bet for lunch is that old standby: the sandwich.

“Whether it’s on bread or a sub or a wrap, you have 100 per cent control over what you put in it,” Bates says. “Get a whole grain base, ask for double the vegetables and pick your protein.”

Bonus hack: Cook a little extra chicken or beef for supper the night before and tuck it into your lunch the next day. “Planned leftovers – that’s what chefs do,” Bates says.

Snacks: Top up with premium fuel

Every race car driver knows not to skip the pit stops. Bates says the best snacks include protein, such as a cheese stick paired with fruit, hummus with veggies or a hard-boiled egg with yogurt.

Her personal favourite? Cut an apple in half, core it and fill the well with peanut butter, then put the halves back together again and wrap for easy transport.

“The key thing with snacking is to make a healthy choice, the easy choice,” Bates says. That might mean spending a half-hour on the weekend cutting up veggies or fruit to store in your fridge so you can just grab them when you need them. Let’s face it; you’re not likely to feel like paring veggies when you’re hungry. If you see chips and pop first, research shows that’s what you’re going to pick, Bates reports, so set yourself up for success.

Bonus hack: Buy a pre-cut veggie or fruit tray or cheese sticks so you see something yummy and nutritious when you open that fridge door in search of something to munch on.

Supper: Power through the home stretch

Once again, a little planning ahead on the weekend can save you time when it comes to serving well-balanced suppers. Take advantage of slow cookers and instapots to save time. Use pre-cut or frozen veggies. If you are picking up fast food, focus on choices like soup, chilli or sandwiches rather than heavily breaded and fried options.

Someone in your family can’t tolerate a particular food like dairy or gluten? Bates recommends getting it checked out by a doctor for a specific diagnosis and advice on replacing the nutrients of the food group you’re cutting out.

The same should apply when kids want to cut out some foods for ethical reasons. “French fries are a vegetarian dish, but if that’s what you’re replacing a sandwich with, that’s not quite an equal trade-off nutritionally,” Bates notes. “Get some good information if you’re going to pursue those kinds of dietary changes so you know how to do it well.”

Bonus hack: Batch cook rice or pasta on the weekend and freeze it until you are ready to use it. Just microwave rice and dip pasta in boiling water before serving – another secret shared by restaurant chefs.

Athletics and exams: Ace the final lap

Whether your child is training for minor hockey playoffs, practising for a dance competition or prepping for a final exam, Bates says cramming in nutrition at the last minute isn’t the best way to achieve top performance.

“A lot of attention gets paid to the competition day, but in reality, what you’re doing day in, day out is more important,” she says. “The magic happens in practice, frankly, and if you’re not well fed and well nourished, your practices are never going to be as great as they could be. And you’re going to compete at the level you practice at.”

Bates says some young athletes, especially teenage boys and active girls going through a growth spurt, need a “scary” amount of nutritious food. That means three meals and three or four snacks a day.

“Skipping meals is the kiss of death to good sport performance because a young athlete’s calorie needs can be so high that if they skip a meal, they’ll never catch up,” she says.

According to Bates, a third of junior hockey players arrive at the rink for practice already dehydrated, so drinking lots of water is also key.

Caffeine? Not so much, especially if you are not used to drinking coffee. Game days or exam days aren’t a good time to start any new food habit, Bates says. Otherwise, you can wind up feeling overstimulated.

It’s not new or surprising, but Bates’s very best advice for top performance – both physically and mentally – is to get a good night’s sleep the night before, have a good breakfast and trust that your body and brain will stay the course.

Bonus hack: Keep a water bottle with you all day long so you can sip as you go. Bates says we should drink about 500 millilitres or two cups every hour.

| By Gillian Rutherford

Gillian is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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