Whether you are heading for the school room, board room or just want your brain to have the best chance to be in top form, breakfast is a must. The most consistent findings to date suggest that eating breakfast influences the processes involved in the formation and retrieval of memories and in managing complex or challenging information.
In research on children, scientists were able to reveal that skipping the first meal of the day led to more errors in tests that required the children to solve problems than those who took the time to have breakfast. Young adults who missed breakfast have also been shown to perform more poorly on tests of scholastic achievement than those who had something to eat before undergoing the same experiment.
It seems that breakfast has these effects through its ability to raise levels of glucose in the blood, which in turn increases a transmitter in the brain called acetylcholine. It appears to researchers such as Professor David Benton of Wales University who are working in this area, that acetylcholine is involved in memory since drugs that block its production have been shown to disrupt memory, in particular reducing the ability to remember new information.
Since vitamin B1 is needed to make acetylcholine, ensuring the diet has a good supply of this nutrient could also play a role in optimising mental performance throughout the morning. Cereal foods containing vitamin B1 include fortified or wholemeal bread and fortified breakfast cereals.
Our ability to think clearly is not simply restricted to the timings of short-term nutritional meals. Mental performance can also be affected by the nutritional quality of the diet as a whole in the long-term. Having a prolonged poor intake of the mineral iron, for example, can affect people’s ability to concentrate and reduce their IQ.
It is known that iron deficiency leads to impairment of memory in adults and children and that in small children and infants it leads to problems with attention and learning (for more details see Food Today 16).
While women are particularly susceptible to low intakes of iron in the diet, too little of another micronutrient, iodine, affects both the sexes. Decision-making and initiative seem especially to suffer when iodine is deficient, and although this is only a problem for some areas of Europe and for developing countries, the consumption of iodised salt, fish, shellfish, meat, milk and eggs can help to ensure good intakes are maintained.
If a lack of certain elements in the diet can lead to impaired mental functioning, the addition of others may help to give our brains a kick-start. Caffeine, for example has a mild stimulant effect, acting on the central nervous system and improving alertness. Tests have shown caffeine to be capable of speeding up rapid information processing in the brain by ten percent, and that a coffee after lunch helps to counteract the normal ‘post-lunch dip’ and to sustain concentration.
It is not just what you drink that counts, but drinking enough water in general. Even a small reduction in hydration can affect mental performance; remember by the time you are thirsty you are already dehydrated, so keep topping up with drinks stops through out the day to keep your brain alert.