Food’s Impact on Study Habits: 8 Questions For a Dietitian

April 26, 2023

Nutrition is essential to overall health, just like exercise and getting enough sleep. We spoke with Lauren Zimmerman, MS, RD, lead dietitian at Synchronicity, to learn more about how the food we eat impacts our focus and study habits and to hear tips on navigating food choices on campus.

  1. How can nutrition impact study habits, concentration, and memory?

The brain requires a lot of energy to function properly and gobbles up around 20% of the calories the body uses every day. Eating healthy snacks and balanced meals ensures your brain receives the steady supply of nutrients it needs to keep you focused. Because the brain is so active and requires a lot of oxygen, include antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries, cherries, and beets; dark greens like kale and spinach; and foods rich in vitamins E and C, such as citrus, nuts, or seeds. Foods with Omega 3 are important to include as well. These support the cardiovascular system, ensure a good flow of nutrients to the brain, and help increase memory. Rich sources of Omega 3s include walnuts, chia seeds, or salmon. Add these into your rotation to help keep you focused in class and while studying.

  1. What are the best snacks to keep us focused in class or to fuel an all-night study session?

This depends on how hungry you are or how long it has been since your last meal. If you just need something to munch on and aren’t really hungry, carrots, celery sticks, cucumber slices, and bell peppers are great options. These include vitamin C and hydration, both great for the brain. It is hard to focus when feeling hungry, so if you’re looking for something more balanced and filling, you can grab a bag of edamame from the grocery store’s frozen section that you can pop in the microwave and eat right out of the bag. The edamame provides complex carbs for a steady release of energy, while the fiber and protein help keep you full. Hydrating fruit is also a great option for a snack. Berries, such as blueberries, strawberries, or blackberries; citrus fruits, including oranges and grapefruits, are full of nutrients and are hydrating. Pairing fruit with nuts such as pistachios, almonds, or walnuts add density to the snack, making it more filling. Try a banana with nut butter or yogurt topped with nuts and berries to help sustain your hunger for several hours. Some other options you could add to your snack rotation are air-popped popcorn with a little sea salt, Cheerios, seaweed snacks, or whole grain crackers like Triscuits.

  1. What are some foods to stock a dorm with for quick and healthy snack or meal options?

Try to prioritize whole food options like nuts, nut butters, apples, bananas, fruit pouches, or dried fruit like figs or dates, which have a long shelf life. For snacks, combine nuts and fruits for protein, healthy fats, carbohydrates, and fiber that will help keep you full and focused. Some prepackaged bars can be good, too; look for bars, like Larabars, that have a mixture of fruit and nuts and come in all kinds of flavors, or Perfect Bars, which are a little more filling and contain more protein. If you’re looking to make a quick, easy meal in your dorm, there’s a lot you can do with just a microwave. You can try oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon, and honey and top it with a banana or nuts; black beans with microwavable rice topped with guacamole; sweet potato and almond butter; or eggs with some spinach and red peppers. Some options don’t need a microwave, like tuna or salmon packets on whole grain bread or yogurt with dried fruits or nuts,

  1. How does hydration impact our focus and concentration?

Hydration is important to keep all our organs functioning, so your brain may have trouble concentrating or retaining information if you’re thirsty. Sugary drinks like energy drinks or even juices can spike your energy levels and cause an energy crash later. It’s easy to consume a lot of sugar and calories from sweetened drinks, so try and limit your intake to half a glass of juice a day and prioritize water throughout the day. Water doesn’t have to be boring; there are great carbonated flavored water options with fun flavors and just a little sugar. Herbal teas like peppermint or lemon are great, too, because these are naturally flavored and contain low to no caffeine, and can be enjoyed all day without impacting sleep. Ideally, we shouldn’t rely too heavily on caffeine. The foundation for feeling energized and focused is good sleep, staying hydrated, exercising, and eating well. Prioritize these before resorting to the extra caffeine.

  1. What advice do you have for navigating food halls and 24/7 dining options?

Even though you may have unlimited access to food, it’s important to listen to your hunger cues to guide you when to eat and fullness cues to guide you when you are full. Try eating at consistent times each day to establish some structure and aim not to go more than four or five hours between daytime meals, and let your digestive system rest up to 12 hours every night. 

  1. What should we keep in mind when choosing meals?

Instead of thinking about carbs, calories, fat, or protein levels, focus on having a variety of foods from different food groups, including vegetables (such as spinach, kale, and carrots), fruits (apples, blueberries, and oranges), beans (black beans and navy beans), nuts (pistachios, walnuts, and almonds), grains (whole wheat pasta and bread), and protein sources (lentils, chicken, and turkey). Incorporating colorful foods from several food groups on your plate can help ensure you get diverse nutrients at each meal to support your body’s functions. Try to stick with one plate with a combination of these foods. For dessert, it’s ok to hit the ice cream bar sometimes, but try to satisfy your sweet tooth with your favorite fruits–adding a dollop of yogurt and a drizzle of honey can make it feel more like a treat. Be mindful of your schedule each day; if you have a busy morning, make sure your breakfast will sustain you until you can eat again, or have healthy snacks on hand, such as almonds, pistachios, hummus, apples, or blueberries to keep you focused between meals.  

  1. How does not eating during the day or skipping meals impact study habits?

Skipping meals or going too long without eating can lead to poor concentration and attention. It can also lead to irritability and fatigue, making the retention of what we are studying next to impossible. On the flip side, having access to an endless supply of sugary drinks and all-you-can-eat dining hall options can lead to overeating, which can also lead to fatigue. To find a happy medium, try to eat every 4-5 hours during the day, listen to your body, and snack when needed. 

  1. How does nutrition tie into our overall health?

What we eat impacts everything about our health. It affects how we feel, perform, recover, and our overall health. Good nutrition will support every organ in our body and impact our sleep, memory, immune system, bones, focus, attention, energy, and so much more. On the flip side, poor nutrition is associated with many problems and chronic diseases. Eating well and staying hydrated will help ensure the body receives the nutrients it needs to perform its best. 

Concentration and memory are important factors for a successful college experience, so choosing foods that can help support a strong brain and body is important. Choosing nutritious foods at mealtimes and stocking your room with healthy snack options will help fuel your brain to stay focused in class and all-night study sessions.

Learn more about Lauren and her services at
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