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Feeding the Teacher's Brain: Nutrition Tips for Busy Educators

Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers

Authors of Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Professional Developers, & Co-Developers of Graduate Programs Applying Mind, Brain, and Education Science
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Orange cheese and half of an avocado

Teaching is a cognitively complex profession. In the course of a single school day, an educator must make hundreds of decisions and respond quickly to the myriad unexpected turns that life in the classroom may take. You have a high-energy job, so it's essential to prime your brain and body with the right fuel.

But in the busy life of a teacher, who has time to think about healthy eating, much less sorting through the sometimes-conflicting claims about the nutritional value of various food choices? Unfortunately, the less we think about what we eat, the worse our diets may be -- especially if we default to snacking on so-called convenience foods that are high in sugar and saturated fats and low in nutrient-dense ingredients that sustain energy levels.

Persistent Nutrition Myths

Consider a few common myths about nutrition that can lead to "brain bonk" and low energy throughout the school day:

Myth: Proper nutrition is only about fueling a healthy body.

Food Fact: Don't forget about feeding your brain! The brain consumes calories, too, about 600 per day on average. Food choices that support cardiovascular health -- a diet primarily consisting of non-starchy vegetables and fruits, healthy oils and fats, a variety of protein sources, and selected whole grains -- are also good for the brain and may enhance cognitive functioning across the lifespan.

Myth: Loading up on carbs provides a reliable source of sustained energy.

Food Fact: The calories from added sugar and refined starches and grains may produce a brief energy surge -- one that quickly fades to lethargy. Reducing the consumption of foods with added sugar, which includes many prepared foods and snacks, is the top recommendation in the newly-released 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Myth: Fats are bad.

Food Fact: The updated Dietary Guidelines continue to advise limiting the consumption of saturated fats, found primarily in red meats and dairy products. However, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are key ingredients in the much-touted Mediterranean diet, have been found to have positive effects on blood cholesterol levels. Seeds, nuts, olive oil, and avocados are ready sources of monounsaturated fats, while fish such as salmon and albacore tuna contain polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids that may also support brain functioning. Fats increase the feeling of satiety and help to keep hunger pangs at bay. This means that fewer total calories might be consumed over the course of a day.

Myth: Meaty meals are the best sources of protein.

Food Fact: Nutritional researchers are in wide agreement that most Americans rely too heavily on red and processed meats as their primary sources of protein. Another red flag comes from a recent World Health Organization report linking regular consumption of red and processed meats to an increased risk of cancer. You can add more healthy sources of protein by planning meals that include seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, legumes like beans and peas, and nuts, seeds, and soy products.

A Healthy Start to the Day

Applying these recommendations, let's take a fresh look at what recent research reveals about eating the right foods at the right time to optimize brain performance. Beginning with a healthy breakfast can mean the difference between a full morning of energetic teaching and starting to feel droopy by 10AM. At the beginning of some of our professional development sessions, we ask participating teachers about their breakfast habits. A common response runs along these lines: a bowl of cereal with a sprinkle of sugar and fat-free milk, a glass of orange juice, and maybe a bagel. When their energy starts to lag mid-morning, they grab a carton of low-fat yogurt -- and wonder why they are starving by lunchtime.

The reality is that this breakfast is heavy on carbs and low on nutrient-dense foods. In contrast, a vegetable omelet with a cup of coffee or tea provides ample fuel to keep the brain firing all the way to lunch, when recharging with a palm-sized portion of protein such as chicken or fish, along with a colorful salad topped with an olive oil-based dressing, can keep you rolling strong.

We’re pleased to see that the new Dietary Guidelines are consistent with our work over the past 20 years of analyzing research on nutrition and its impact on human performance, especially for educators and their students. In our live events with thousands of educators over the years, our work on the impact of nutrition on the body-brain system is one of the components that participants tell us they most appreciate.

For further reading:

  • Conyers, M., & Wilson, D. (2015). Positively Smarter: Science and Strategies for Increasing Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
  • See the recommendations for the Healthy Eating Plate from the Harvard School of Public Health.
  • 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the USDA.
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Brain-Friendly Strategies for Battling Burnout
Teachers deserve access to the science and strategies for supporting well-being and battling burnout through the synergy of healthy nutrition, regular exercise, and positive thinking.

Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers

Authors of Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Professional Developers, & Co-Developers of Graduate Programs Applying Mind, Brain, and Education Science
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Teachers deserve access to the science and strategies for supporting well-being and battling burnout through the synergy of healthy nutrition, regular exercise, and positive thinking.

