What food does your brain need to perform at its best? Today, we consider how to craft a sustainable, enjoyable nutrition plan that will give you the nutrients you need in college.
This episode features interviews with Natalie Zaparzynski, the Dietician for Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, and Kevin Moore, Kitchen Manager at the Haverford Coop. This episode features the track “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock.
Lilly Alonzo: Today on the Compass, we will discuss nutrition.
Peter Granville: What kind of nutrients does your brain need to perform at its best? How do you develop the right nutrition for you?
LA: We’ll discuss the right foods to eat and what it means to reconsider our relationship to food.
PG: My name is Peter.
LA: And I’m Lilly.
PG: Welcome to the Haverford Compass.
PG: So, Lilly, when you were growing up, what sort of food would you eat, let’s say, the morning that you had a big test?
LA: I remember that when I would take the SAT – I’m not going to disclose how many times I took it – my dad would make us eggs and whole wheat toast. And when my mom wasn’t up he would sometimes give us ice cream.
PG: Even on the day when you had the SAT.
LA: Yeah, it was a little bit like “This will get you through it, it’s okay.” It was very little, like very very little.
LA: But mostly he stressed the healthy stuff so that we wouldn’t feel hungry during the test and we wouldn’t get distracted.
PG: That’s cool. What I took the SATs, my dad would make me scrambled eggs that morning, and yeah, I feel like the food may not have put the knowledge in my brain, but there’s science that suggests that it helps.
LA: Last time on the Compass, we talked about how though the mind might feel abstract, the brain is grounded in reality. This is perhaps most true with nutrition – what you eat affects how you feel, how you learn, and how you perform. The next episodes in our season will build on this foundation.
PG: To be clear, we’re not talking about nutrition for weight loss or performance in the gym. We’re here to discuss nutrition for mental performance: learning new information and applying it through tests, essays, classroom discussion, and more.
LA: To begin, the brain relies on certain nutrients to perform highly. But what are these essential nutrients?
PG: Boy, I hope my favorite food is an essential nutrient.
LA: Cool Ranch Doritos are not an essential nutrient.
LA: The brain’s essential nutrients are water, vitamins, and healthy fats. That’s right – healthy fats. A lot of fad diets focus on protein and carbs, but when it comes to the brain, healthy fats are a must. Healthy fats include omega-3 fatty acids –
PG: You find those in fish, walnuts, and avocados –
LA: And HDL cholesterol –
PG: You can find those in eggs, olive oil, and some beans.
LA: I know we hear cholesterol and think “oh, that’s not good!” but your brain actually holds about a quarter of the body’s cholesterol.
PG: Without plenty of cholesterol, your brain cells can actually die. So it’s one example of how healthy fats are critical to support the brain.
LA: Water also is crucial for the brain’s function. The effects of dehydration on the brain are insane. Sweating for 90 minutes will impair brain function as much as one year of aging. Without enough water, you’ll see declines in your attention and memory.
PG: Your brain also needs vitamins and minerals. Only once your diet includes a diverse array of vegetables (or a multivitamin) can your brain can operate at peak performance. If your plate has a whole rainbow of colorful vegetables, then you’re golden.
LA: So those are the three essential brain nutrients: healthy fats, vitamins, and water.
PG: When you put this all together, you can see that brain function depends on getting the right foods, and enough of them. Quality matters as much as quantity.
LA: That’s right – food quality matters. Think of your brain as a very nice, expensive car, like a Lamborghini or an Aston Martin. A car like that can’t take any old regular gas. It needs premium fuel. Your brain is the same way – it needs the best or else it won’t run effectively.
PG: So, this is kinda good news! You are a Bugatti! You are a Porsche! So treat yourself that way.
LA: And if you woke up today feeling like your grandpa’s beat-up 1999 Honda, well, maybe you can fuel yourself better.
PG: Now, the quantity of the food you eat matters too. When someone hasn’t eaten enough, they get tired, irritable, stressed, and possibly depressed. In particular, without enough carbohydrates, your brain gets foggy and you make irrational decisions.
LA: So we know that there are essential nutrients for the brain, and that quality and quantity of food both matter. But in college, structuring an intentional diet can be one of the last things on our mind. It’s understandable not to focus on food: any individual plate of food isn’t going to finish your problem set for you.
PG: But a consistent, intentional diet, maintained over time, can yield a big shift in your quality of life. Food can be an asset to make you a better learner and a happier person. But you may need to rethink your relationship to food to get to that point.
LA: After the break, we’ll get some professional advice about how best to approach nutrition.
PG: This episode of the Compass is brought to you by antioxidants. You may have heard of antioxidants: they’re these tiny compounds that are found in berries, nuts, and even chocolate. They inhibit oxidation, which is the collection of waste in the brain. Think of oxidation as being like rusting of the chain on a bike. Antioxidants clear off this rust: they keep your brain fresh. The OAR recommends you add some berries or nuts to your next meal today.
