15 Yummy Superfoods to Tune Up Your Brain for the CFA Exam

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By Sophie 

With the CFA countdown clock ticking away, it’s time to take a step back to evaluate your study routine and productivity to make sure you’re on the right track.

How are you feeling? Are you sleeping enough, or getting the most out of your sleep time? Feeling moderately stressed is normal (and in fact beneficial to your performance), but excess stress can be combated in many ways. Sharing your concerns with others in the same boat helps tremendously, or occasionally seeing the funny side of things.

I remembered how difficult it was when preparing for the CFA exams years ago. But I also learned then that the old adage of “you are what you eat” is true, through experimentation with a change in food intake. And my, what a difference it makes – it’s as if the heavy cloud clogging my brain lifted instantly! My concentration improved threefold, and concepts just magically became easier to grasp. That’s not pure coincidence.

The magic triangle to boost work and study productivity is no secret: getting a good night’s sleep, exercise and dietary intake. Fuelling our brain for optimum performance depends on the quality, quantity and type of food. Try implementing these superfood ideas daily and notice the difference.

Why You Need These 4 Nutrients 
Food items are not created equal. Superfoods obtained their status by being nutritionally dense in one or more of the following good-for-you stuff for your brain: 

1) Glucose
The brain’s source of fuel, keeping us going throughout the day. The key here is how quickly glucose is released into our bloodstream. What you need are ones that release slow and sustainable energy, simply because it provides better focus and higher attention levels (no sugar high and crashes). 

Glycemic index (GI) indicates how quickly foods break down into sugar in your bloodstream. A food with a high GI raises blood sugar more than a food with a medium to low GI. However, GI is a measure of carbohydrate quality but not quantity (standardised at per 50g carbohydrates)

Glycemic load (GL) is a more accurate tool to use as it measures the blood-sugar-raising power per serving of food. In summary, GL helps you select appropriate portion sizes, while GI helps you differentiate between good and bad carbohydrate choices. The lower each number, the less it affects blood sugar levels.

A great example to illustrate the difference is watermelon – it has a high GI of 72, yet a low GL of 7. Why? The high GI is based on 5 cups of watermelon (for 50g carbohydrates), not an actual serving size of 1 cup. The low GL means one serving of watermelon doesn’t contain much carbohydrate, as it is mostly water, which means a serving of watermelon won’t have much impact on your blood sugar.

2) The Right Fat
Fat has been (and still is) wrongly demonised. A diet rich in the right amount of unsaturated fats is essential to clear thinking, good memory, and a balanced mood. Our brains are made of fat, after all.

Unsaturated fats are the good guys here. These are liquid fats at room temperature and mostly plant-based. There are 2 types: mono and polysaturated fatty acids. The former helps better blood circulation, the latter strengthens the synapses in your brain related to memory.
 
Synapses in the brain connect neurons and provide critical functions for learning and memory. Excess calories – especially from fast or junk food – reduces the flexibility of synapses and increase the vulnerability of cells to damage by causing the formation of free radicals. 

Eat less saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature and tend to be animal-based. Excessive saturated fats causes increase in cholesterol. A worse culprit is trans fat, which is a hydrogenated fat processed to have higher shelf life, prevalent in processed food, cookies and pastries. Your best bet is to read the nutrition labels to dissect the fat content.     
 
3) Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of your brain’s network. They help connect the neurotransmitters which are essential for keeping your brain sharp, improving memory, concentration and fight stress exhaustion. This nutrient is abundant in protein-rich food such as fish, meat, eggs, cheese, lentils and yoghurt.

4) Antioxidants:
Antioxidants are the saviour that help reduce daily ‘wear and tear’ damage to brain cells. They support vascular health and likely help repair your neurons and damage associated with ageing and boosts immunity – great for keeping yourself in tip-top condition prior to the CFA exams.


The 15 Superfoods You Should Try More Of

Avocados – Feed your Brain
Rich in both monounsaturated fat and antioxidant for improved blood circulation and cell-repair. Great with salads, eggs and wraps.
Bananas – Memory Booster
The brain works best with 25g glucose circulating in the blood stream – about the amount found in a banana. It also contains a third of your daily required intake of vitamin B6, a nutrient directly linked to memory, cognition and long term brain health (yay). 
Remember to bring some during exam day
Beans – Thinking Fuel
A great source of slow release of glucose and amino acids, keeps you focused and productive without the sugar crash. Beware of excessive amounts though, we all know the uncomfortable side effects…
Blueberries – Cleansing Agents
High in fibre and antioxidants, yet low on the glycemic index, how can any superfood beat blueberries?
Brown Rice – Focus Food
A low GI complex carbohydrate, it’s perfect for those who are gluten intolerant too. Its higher fibre content with nuttier taste keeps you fuller (and focused) for longer.
Coffee – Adrenaline Rush
Coffee is rich in antioxidants, while also providing an energy boost to work more effectively in dire times like this. However, do limit coffee consumption to 2-3 cups max a day. Oh, and no sugar or cream please (yes, that’s the catch!).       
Dark Chocolate (> 70%) – Study Snacks
Loaded with antioxidants, brain-boosting compounds and a touch of caffeine, it’s a great pick-me-up during your study break. Watch the portions though. Sugary milk and white chocolates don’t count.
Eggs – Mood Lifter
Eggs contain protein and fat to provide energy to your brain for hours, and selenium in eggs is proven to help your mood. The cholesterol fears of eggs are overblown – so feel free to have more of this versatile, nutritional powerhouse!  
Nuts – Nature’s Vitamins
Unroasted hazelnuts, cashews, almond and walnuts are great choices. Filled with health-healthy unsaturated fats, vitamins and fibre, they are a great snack to keep you going. Do watch your portions as it’s pretty calorific! 
Leafy Greens – Energy & Clarity
The darker the better. Great examples are spinach, kale, chard, romaine and arugula – choose what you like and eat it daily. They are high in iron which prevents fatigue, poor mood, foggy thinking, and other cognition issues.
Oats – Power Your Day
A great start to your day (instead of sugary cereals), oatmeals are packed with fiber, some protein and Omega-3′s. It has low GI and a small amount will sustain you throughout the morning so you aren’t prone to irritability or an energy crash. Perfect with blueberries and bananas to make you feel epic. 
Salmon – Get in Fighting Form
Full of Omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is a hero in improving cognition, alertness, memory, mood, as well as reducing depression. Have them with the skin for maximum nutritional benefits. They are easy to cook, a simple pan-fry with salt and pepper works wonders.
Seeds – Nutrient-packed Capsules
Sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds contain a protein, beneficial unsaturated fats, vitamin E, as well as stress-fighting antioxidants and important brain-boosting minerals like magnesium. Legendary.
Tea – Increased Productivity
Preferably brew the tea fresh or you won’t get the benefits of all those awesome antioxidants. Just like coffee, try not to have more than 2-3 cups daily due to the caffeine content.
Tomatoes – Jack Up Your Immunity
Rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that is particularly good for your brain and in preventing diseases. Cook tomatoes to get the lycopene though. Ketchup doesn’t count due to it’s high sugar content, but fresh tomato sauce do. Pasta or ratatouille anyone?
Which ones of these foods are already helping you in your studies? Share your own eating strategies with us below!
Zee Tan
Author: Zee Tan

 

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