Top 10 Smart Foods for College Students

Coasting by on popcorn and energy drinks? Find out which foods really fuel your brain.

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on February 25, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

Poring over textbooks, organizing lecture notes, and prepping for tests challenges your brain. Give yourself the fuel you need to stay focused and absorb what you learn in the classroom.

Milk and yogurt. Low-fat dairy products are packed with protein and B vitamins that may help you concentrate and work efficiently, says New York dietitian Marjorie Nolan, RD. She recommends plain, nonfat Greek yogurt, which is super-high in protein and has no added sugar. Milk and yogurt are fortified with vitamin D, which also supports brain health.

Oats. It's hard to beat oatmeal at breakfast. Oatmeal is a whole grain, which you digest slowly, giving your brain and body steady energy.

And you get a bowlful of B vitamins and fiber as well as potassium, zinc, and vitamin E. "Most people don't realize how important all that is for brain health," Nolan says.

Blueberries. One of nature's perfect foods, blueberries are packed with nutrients that give them their deep-blue color. One study links blueberries to improved learning and memory.

Drinking coffee to concentrate? Stick to 8-ounce cups of coffee, instead of grande-size portions.

Nolan recommends two servings (about 1 ½ cups) of fresh or frozen blueberries a day.

Salmon. "We need fat for our brains," Nolan says. Salmon is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, healthy fats that are good for the brain.

UCLA neuroscientist Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, recommends enjoying your salmon Indian style: "Curried salmon gives you omega-3s mixed with turmeric, which is also good for the brain." Both wild-caught and farm-raised salmon provide omega-3s. The American Heart Association recommends two 3.5-ounce servings of fish per week.

Walnuts. While all nuts provide brain fuel in the form of protein and both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, walnuts are best, Nolan says. One study found that students who regularly ate walnuts were better at deductive reasoning. The healthy fat in nuts is still fat, so you don't want to eat too many. Stick to a daily 1-ounce serving -- just enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

Hemp seed. Hemp seed is a real superfood, Nolan says. It provides brain-powering protein, omega-3s and -6s, and a variety of antioxidants and other nutrients. Often packaged as a powder, the seeds of Cannabis sativa -- better known as hemp -- are totally versatile. Their nutty flavor blends well with lots of breakfast foods and baked goods. Stir a couple of spoonfuls into oatmeal, mix with milk or yogurt, sprinkle on cereal, or bake into muffins.

Drinking coffee to concentrate? Stick to 8-ounce cups of coffee, instead of grande-size portions.

Chocolate. Yes, Nolan says, chocolate is brain food "It likely works by increasing blood flow to the brain."

But not all chocolate is created equal. Milk chocolate has too little cocoa to provide benefits, and white chocolate -- which is not really chocolate -- has no cocoa at all. "Cocoa," Nolan says, "is where you are getting the nutrition and the brainpower."

Stick to dark, bittersweet chocolate and no more than a few squares a day, about half an ounce. Or stir a teaspoon of cocoa powder into your Greek yogurt. Avoid alkalized or Dutch processed cocoa, which has fewer antioxidants than regular cocoa.

Dark green vegetables. Spinach, asparagus, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts all provide folate, which Gomez-Pinilla says appears crucial to brain function. Eat a good mix of veggies rather than favoring just one or two, so you get a mix of nutrients, he adds.

Beans. Bring on the burritos! Beans supply high-quality protein, magnesium, and B vitamins, all of which help your brain work. Because beans also have lots of fiber and complex carbohydrates, you'll digest them slowly and benefit from them over the course of the day. Nolan says that, across the board, all beans provide about the same amounts of protein and fiber. They are also good sources of omega-3s and antioxidants, particularly kidney beans. Try to eat one-half to two-thirds cup of beans every day, Nolan recommends.

Drinking coffee to concentrate? Stick to 8-ounce cups of coffee, instead of grande-size portions.

Coffee. Caffeinated coffee gives you a dose of early morning energy, and in small doses, it can help you concentrate, Nolan says. The key word here is "small." Stick to 8-ounce cups instead of grande-size portions to avoid caffeine jitters -- and extra calories, if you're a latte, mocha, or cappuccino drinker.

Don't like coffee? Do what Gomez-Pinilla does and choose green tea, which has many of the same health benefits.

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD the Magazine."

Drinking coffee to concentrate? Stick to 8-ounce cups of coffee, instead of grande-size portions.

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Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, professor, physiological science, Department of Neurosurgery and Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, UCLA.

Marjorie Nolan, RD, New York personal trainer, dietitian; spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.

Gomez-Pinilla, F. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, July 2008.

Joseph, J. Journal of Nutrition, published online July 29, 2009.

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