PG: For the brain, some foods are better than others. On the OAR website, we’re posting some top brain foods we recommend.
LA: For the remainder of this episode, we wanted to discuss how to create an individualized nutrition plan.
PG: For that, we sat down with a local expert.
Natalie Zaparzynski: I am Natalie Zaparzynski, the Bi-Co dietician for Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges.
LA: Natalie shared with us that planning nutrition is a very individual process. But the most important thing is to get a balanced plate that’s right for you.
PG: So, we’d love for you to give us a meal plan that will work for everyone. What is the official, one-size-fits-all diet?
NZ: Unfortunately, nutrition in general is not one-size-fits-all. We all have different preferences, lifestyles, values, and health concerns. You might have a friend who follows a vegan diet and it works for them really well, but that might not work out for you, maybe you’re diabetic. Diabetics following a vegan diet, it’s really challenging because those diets tend to be really high in carbohydrates. So when it comes down to nutrition and “diets,” and I use air-quotes there, we want to think about, again, that balance as a whole. I talk to students all the time, and I can support different diets, but we always want to get back to “Are you getting a balanced plate? And are you getting nutrients like vegetables, fruits, proteins, high-fiber foods?” If you’re able to get those things, I can support whatever diet works for you and that you can sustain for a long time. But if we’re removing any one of those major food groups, it can be a big problem, and it’s, again, not sustainable for a long time.”
LA: Natalie also points out that sustainability is the goal: this is achieved when you’re eating a balanced plate of healthy foods that you also enjoy.
NZ: I try to work with students to achieve goals that are sustainable, that they can use throughout their life. So we’re tackling things like balance in their diet, a lot of times they address sugar on campus. Basically, I want them to learn how to eat a balanced plate of food, choose healthful whole foods, while at the same time practicing mindfulness, really listening to their body. And they can still include some of their favorite foods, we just try to rethink how frequently, maybe, and making sure they can still enjoy all those things.
LA: So, following Natalie’s advice, ask yourself: is your plate balanced? Are you listening to your body? And are you enjoying your food too?
PG: And this enjoyment of food is important. We’ve been speaking about food as fuel – and yeah, food is, literally, fuel for our lives. But there’s more to it than that. Food is an experience. To explore this idea, we took a visit to the Coop, where you can have some of Haverford’s finest eating experiences. We spoke to a member of the team that prepares the Coop’s delicious meals.
Kevin Moore: My name is Kevin Moore. I’m a cook / kitchen manager.
PG: Is there anything you’d like Haverford students to know about the Coop or your role?
KM: The Coop is a nice, fine restaurant in Haverford. I remember when I first started up here in ’93, I learned from a lady by the name of Shirley, and we had to do a Serve Safe course to make sure that the food was properly served, make sure that it was properly cleaned, make sure that it was properly cooked. So when you get food from the Coop, you’re getting like top-notch quality food. And cleanliness is number one. You notice everybody wears gloves every time we serve. And anytime that we use the gloves for a certain amount of time we have to take them off and put fresh gloves on. And we have a variety of delicious items – I know I flipped the script just now – but everything about the Coop, it’s a good thing. Also, a nice hangout place.
PG: Yeah. What are your favorite meals that you offer?
KM: Wow, the quesadillas. The quesadillas, I love making the cheesesteaks, I like making our homemade fries. You know, there was a time when we had our own baked goods, we would do the bakery stuff, now we order that. But I trust our baking more – baking items – than the outside.
PG: Yeah. Any parting words for students?
KM: Just because you pour syrup on poop don’t make it pancakes. I had to get a laugh there. But no, always think positive, never doubt yourself. Most times when you think that you can’t do something, it’s only a mind thing, you can really do it and you may excel higher than your next opponent.
PG: That’s right.
KM: There you go.
PG: Fantastic. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
KM: You’re welcome.
LA: Thanks for listening today. To recap, remember to get your healthy fats, vitamins, and water. Craft a balanced plate that you enjoy, and don’t just rush through meals, but really savor them.
PG: Big thanks to Natalie and Kevin for speaking with us. The Compass is a product of the Haverford College Office of Academic Resources. Make sure to listen to our next episode, when we will talk about the science of sleep.
[Loud noise on table]
LA: Why do you have a blender?
PG: To close out this episode, I thought we could make a smoothie with a bunch of brain foods. So I put in here some blueberries, walnuts, dark chocolate, some ice cream, and then some milk, and some ice. So alright, let’s get this thing started.
LA: Wait, the top!
LA: Peter, it’s everywhere.
PG: Oh, god. This is going to take a while to clean up. Oh, it’s on my laptop too.
LA: Let’s get that.
LA: How do we close this?
PG: I was actually just going to fade out.
[Dialogue fades out]