Brain food for exam stu­dents

What bet­ter way for a fam­ily to cope than cooking up recipes for the gut and the brain

The Irish Times Magazine - - FOOD -

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.

COOK CARMEL SOMERS

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