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MSullivan79's picture

The bad thing is - though all you propose here is great, I will find no time to prepare it :( Being a teacher certainly has a lot of perks but it doesn't (or maybe it's just me?) give you that much of free time...Thank you anyway, will try to squeeze something out of your ideas ;)

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I think it's about pacing yourself and easing into it. :-) I found that I could increase my capacity (for lack of a better word) be increasing my consumption a little at time and by trying to step up my input so the, ahem, "output" fell during my plan or after school. It was definitely a process and I've found that those habits remain in place even though I've been out of the regular classroom for years. I get thirsty now based on when I used to drink more when I was teaching (just after lunch, because I had last period plan and was able to get to the bathroom anytime after 2:00). I also tended to drink a LOT in the morning before I headed out to school so I could take care of business before my first class. This definitely falls in the category of "stuff no one teaches you in teacher school." They should have a class on bladder management in teacher prep programs.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Laurel,

I don't have any magical answers to your question, but do appreciate Laura's comment in response to you. Here are two of many online sources to affirm the importance of water. The first is from the popular Web MD site and in addition to our blog post might make a good discussion piece at school: http://www.webmd.com/diet/6-reasons-to-drink-water This posting is on the importance of water for children. http://kidshealth.org/kid/stay_healthy/food/water.html
As an example, when the Winter Park, Florida schools teamed up with the Winter Park Health Foundation, they worked together to ensure children had plenty of water throughout the day too.

All the best as you continue good health practices at home and school!

Sincerely,

Donna

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi MSullivan,

As I mentioned to someone else, personally some of our favorite ideas for evening meals are to pick up plenty of foods that are good sources of protein such as canned or roasted chicken, canned fish such as sardines, tuna, salmon (also good sources of omega 3 oils), or lean beef. We also keep a supply of good oils on hand such as macadamia nut, avocado, olive, and infused pepper and lemon oils. We keep plenty of fresh vegetables and some fruits on hand and often tend to eat what is in season in greater quantities. We try to have a colorful range of veggies each day. I also like beans and legumes and keep cans of different types for quick meals.

Several weeks ago, I made a beef brisket in the slow cooker for about 18 hours. It took about three minutes to prep. We have eaten this lean meat twice for dinner meals on Monday and Wednesday and still have plenty for a nice stir-fry tonight. Sometimes when I cook a brisket Marcus cooks a beef stir-fry (in a combination of our oils) with garlic, onions, red bell pepper (you could also use green), and kale! It will take about 30 minutes at most to prepare due to the fact that we already have the beef. Usually, the largest block of time in our kitchen goes to chopping the vegetables. However, if you don't have the minutes to chop, now it is possible to buy many veggies ready chopped. When short of time we also may use canned or frozen veggies. Additionally, awhile back I picked up a roast chicken when shopping from groceries. It was large so lasted for couple meals. We do not eat much bread, however, when I do I have whole wheat bread. Yesterday, for dinner I made a nice chicken vegetable soup from two cans of chicken and chopped onions, cauliflower, green peppers, and celery that I happened to have on hand. It took about 15 minutes to prepare and 45 minutes to cook. While it cooked I did other things around the house and answered some e-mails from colleagues.

For snacks in busy homes or to 'keep the wolf from the door' before a meal, as the picture here indicates nuts are a great snack. We usually keep a good supply of almonds, walnuts, and macadamia nuts on hand for this purpose.

This link will give you a good template for creating healthy meals with simple foods. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/

Of course as you will understand, everyone must decide what is best in their homes based on any possible food allergies and preferences. All the best as you continue to eat for good health!

Donna

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Laura,

Thank you for sharing your strategy:) When Marcus and I were walking across England last summer on the famous Wainwright Trail, pacing liquid and solid intake was of critical importance in terms of both fueling the body and staying hydrated.

Donna

Ashley Clingingsmith's picture

This was a very intriguing article that brought up many great facts! As a pre-service teacher, I am constantly being taught how to prepare for having my own classroom and how to take care of my students, but I was never taught how to take care of myself to teach at the highest level I can. Of course we all want to be as prepared for our lesson as possible, but it is equally as important to take care of ourselves so we can effective teach our well prepared lessons. These strategies really emphasize the importance of a healthy diet and all the great positive effects it has that will payoff in the classroom!

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Ashley,

You are so right when you say that teachers must take good care of ourselves in order to effectively teach others. Teaching is a difficult job that takes a lot of energy and cognition each day. Therefore, it is important to feed the body-brain system for this work!

All the best of health and wellness to you as you seek to teach your students well!

Sincerely,

Donna

Elizabeth Goold's picture

Ashley,

I wish I knew as much as you when I first started teaching!! It's been 10 years for me, and there have been periods where I have been great at taking care of myself, and times where I let it slip away. As soon as I bring back my focus, things start to get more stable, and everything is more manageable. I would love to connect on my facebook page: www.facebook.com/HealthyWithElizabeth to share some more ideas and tips with you. I'm also on twitter, and love to share ideas, @ElizabethGoold. My good friend, Lisa Dabbs, works with pre-service teachers and does wonderful things! Be sure to connect with her on Twitter or Instagram, @teachwithsoul Cheers!

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Elizabeth,

We're glad to hear you are taking care of yourself. Have a great academic year!

Donna

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