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Why is food so important for your brain to function?

Introduction

The human brain consumes 20% of the body’s energy. In fact, our brains use more energy than any other organ. Where does this energy come from? Food. Food is our brain’s “fuel” and what constitutes this “fuel” makes a significant difference not only to our cognitive function, but also to our overall health (Selhub, 2016).  A nutritious and balanced diet is pertinent in ensuring that our brain functions at its best. Therefore, by focussing our attention on the foods we eat, and maximising our nutrient intake, we are able support both our short-term and long-term brain function. Ultimately, the “fuel” we ingest impacts how our brains perform physically, emotionally and academically.

 

What foods should I eat?

There’s no magic formula which gives us the ‘ideal’ combination of foods to boost our brain function (Avery, 2020). Instead, one must focus on balance.

High-quality foods that should be incorporated into our diet include: fatty acids, antioxidants, and a range of vitamins and minerals. These all protect our brain from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is the production of waste products known as ‘free radicals’ in our body. These waste products arise naturally when the body uses oxygen, and can damage our brain cells. Here are some examples of high-quality foods that are beneficial for our mind and bodies and why:

 

FOOD IMPORTANCE
Green vegetables (e.g. spinach, kale, broccoli) High in vitamin K, folate, lutein and beta-carotene.

 

These nutrients have shown to slow cognitive decline (Morris et al. 2016)

Fatty fish (e.g. sardines, salmon, cod) High in omega-3 fatty acids.

 

These fatty acids are essential to the formation of brain tissue and improve cognitive function (Bauer et al. 2014)

Berries Contains large amounts of flavonoids

 

Consuming flavonoids is associated with improved cognition (Miller et al, 2018) and improved memory (Avery, 2020)

Nuts High in omega-3 fatty acids (same reasons as above)
Turmeric Contains the active compound curcumin which has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits on the brain.

 

In animals, turmeric has shown to cause improved learning and memory (Khalid et al. 2017)

 

Low-quality foods on the other hand are often highly processed and refined. They tend have a low fibre content and are often digested quickly. Quick digestion means we experience fluctuations in our blood glucose levels which can be harmful to brain health, as well as affect our mood. Refined foods, specifically sugar, have also shown to promote inflammation and oxidative stress.

 

Impact of food on emotional and mental health

So far, we have mainly looked at the benefits of nutrition on cognition and it’s easy to forget the variety of other benefits a healthy and balanced diet provides us with. Of course, what we eat impacts our physical health. Studies have shown that there is also an association between food and our mental health and wellbeing (Mental Health Foundation, 2018). For example, a study by Parletta et al. (2017) showed that a Mediterranean-style diet (high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, fish etc.) was associated with reduced depression amongst participants. This was sustained for 6 months after the intervention. The significance of nutrition in childhood has also been widely studied. Poorer diets which predominantly constitute of poor-quality foods (e.g. with high levels of refined sugars, saturated fats etc.) are associated with experiences of poorer mental health in children and adolescents.

Nevertheless, the association between food and mental health is complex and indeed, nutritional psychiatry is a rapidly evolving field of research. The key thing to take away is that how we feel can impact how we behave, and therefore how we approach demanding tasks such as our academic work.

 

Conclusion

For the majority of us, there are probably quite a few dietary improvements we can think of which would be beneficial to our health. It’s important to recognise that it is never too late to amend our diets, or that of our children. Ultimately, the “You are what you eat” saying is highly relevant in nourishing our brains and small daily changes will amount to large improvements for the long-term!

 

References

Eva Selhub, 2016: Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food.

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626

Aspen Avery, 2020: How Nutrition Impacts the Brain and Mental Health

https://thewholeu.uw.edu/2020/03/02/nnm-2020-nutrition-and-the-brain/

Morris et al, 2016: Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline

https://n.neurology.org/content/90/3/e214

Bauer et al, 2014: Omega-3 Supplementation improves cognition and modifies brain activation in young adults

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24470182/

Miller et al, 2018 (Dietary Blueberry Improves Cognition Among Older Adults in a Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28283823/

Khalid et al. 2017: Pharmacological Effects of Turmeric on Learning, Memory and Expression of Muscarinic Receptor Genes (M1, M3 and M5) in Stress-induced Mouse Model

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28302036/

Mental Health Foundation, 2018:

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/d/diet-and-mental-health

 

 

 

Why is Exercise important in a busy Exam Period?

Exam time is pressurising. Late nights, last minute preparation, irregular sleeping patterns and eating times are characteristic of exam period. Exam stress can result in anxiety and increased chances of succumbing to illnesses. Getting unwell can undermine your efforts and so maintaining good health and a positive attitude to study is key. Physical activity (PA) is a fantastic adjunct to help relieve stress during exams, whether its KS2 SATs, 11+, GCSEs or A-levels! In addition, PA actually has multiple benefits on brain function, helping you to study efficiently.

Cognition is the process through which an individual acquires knowledge and develops understanding via thought processes, experiences and study. Research on the effects of physical activity (PA) on the cognitive function of children shows improvements in attention; thinking capability; articulation as well as learning and memory.

