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Brain Food: How Science Is Helping Athletes Think About Food

The latest in sports science continues to prove that brain food is just as important when it comes to optimising an athlete’s eating habits. It’s not just our bodies we need to think of when fueling for performance. Dr Kirsty Fairbairn digs a little deeper and reveals how you can eat even better.

We all want to do well in life. We want to be happy, have self-belief and have a passion to learn about the world. As each year starts we fall into the busy scheduling of school or university/college, sport, music and community contributions. This means relearning how to fit meals into our busy lives again. The brain strain over school lunches and snacks returns.

Like any other organ in the body, the brain requires specific nutrients from food to function well. Humans have large brains that need lots of energy, especially when young. Children’s and adolescents’ brains are absorbing so much new information. In fact, the brain demands almost half a child’s entire daily energy requirement. When combined with rapid growth, our youth becomes a critical time to be nourishing ourselves well.

But what exactly are the foods that help us learn?

Australian researchers (Burrows et al, Appetite, 2017) investigated whether certain dietary behaviours were associated with academic achievement in school-aged children. They explored five dietary aspects (fruit intake, vegetable intake and the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, breakfast and takeaway foods) and compared those dietary habits with the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests used in Australian schools. NAPLAN measures reading, writing, grammar and punctuation, spelling and numeracy in more than 2000 children aged between 8-15 years old.

The Burrows study found that eating vegetables at the evening meal more nights a week was associated with significantly higher spelling and writing scores. Also, consuming breakfast positively correlated with writing scores. Another finding that resonates in the current food climate, was that higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages was associated with significantly lower scores in reading, writing, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy.

Good nutrition impacts brain function in both adults and children

Nourishing high-carbohydrate foods

potato, sweet potato, corn, pumpkin, wholegrain bread, pasta, rice, taro, green banana, plantain, wholegrain noodles, whole fruit and legumes like chickpeas, lentils and beans

Our brains prefer glucose as their fuel source. Glucose is provided by carbohydrate foods. Consuming high-fibre and whole sources of carbohydrate is the best way to supply glucose to our brains.

Food sources of carbohydrate like these (shown here on the right) are more nutrient loaded (or nutrient-dense) sources of carbohydrate than highly processed carbohydrate-containing snack foods like biscuits, white bread and sugary drinks.

The conversation between your gut and your brain

Did you know that our gut and brain “talk” to each other? This is a fairly new revelation in nutrition science, and an intriguing one. We are learning that the higher fibre carbohydrate sources help us maintain a healthy gut; which is then another way to improve brain function and immunity. As the science digs deeper we’re discovering many other benefits to our health.

“If we supply the right nutrients to our brain and stay active, many aspects of brain function thrive. If we do not supply the right nutrients, then they do not thrive.”

Dr Kirsty Fairbairn
Our brains are quite smart

Our brains are very responsive to changes in the brain environment, which includes the foods we choose to eat. We are learning about nutrient-sensing substances in our brain, such as brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) and the hormone leptin. These two substances notice the kinds of foods we eat and whether we are exercising and then impact our brain metabolism accordingly.

If we supply the right nutrients to our brain and stay active, many aspects of brain function thrive. If we do not supply the right nutrients, then they do not thrive.

The results of the Burrows study is therefore not so surprising. Fruit and vegetables supply valuable vitamins and minerals for growth and development. They are also a rich source of antioxidants and polyphenols. Polyphenols can protect the neurons in our brain, suppress inflammation and may improve memory, learning and cognitive function.

This nutty banana smoothie is simple to throw together and it’s great for you. Photo: Derek Morrison
Breakfast: kickstart your good eating habits

Having breakfast before school, study or work in the morning also helps us think, particularly with memory and attention (Adolphus et al, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2013; Meeusen R, Sports Medicine, 2014). This could be due partly to the fact that breakfast can contribute many wonderful nutrients to our diet, if chosen well. Good quality breakfasts (the nutrient-dense ones) are associated with better academic achievement. Remember to add fruit to breakfast – fresh, tinned or stewed. And don’t forget: children and adolescents who regularly consume breakfast are also less likely to be overweight.

Be aware of sugar and saturated fat

In contrast, diets high in sugar or saturated fats, or with lots of calories, may impair cognitive function by placing extra stress on the brain. Takeaway or fast foods are often high in saturated fats and calories, as are chips, crisps, cakes and biscuits. These should be occasional foods rather than daily. Sugar-sweetened beverages like fruit drinks, cordials, soda and soft drinks are high in sugar. Healthier fats for children include omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish and seafood, nuts and seeds); an important nutrient for building the brain and enhancing brain cell-to-brain cell communication (Meeusen R, Sports Medicine, 2014).

The importance of being active and fit

Physical activity is important for brain development and thinking ability. Physical fitness has been associated with academic achievement and thinking abilities. Physically fit children have a larger hippocampus (an area of the brain important for learning and memory) compared to less fit children (Meeusen R, Sports Medicine, 2014). A healthy lifestyle has many positive benefits.

After a busy season racing Xterra throughout the world, Lewis Ryan unwinds at Lake Okataina, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.
The brain food summary

The foods we choose to eat can either help our brain and body grow well, or, conversely, place more stress on our brain and body.

Unfortunately, our modern food environment makes it easier to consume the high fat, high sugar and high calorie foods that stress our brain. Whether our brain can deal with that stress well will depend on whether we eat healthy foods, too. Foods with plenty of vitamins, minerals, wholegrain carbohydrates, fibre, proteins and unsaturated fats provide the ammunition for our body’s own system of clean up and repair. Athletes should try to focus on the consumption of those food “boosters” wherever possible.

You’ll be able to handle the occasional foods from time-to-time if our base diet is giving us the nutrients we need. Healthy breakfasts and snacks are a good place to start.


Adolphus, Lawton and Dye.
The effects of breakfast on behavior and academic performance in children and adolescents. Review Article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 2013; Vol 7: Article 425, Pages 1-28.

Burrows, Goldman and Olson et al.
Associations between selected dietary behaviours and academic achievement: A study of Australian school aged children. Appetite 2017; Vol 116; Pages 372-380.

Meeusen R.
Exercise, Nutrition and the Brain. Review Article in Sports Medicine 2014; Vol 44 (Suppl 1): Pages S47–S56.

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