Brain food for exam students
What better way for a family to cope than cooking up recipes for the gut and the brain
It is here again, the dreaded exam period that comes around every year. Even if we don’t have someone in our own families sitting the Leaving Cert, we’re all transported back to our own year of stress, the pressure we put ourselves under.
We all know how hard it can be and as parents we should take steps to ease the pressure on our students in any way we can. Cooking nutritious meals is the perfect place to start.
This year, my youngest daughter sits the Leaving Cert and I’m excited for many reasons. Firstly, I won’t be distracted by the running of a restaurant, so for the first time I’ll get to design our family meals to suit the demands of a busy student. Secondly, I’m excited to show how good a student I can be after going to an enlightening talk given by a local nutritionist, Majella O’Neill, on “study- based nutrition”.
The health benefits of what we eat have always played a major role in my cooking, but I was blown away by O’Neill’s approach to feeding a student while focusing on the brain.
“Brain food” is rapidly becoming a buzz phrase, and rightly so, but O’Neill takes this fad and makes it fact. She gave advice on coping with stress and how the mind benefits from regular exercise, and explained the relationship between the gut and brain.
To paraphrase her insight, the gut and brain are in constant communication via a nerve called the vagus nerve. This explains why the gut is often referred to as the second brain. It’s therefore no surprise that what we put into our gut will inevitably affect our brain function – for better or for worse.
The brain uses about 20 per cent of the body’s energy and oxygen, so during these coming weeks we must feed it well, often and with consideration. O’Neill compares preparing for exams to preparing for a big sporting event. We need a constant steady supply of slow- burning fuel and adequate hydration. Fluctuating blood- sugars and dehydration can have a tangible effect on cognition, memory and concentration, as well as stress hormones. It is therefore vital to keep blood sugars balanced by eating little and often, making sure to never go hungry.
She offered several helpful tips to keep your blood sugars in check. Some are simple but effective, like making sure there are good proteins and fats in every meal and making sure you keep carbohydrate levels low. Fats are a better source of energy than carbohydrates or caffeine as they don’t cause sudden spikes and drops.
Some tips were more intriguing, I love her suggestion of using cinnamon when you do eat carbs as it helps to stabilise blood sugars. Another clever idea of hers is combining olive and flax oils with a little butter to make a “better butter”, which benefits from the presence of the unsaturated fats in the oils.
Here are a few of my favourite recipes from the evening and I hope you will enjoy making them as much as I have and watching them help your students.