When it comes to college cuisine, the bar has traditionally been set pretty low. Breakfast is perhaps some powdered eggs at the dining hall or maybe a stale Pop Tart you found under your bunk. Anything you can put in a microwave is also fair game. Even Rory Gilmore, the fictional golden child of Yale, subsisted on an amalgamation of sugary cereals unceremoniously poured high into chipped white china.
But college is, theoretically, a time when you’re supposed to flourish socially and academically, meaning that if you’re only spending time cramming your brain with facts, you’re automatically losing half the battle.
Enter “brainfood,” that often marketed buzzword that supposedly helps you ace that history final you forgot to study for. But there actually is science behind the supposed magic of avocados and coconut oil.
Research began linking the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive performance more than 30 years ago, says Sammi Haber, a licensed nutritionist and founder of Nutrition Works NY. “Brain food comes from docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid, more commonly known as DHA and EPA. These two long chain omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to improve brain development and function.”
And eating your greens doesn’t hurt either. “Research suggests that certain flavonoids found in berries can boost memory function, and antioxidants found in dark green veggies may prevent cognitive decline,” adds Rachel Paul, a registered dietician and founder of The College Nutritionist.
So what does that mean for a college student trying to crush an 18-credit semester with a depleted meal plan?
Pop-Tarts Aren't the Magical Breakfast of Champions
“Unfortunately,” Haber says, “Pop-Tarts won’t help you ace your exams.” In fact, most of the ubiquitous breakfast pastries pack up to 16 grams of sugar—that’s your daily recommendation. “All that added sugar could create a quick energy spike and crash that isn’t the best for concentration.”
And, for that matter, cross any pastry like donuts, muffins, or croissants off that list (we’re sorry!). “Foods with simple carbohydrates should be avoided—not only will they cause the blood sugar to spike and crash, but that consequent sleepiness can also affect concentration,” Haber adds.
Stack Your Breakfast Like You Stack Your Classes
When it comes to an easy, fail-safe breakfast to get you through that 8am poli-sci class, diversity is key. Just like you wouldn’t take two language classes back to back (we hope), you shouldn’t eat from just one food group.
“A good breakfast should contain both protein and complex carbohydrates to keep students satiated and give them the energy needed to power through their day,” Haber says, adding that getting some omega-3 fats from foods like walnuts or salmon can add an extra brain boost.
Turn Your Dorm Room Into a Test Kitchen
Odds are, your dorm doesn’t come with a Bertezzoni chef’s oven, so making do with a microwave is key. And there are, of course, plenty of hacks to be had here. “Eggs are a filling, delicious protein source and easy to make,” Paul says. Plus, you can easily boil a dozen over a hot plate. Making instant oatmeal in the microwave and topping it off with frozen berries is also a good, hearty bet.
Make sure to take advantage of dining hall goods and swipe fresh fruits, hard-boiled eggs, and whole wheat breads to use for later cram-sessions.
Prep Like an Athlete Ahead of Exams
Your college sports teams thrive on different foods for training versus game day, and the same is (sort of) true for giving your body the boost of brain power it needs. If you’re going in for a full day of classes or a long exam, you need to fuel up.
“It's important your brain has enough energy to stay alert through class or an exam,” says Paul. “Try to eat from multiple food groups such as protein, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. So for instance, try a yogurt with a whole grain piece of toast and piece of fruit,” and bring some snacks like string cheese for later.
And though we can’t guarantee these tips will get you an easy A, you at least won’t be left struggling to remember whether it was Monet or Manet who painted those damned water lilies.