Thoughts from Tutors

The Importance of Food in Mental Functioning

By Jordan George

March is of interest for two reasons. One, because of March Madness and the basketball frenzy that many Americans look forward to all year long; and two, because March is National Nutrition Month. Sadly, many people are not aware that March is National Nutrition Month, and if they are aware, many people do not care. However, nutrition is much more important than many people realize. Most people recognize the significance of healthy food choices in maintaining a healthy weight and adequate energy levels, but may not understand why nutrition is so important for mental health. As a future dietitian and a Master Tutor here at the TECHniques Center, I believe it is important that I shed some light on the subject.

So how exactly does nutrition affect one’s mindset and mood? Carbohydrates—which are found in breads, pastas, cereals, and other grains—have been found to increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin helps the body to feel calm. Protein, which is mostly known as the nutrient needed to help build muscle, is also important in brain function. Protein in foods such as meat, yogurt, and cottage cheese increase levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, causing the body to feel more alert. Did your mom ever tell you to eat eggs before a big exam? Maybe you should skip the coffee and give it a try. The final macronutrient, fat, is also necessary for the brain, as it is an important structural component and affects the ability of the brain to fire signals properly. Healthy sources of fat can be found in nuts and avocado.

In addition to eating the nutritious foods, it is important that our timing is right. This becomes even more important as students. College life is full of stress and never enough time, but if we do not make time to eat, that stress level is just going to continue to rise. Skipping a meal—especially breakfast—leaves us with lackluster energy for the rest of the day. Binging on carbs later in the day before a big study session can cause swings in blood sugar, sluggishness, poor concentration, and increased tiredness. And if you don’t eat before a big exam, then you can forget about getting that A. Most college students are tempted to grab chips and cookies to go along with their energy drinks, believing it will sustain them throughout the day. The truth is this may actually be hurting more than it is helping.

For National Nutrition Month, my hope is that everyone will make a goal to better themselves through their food choices. Maybe this means trying to choose healthier carbs and proteins, eating on a more consistent basis, or drinking less caffeine. Whatever your goal, remember that food really does affect mood and mental status. And yes, it is still okay to enjoy chips and a soda while you watch your favorite March Madness match-ups!

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