Brain: The Under-Fueled Muscle

I have been a practicing dietitian for over 10 years with a specialty in sports and performance. Most clients come to see me wanting to optimize fueling for their sport, but I have never had a client come see me on how to optimize fueling for their academics or keys to balancing both. Yet, we know that the brain is the most important key to both.

It starts with the Brain

The brain is the most consistently demanding organ in the body for fuel needs. Most estimates range from 20-25% of our total daily energy needs go directly to the brain {1}. Just like any other organ or muscle if we ask more of it, it will need more fuel. As a student-athlete this is paying double the energy tax during the day as you work hard to be a good student then outside of school you try to excel in your sport. Yet, 8 to 12 percent of all school-aged kids skip breakfast and upon adolescence when they need it the most 20 to 30 percent have consistently stopped eating breakfast. After school is done then the brain is asked to continue to work hard within sport usually on depleted energy reserves. Leaving the student-athlete struggling to stay focused at practice, delayed in their reaction time and quicker to fatigue.

What happens when the brain is on E?

In a simplistic explanation when the brain doesn’t have sufficient fuel it runs slower and your mood becomes more irritable. It is hard to stay engaged as a student when your brain is tired and cranky. What we eat (food) creates neurotransmitters and neurotransmitters make us function. One nutrient especially that students are prone to being deficient in is iron. {2} Iron intake is poor as consumption of red meat decreases; soda consumption increases blocking absorption of iron and/or increased milk consumption that binds to iron. When iron stores lower there is poor dopamine transmission impacting cognition as well as mood. For the athlete iron is the carrier of oxygen to the muscles and an important co-factor in our energy production. You can see a theme low iron, slow you!

Carbs the preferred brain fuel

Our young student athletes aren’t immune to the diet trends that adults fall prey to especially recently with the low carb craze. Our brain loves glucose for its energy source. {3} The brain can use converted fuel sources, but it takes longer for the brain to be able to use them. The converted fuel (amino acids/fats) are then not present to do the job they were intended to do. For example, protect your immune system, build muscle or reduce inflammation.

Nutrition in the classroom & on the field

Research backed up that a higher quality diet filled with fruits, vegetables, adequate protein and sufficient carbohydrate is associated with better performance on exams. For those that question if eating your fruits and vegetables really do make a difference Benton and Roberts conducted an experiment.  They set out to examine if a deficiency in minerals and vitamins was preventing cognitive functioning. The group that received the MVI supplement versus the placebo showed a significant increase in non-verbal intelligence. {4}   Providing programs that ensure children have adequate nutrition provided despite financial means showed modest improvements in students’ academic test scores. Various studies have shown that improving adequate nutrition for students lead to an increased ability to stay on task, increases in specifically math scores, and better overall attendance in school.

Tips to keep those student athletes healthy and ready to learn:

  • Help them get to bed early enough so they have the time to get in a nourishing breakfast.
  • Plan it out the night before- overnight oats or breakfast sandwiches.
  • Make things convenient- cut up fruits and vegetables or purchase already prepared foods.
  • Show your child at least 3-5 options that they can fix in minutes- example eggs in the microwave or yogurt parfait in a jar to go.
  • Bento boxes are a great way to intentionally pack balanced meals.
  • Model it- Be sure that you are setting the example of how important eating is before going off to work.

Looking for tips on what to buy when grocery shopping? I got you covered! You can sign up to get my grocery list here!   Reference:

  1. Why does the brain need so much power– N Sawninathan-retrieved from-
  2. Florence, M., Asbridge, M., & Veugelers, P. (2008). Diet quality and academic performance. Journal of School Health, 78, 209–215.
  3. Magistretti, Allaman. (2105).A Cellular Perspective on Brain Energy Metabolism and Functional Imaging. Neuron 86, 883-901.
  4. Benton, D. & Roberts, G. (1988). Effect of vitamin and mineral supplementation on intelligence in a sample of schoolchildren. The Lancet, 1, 140–143.