We’ve all been there. Taking a standardized test that feels like it’s taking an eternity to finish when, suddenly, you can no longer focus. It becomes difficult to keep track of how much time has passed, how much time you have left, and how fast you should be answering questions to fully complete a section. Then, the words start to get hazy, and you have to reread the question several times to figure out what it’s asking, much less the answer. This clouded mental state is not limited to standardized test taking, though. Most people can relate to just not being able to focus in class, no matter how hard they try.
Most simply dismiss inability to focus or perform well on tests as students being “bad test takers” or “bad students.” However, growing evidence points out that nutrition can play a critical role in students’ ability to focus and their performance as learners. Functional nutrition is nutrition-based health care that emphasizes on building health by restoring the proper physiological function of the human body (“What is”). When a patient exhibits symptoms of an illness or ailment, functional medicine practitioners search for the root cause of the problem on a cellular level and search for more organic and holistic methods to cure it. Functional nutritionists consider a patient’s genetic background, lifestyle, and social culture when treating him or her, and develop a care plan for his or her unique body (“What is”). Functional nutritionists are those who are pioneering the issue of inability to focus by treating it with food.
To understand the “focus” problem, we first need to understand the diet of the average American teenager. According to New York Times author Nicholas Bakalar, fast food makes up 16.9% of the American teenagers diet, regardless of gender. The percentages fluctuate slightly based on ethnicity, but overall, fast food makes up between 11.9% and 18.8% of an American teenager’s diet (Bakalar). Dr. Mark Hyman of the Cleveland Clinic says that the Standard American Diet (with the unfortunately apt acronym, SAD) has more “poisonous” chemicals than the nutrient-rich foods we need to function. Chips, soda, and candy- fast foods -are high in sugar, simple carbohydrates, and saturated fats. All these toxic ingredients leads to high blood sugar, which triggers production of insulin. The insulin response to high blood sugar is to essentially clean out all the sugar in your system immediately (Hyman 132). This spike in blood sugar, or glucose, is why sugary and high carbohydrate foods create a “crash.” The human brain runs on glucose, so when there are high amounts of glucose in your system, you can feel fidgety and hyper. However, when your insulin wipes out all the sugar in your body, your glucose levels plummet, leaving you feeling tired and groggy. Fat, too, negatively affects the body. When you consume fat (as in the saturated fat found in cheeseburgers or a BLT, not the unsaturated fat found in an avocado), it takes a long time for your digestive system to break it down and leaves you feeling run down because your body is working harder than it should to digest (Friedman). Thus, the Standard American Diet does not necessarily provide students with the correct vitamins and nutrients to allow them to perform their best.
What’s more is that most students skip meals, which is just as detrimental as eating a high-sugar, high-saturated fat, and high-carbohydrate meal. Again, the human brain runs on glucose, so when you deprive your body of the food it needs to function, your mind drifts. This is why working, or trying to work, on an empty stomach is fruitless (Friedman). A survey done by Kellogg’s Company questioned 14,594 Americans on whether or not they considered breakfast to be an important meal and whether or not Americans actually ate breakfast. The survey found that as children get older, they stop finding the time to eat breakfast, with only 36% of students in high school consuming a meal in the morning, compared with the 77% of young children eating breakfast daily (“Breakfast”). It’s no wonder that many students complain of not being able to pay attention in school because they are depriving their brain of what it needs to properly function.
So, why are foods not created equal, in terms of helping young teenagers focus? Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at UCLA who studied the neurological effects of more than 160 foods on the human brain, says, “Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain” (Wolpert). Much of his findings are related to the health and function of the brain’s synapses, which connect neurons, stimulate learning, and help with memory. Omega-3 fatty acids, he reports, support synaptic plasticity, which is linked to learning and memory. Gómez-Pinilla confidently states that children who have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids will do better in school. A study done in Australia measured the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on children aged from six to twelve. Three hundred and ninety six children were given a drink that contained, among various nutrients, high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and they showed higher test scores measuring verbal intelligence, learning, and memory than the control group who did not receive the drink (Wolpert).
Salmon appears to be the holy grail of all foods, at least regarding its cognitive function benefits. It contains a high concentration of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, and contains several other key nutrients for an overall healthy diet. Japan, where much of the population consumes a salmon-rich diet, has a low rate of mental disorders and people tend to live longer (Wolpert). It also seems that the classic saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” is actually incredibly valid. A study done on young adults aged seventeen to twenty-five had the participants log their fruit and vegetable consumption in an online diary and report their moods each day for thirteen consecutive days. Those who ate more fruit and vegetables found that they were not only happier but more curious and energetic. This is because fruits and vegetables help the body produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes people engaged and curious (Connor et al). The study concluded that high fruit and vegetable consumption leads to “flourishing” behaviour. The holy grail of fruits, to use the same saying twice, would probably be blueberries. Blueberries are high in antioxidants, which will reduce oxidative stress on the brain, and they taste delicious (House).
Because not not many students are going to eat salmon for breakfast, it would be difficult to recommend it as fuel for standardized testing, unless you love and have a ready supply of salmon. My unprofessional advice would be to incorporate salmon into your diet on a semi-regular basis to promote synapses health. Changing your physiology takes time, so eating healthy for a long period of time will be beneficial in the long run. As previously stated, the most important thing to do before going to school or taking a standardized test is to eat. Eating foods that are high in the aforementioned omega-3 fatty acids, protein, fiber, and unsaturated fat will help you stay full, energized, and focused for a long period of time. Other foods high in DHA include flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, and spinach (House). Smoothies are an increasingly popular option for breakfast, and it’s easy to incorporate many ingredients into one jam-packed meal. Including an array of fruits, vegetables, and a protein in a smoothie makes it powerful fuel for the day, and they are incredibly easy to make. You really don’t need to be a genius to eat smart.
- One cup frozen kale
- One half cup spinach
- Chia seeds
- One half cup frozen pineapple
- Juice of one half lime
- Two tablespoons almond butter
- Coconut milk as needed, depending on how sweet you want the smoothie to be