Brain-Charging Food

January 13, 2024
3 mins read

By Blake Gernstetter
Tuesday, September 30, 2008.
Editor’s note: We wrongly described the writer as a he and as a student at New York University, but Blake Gernstetter is a she, and she is currently an editorial assistant at
When Sunday night rolls around and none of his homework is done, Brandon Burr keeps procrastinating. The University of Illinois sophomore plays Minesweeper marathons, watches college football and snacks on goldfish crackers and burritos, stressing over how he’s going to accomplish so much in so little time. His roommate Mark eats a tube of Pringles every day.
The good news is that food – other kinds of food — can help. Focusing on so-called “functional foods,” experts say, can combat exhaustion and stress, and help keep college students on top of their game.
Natural grains and vitamin-packed produce are worth singling out, said nutrition and food science professor Mary Ellen Camire of the University of Maine.
Camire suggests a fruit salad of cantaloupe and berries. The natural coloring (anthocyanin in scientific parlance) in the berries helps ramp up brain function. For a dual punch, blend a smoothie of blueberries and yogurt. The active bacteria from the yogurt and antioxidants in the berries combat common illness, Camire said. But eat the yogurt daily, because the bacteria won’t stay in your system long. “Keep replenishing ‘em. I swear by it,” Camire said.
Fighting a Hangover
If you plan to spend the weekend drinking your worries away, a mid-afternoon cup of Ramen noodles in isn’t going to alleviate your hangover. Instead, stick to harder-to-digest foods that are high in protein and soluble fiber, like oatmeal and apples. These foods stay in your stomach longer, keeping you full and slowing your body’s absorption of alcohol.
Eat something substantial before going drinking, Camire suggests. A ham and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread will keep you from feeling sick later on. Even replacing the slice of white toast for whole-grain can make a difference.
But Kirk Parkin, a food science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, isn’t a big fan of the idea of magic brain foods.
“Most likely, a balanced diet, with copious quantities of fruits, vegetables and grains, with frequent exercise, will help promote health as much as any one food you could ingest,” he argued.
But everybody knows that’s much easier said than done.
Food can also be used to fix out-of-whack sleep schedules that lead to insomnia at night and sleepiness during the day. One trick: the traditional sleep-inducing glass of warm milk can be made more palatable with chocolate syrup, Camire said.
Lean turkey is a sleep-inducer too, Parkin said.
“Trying to get to sleep is mostly an anxiety issue,” he said. Parkin said Turkey contains a relative high level of tryptophan, an amino acid that is the precursor to serotonin, a hormone that tells the body it is time to sleep.
“It’s really knowing yourself and knowing which foods respond to your body,” said Dr. Susan Albers, psychologist and author of “Mindful Eating 101: A guide to healthy eating in college and beyond.”
Caffeine Strategies
Caffeine intake should be moderate, Camire said. She suggests keeping a list of caffeine drinks – coffee, tea and chocolate—you use during the day, to keep from overindulging. Too much caffeine will interrupt your sleep, she said.
Once you’ve taken the test and forgotten about it, it’s common to celebrate with a bit of sugar and a lot of booze. Buy a dark chocolate bar instead of your usual reward, some food experts suggest. The chocolate has antioxidants that prevent oxygen and free radicals from damaging you body. Add some vitamin C — orange slices, say — and you’ll have smart and sweet alternative treat. Plus, the chocolate is an antidepressant — so even if you think you bombed the test, you’ll feel cheered up.
Brain-Charging Food to Stock in the Mini Fridge
Blueberries – flavonoids help ramp up brain function Cantaloupe — vitamin A and potassiumOranges — fight illness with vitamin CYogurt – adds good bacteria Dark chocolate – will cheer you Whole grains – healthy fiber to make you feel fullerLean turkey and ham – protein energyFlash-frozen veggies – nutrients a bag of chips can’t offer
Blake Gernstetter read Journalism and French at New York University and is now an editorial assistant at She can be reached at
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