 

Attention

Kubesch et al. (1) have shown that regularity of PA in children is positively correlated with their ability to focus within the classroom. Interestingly, those children who exercised were able to maintain their attention even through the third hour of lessons, which is usually the time when attentional processes start to deteriorate.

 

Thinking Capability

‘Thinking’ is defined in this context as the cognitive functions involved in abstract thinking, planning, creative thinking and assessing cause and effect. PA helps to develop creativity in children. Research has demonstrated that unorganised PA, such as going to the park, improves thinking capability more than organised sports activities, such as drills and circuits (2). However, it is important to note, that any physical exercise is better than none at all.

 

Articulation and Language

Scudder et al. (3) showed that there was a positive relationship between PA and lexical networks in children, allowing them to comprehend text, spell and detect grammar and syntax errors with greater accuracy.

 

Learning and Memory

Working memory is the type of memory used for short-term to middle-term retention of information and is important in reasoning and decision making. PA has been shown to improve working memory in 8-12-year olds as well as 12-14-year olds (1,4). Learning and cognitive flexibility also increases with PA, enhancing visuospatial memory as well.

 

 

All in all, it is clear that exercise has a plethora of benefits in cognition. In addition to these advantages, dopamine (the ‘feel-good’ hormone) increases in the body during and after exercise, helping you to maintain a positive outlook despite exams! In fact, as a result of the extensive research in PA, the UK Government and the NHS has issued the following guidelines for Physical Activity in children (5):

  1. All children and young people should engage in moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity for at least 60 minutes and up to several hours every day.
  2. Vigorous intensity activities, including those that strengthen muscle and bone, should be incorporated at least three days a week.
  3. All children and young people should minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary (sitting) for extended periods.

 

Incorporating PA is just one way in which you can uphold balance during exam time; getting enough sleep and nutrition are also key to the equilibrium.

Here are a few tips to help you obtain a healthy balance:

 

Good luck!

-Esha Dandekar

 

  1. Kubesch S., Walk L., Spitzer M., Kammer T., Lainburg A., Heim R., Hille K. A 30-min physical education program improves students’ executive attention. Mind Brain Educ. 2009;3:235–242
  2. Bowers M.T., Green B.C., Hemme F., Chalip L. Assessing the Relationship between Youth Sport Participation Settings and Creativity in Adulthood.  Res. J. 2014;26:314–327
  3. Scudder MR, Lambourne K, Drollette ES, Herrmann SD, Washburn RA, Donnelly JE, Hillman CH. Aerobic capacity and cognitive control in elementary school-age children. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014; 46(5):1025-35
  4. Verburgh L., Scherder E.J.A., van Lange P.A.M., Oosterlaan J. The key to success in elite athletes? Explicit and implicit motor learning in youth elite and non-elite soccer players.  Sports Sci. 2016;34:1782–1790
  5. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/832861/2-physical-activity-for-children-and-young-people-5-to-18-years.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

Self-Determination in the Classroom

Achievers’ Academy focusses on providing students with a structured form of education, creating an environment that allows them to flourish. Our student intake is non-selective, yet we achieve outstanding results due to our holistic approach towards education. We teach them ‘how to learn’ rather than spoon-feeding them with merely what is needed to pass exams. Our students become motivated, self-determined and confident young adults as they navigate through life, beyond their education.

 

The Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has been considered in an educational context in the past. It attempts to uncover the degree to which activities are self-determined versus controlled by external or internal influences.

 

 

The model theorises that 3 ‘needs’ should be fulfilled to ensure the longevity of self-determined human motivation.

 

Autonomy

Research by Kasser and Ryan (references below) has shown that performance is enhanced when someone engages in self-governed behaviours or actions. In the classroom, this means  encouraging independent thinking and taking accountability for one’s actions. In addition, autonomy involves allowing students to set their own goals based on their perceived strengths and weaknesses. It is a crucial intrinsic factor that allows students take the reins, instilling confidence.

 

Relatedness

This concept refers to the feeling of acceptance and belonging, especially in a new environment. Taking the time to learn students’ names and facilitating learning in a group setting such that all students feel comfortable. In an educational context, this means practicing active learning, with questions and mistakes being recognised as crucial to the educational journey.

 

Competence

Self-efficacy is essential in maintaining motivation during challenging tasks. In teaching,  this means empowering students by giving them access to an arsenal of resources, including videos, exam papers and handouts. Additionally, competence involves equipping students with long-term study skills, such as note-taking and goal setting. These are valuable tools not only for immediate examinations, but even beyond them.

 

At Achievers’ Academy, we recognise that education and study should not feel like an imposition or a chore. Our intention is to inspire  students and help them develop as independent learners as opposed to academic machines.

 

 

References

Kasser T, Ryan RM. Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personal Soc Psychol Bull. 1996.

 

Patrick H, Williams GC. Self-determination theory: Its application to health behavior and complementarity with motivational interviewing. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2012.

 

 

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