Food for thought

Sydney Ember ’08 is no stranger to training and eating right for marathons, completing over a dozen of them this year. However, half of them were what she considers “marathon tests.”

“I try to psych myself out mentally for both [meets and tests],” she said.

Like runners fueling their bodies before a meet, students have developed eating habits to power their brains for such marathon tests as finals, APs and the SAT, and Ember has caught on to the trend. 

 “I eat dark chocolate during and before every long, important test,” Ember said.  

Dark chocolate has been a part of her routine since last year when her French teacher, Simona Ghirlanda, recommended her class eat some before the French Language AP to improve their concentration.

“I always recommend that my students have some plain dark chocolate with them when they take a long exam,” Ghirlanda said. “Because AP exams are so long, no matter how nutritious and healthy one’s breakfast is, after a few hours of intellectual effort, it’s hard to maintain the necessary concentration.”

Ghirlanda’s advice comes from a study performed by Professor Ian Macdonald at the University of Nottingham, England that proved dark chocolate can give a short-term stimulus to cognitive skills.  In the study, consumption of a cocoa drink rich in flavanols, a key ingredient of dark chocolate, boosted blood flow to key areas of the brain for two to three hours and increased alertness.  Flavanols are not only found in chocolate but also in green tea and blueberries. 

“It’s not like there’s a magic bullet,” Ayurveda nutritionist Cheryl Sindell (Chelsea Heller ’00) said.  Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of medicine that is native to India.  “But there are properties of dark chocolate that are definitely beneficial.”

Students who want a quick energy fix often turn to candy bars or sodas, but fitness trainer and consultant Paula D’andrea warns against such methods.

“If you often feel fatigue or easily get headaches, you may be dehydrated,” D’andrea said.  “These symptoms may be worsened if you drink a lot of soda, which will leave you sluggish from its high sugar content.”

Instead, D’andrea said water is the best thing to drink, 48 to 64 ounces of water daily.

“Water is one of the most essential ingredients in our life.  It is found in your blood, which carries oxygen to your cells — think brain here.”

Any food with excess sugar, D’andrea says, should stay out of the body the day of a test. She said to avoid chips, cereal, white bread and pasta.

However, there are in reality few foods that can give students a magical increase in function. 

“If they ask, I tell my students to have salmon for dinner the night before a big test,” local SAT tutor Ted Dorsey said.  “My guess is that the benefit of doing so is mostly psychological. I mean, how many more questions will omega-3 acids help you to answer correctly?”

In truth, not many.  Omega-3 fatty acids have been proven to help with performance but Jeff Victoroff, M.D. and associate professor of clinical neurology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC explained that in order to see results, one should eat four ounces of fatty fish four times a week.

Overeating can actually hurt performance, taking blood flow to the abdomen to aid in digestion and away from other organs like the brain.

The benefits of eating “brain foods” can be partially psychological, school psychologist Luba Bek said.  Students may undergo the “placebo effect,” whose name comes from the phenomenon in an experiment in which one group of people ingests a test sample  while the other group is led to believe they have ingested a test sample, the placebo. 

Often, the result among the two groups is the same.

“I tell my students to bring a slice of lemon to their tests,” Bek said.  The scent of citrus has been proven to increase brain processing speed.  Peppermint also produces the same effect.

“I think that bringing the slice of lemon also makes them believe that they are doing something to focus,” Bek said.

“Trying to ‘eat well on test day’ is like cramming.  You may see some benefits, but overall, it isn’t a great method,” D’andrea said.

In the long term, any food that is rich in antioxidants is good brain food, since antioxidants fight off molecules of oxygen that damage cell membranes and DNA.  The brain, which is exposed to a large amount of oxygen, should receive a steady flow of antioxidants to improve memory.

“Pick up some good habits now and they will help you throughout your life,” D’andrea said.  “By eating consistently well, you will improve your acuity and energy levels.”