Today, more than ever, good nutrition is essential to staying healthy. Eating a well-balanced diet has been proven to boost our immune system, which is a critical defense in guarding against the most devastating impacts of COVID-19.
Maintaining a healthy weight, limiting our sugar intake, eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoiding processed foods are among the ways we can fortify our immune system and protect ourselves against illness—not only from COVID-19 but also from such long-term health conditions as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. See the recommendations for the Healthy Eating Plate from the Harvard School of Public Health for a more complete look at what constitutes a daily nutritious diet.
Those in the teaching profession will be interested in yet another benefit of a nutritious diet—and that is to improve their brain health. Teaching is a cognitively complicated, high-energy profession, so it's essential to prime your brain as well as your body with the right fuel.
Persistent Nutrition Myths
Consider a few common myths about nutrition that can lead to "brain bonk" and low energy throughout the school day:
Myth: Proper nutrition is only about fueling a healthy body.
Food Fact: In actuality, it’s also important to feed your brain! The brain consumes about 600 calories, on average, per day. Food choices that support cardiovascular health—a diet primarily consisting of non-starchy vegetables and fruits, healthy oils and fats, a variety of protein sources, and selected whole grains—are also good for the brain and may enhance cognitive functioning across the lifespan.
Myth: Loading up on carbs provides a reliable source of sustained energy.
Food Fact: The calories from added sugar and refined starches and grains may produce a brief energy surge—one that quickly fades to lethargy. Reducing the consumption of foods with added sugar, which includes many prepared foods and snacks, is the top recommendation in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. We’re pleased to see that these guidelines are consistent with our work over the past 20 years of analyzing research on nutrition and its impact on human performance, especially for educators and their students.
Myth: Fats are bad.
Food Fact: The Dietary Guidelines continue to advise limiting the consumption of saturated fats, found primarily in red meats and dairy products. However, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are key ingredients in the much-touted Mediterranean diet, have been found to have positive effects on blood cholesterol levels.
Seeds, nuts, olive oil, and avocados are ready sources of monounsaturated fats, while fish such as salmon and albacore tuna contain polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids that may also support brain functioning. Fats increase the feeling of satiety and help to keep hunger pangs at bay. This means that fewer total calories might be consumed over the course of a day.
Myth: Meaty meals are the best sources of protein.
Food Fact: Nutritional researchers are in wide agreement that most Americans rely too heavily on red and processed meats as their primary sources of protein. Another red flag comes from a recent World Health Organization report linking regular consumption of red and processed meats to an increased risk of cancer. You can add more healthy sources of protein by planning meals that include seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, legumes like beans and peas, and nuts, seeds, and soy products.
A Healthy Start to the Day
Applying these recommendations, let's take a fresh look at what recent research reveals about eating the right foods at the right time to optimize brain performance. Beginning with a healthy breakfast can mean the difference between a full morning of energetic teaching and starting to feel droopy by 10 a.m.
The best breakfasts are low on carbs and high on nutrient-dense foods. As an example, a vegetable omelet with a cup of coffee or tea provides ample fuel to keep the brain firing all the way to lunch, when recharging with a palm-sized portion of protein such as chicken or fish, along with a colorful salad topped with an olive oil-based dressing, can keep you rolling strong throughout the rest of your day.