Brains are expensive. They take 20% of the total energy our bodies use (Shulman et al.). This is a HUGE portion of our total food intake. Human energy use typically ranges from 70 kilocal/hr while sleeping, to 1400 kilocal/hr while sprinting (D. Morton). Think about it, 20% of this energy goes towards our brain’s functioning. To put this concept to actual numbers, an individual who does simple housekeeping for an hour uses 150 kilocalories. This means the brain alone is using 30 kilocalories (commonly referred to simply as calories) each hour. A chocolate chip cookie, a zucchini, three cucumbers, and 3/4ths a cup of popcorn are all examples of foods with around 30 calories (Healthy Bites Under 30 Calories). The thought that a brain can use up a whole zucchini in an hour of simple everyday work is ‘mind-boggling!’
Okay, so most of us don’t need to consume a full zucchini every hour; but brains do need a lot of food to function properly. Brain food is a term used to describe food that promotes healthy brain functioning and development. In many ways our brains are like picky children; they always want food but it won’t just eat anything. Brains love fruits, vegetables, and certain meats. They don’t give us their best work unless we supply them with nutrients from these sources. This can be an issue with lower class citizens, especially those living off of food stamps, who can’t afford or have difficulty accessing the foods required for full brain development and upkeep.
Four dollars and thirty cents is the average allowance a person living off of food stamps has to spend on food per day. This presents challenges for finding the right food at a fair price. I explored what is like to live on this food stamp diet of four dollars and thirty cents a day for two days.
Being a college student means my brain is trusted upon for most of my life activities; memory during exams, concentration during lectures, and reasoning for homework problems. When I started my diet, I didn’t realize a big biology exam was the next night, and I would need to be in top mental performance for it. I was worried my diet wouldn’t allow my brain to function as well for it. But then I realized individuals who live off of food stamps and small incomes have mental tasks at hand as well, and this would keep the experiment valid by not cushioning the impact of the food stamp diet. The first day went by…okay. I didn’t eat nearly as much as I was used to. Aside from being a little hungry, there wasn’t much of a difference in mental or physical functioning. However, the second day, as the diet began affecting me, I found myself falling asleep in lectures, gazing off randomly, and with a diminished general productivity. Luckily I had saved some of that day’s allowance for an extra calorie boost right before my exam by way of a PB&J sandwich. I don’t think it got me feeling quite up to par though. I ended up with an A- on the exam, but I can help but wonder what I would’ve gotten if I was on my regular diet. So why or how could my mental performance be so diminished?
My diet consisting mainly of ramen and oatmeal left my brain deprived of nutrients it demanded. Proteins for neurotransmitter production were absent (Neurotransmitters are what make up circulatory systems). Healthy fats that make up the majority of myelin (what protects your brain’s cells) weren’t involved either. Micronutrients that include antioxidants, bioflavonoids, and a long list of photochemicals were hardly an option. All these things increase/make up the foundation of the brain (The Franklin Institute Resources for Science Learnin) but were abruptly removed from my daily diet. Why? The brain food these nutrients are found too expensive at the local convenience stores; so unless I use a whole day to ride buses around outside campus in search of them, my brain will be nutrient deprived.
Proteins are abundant in animal products such as milk and eggs. Healthy fats, namely monounsaturated or poly-unsaturated fats, are found in foods such as fish, olive oil, and nuts (The Franklin Institute Resources for Science Learning). Micronutrient sources range from citrus fruits to cruciferous vegetables. These foods are either expensive or totally absent in campus stores. The only way I can affordably obtain these foods is if I go to a food supercenter such as Meijer or Wal-Mart or by eating in the dorm cafeteria that costs nine dollars every time I walk in. The problem with the supercenters is that I, as many other students do, hold multiple jobs and a full class load. So how can I get the nutrients my brain desires without loosing valuable time?!
Planning and time are the keys to a healthy diet on a low income in college and out of college. These are two things that prevented my diet from including true ‘brain food.’ Inadequate preparation and collection of cheap nutritious foods such as eggs, milk, and fresh fruits and veggies greatly diminished my options for what food I could afford. Lack or inefficient use of time prevented me from shopping at these food supercenters. However, this time constraint is more difficult to be rid of. If caught in a busy week, choices between nutrient deprivations or over paying for meals must be made. This is similar to situations people face who work multiple jobs and have families to care for, time is of the essence and health food is often low priority. To fully allow nutritious meals for everyone, brain food selection and prices must be widely available at a price akin to supercenters.
Brains are being nutrient starved throughout the world and it can be prevented. For a quick solution, education on what food brains need to function and develop properly, and on where to get that food should be given to those living off small incomes and food stamps. But for a more permanent solution, substantial health foods such as potatoes, carrots, and even fish in bulk/economical packages need wider distributions in convenience stores and vendors. Everywhere you can buy junk food, you should be able to buy brain food. This can be achieved by simply buying health foods. Demand increases supply and distribution simultaneously. If supply increase, prices decrease. This is why junk foods have the distribution and prices they do today. It’s up to us to change this. Every cent of every dollar is a vote for food type. Do it for those on tight budgets. Do it to utilize the human brain. Do it for a healthier you.
1. D. Morton, Human Locomotion and Body Form, The Williams & Wilkins Co., Baltimore (1952).
2. Shulman, , Rothman, Behar, and Hyder. "Energetic basis of brain activity: implications for neuroimaging." PubMed. Yale University School of Medicine, 27 Aug. 2004. Web. 29 Sept. 2011. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=15271497>.
3. "Healthy Bites Under 30 Calories." Health Bits. N.p., 15 Nov. 2008. Web. 4 Oct. 2011. <https://aloofries.wordpress.com/2008/11/15/healthy-bites-under-30-calories/>.
4. The Franklin Institute Resources for Science Learning. Unisys, 2004. Web. 4 Oct. 2011. <http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/index.html>.