Saturday, 13 Jul 2024

Eating for Brain Health

When it comes to fueling your young athlete, it’s not just about nourishing their body; their brain needs fuel too. Surprisingly, the brain consumes around 20 percent of the body’s energy, making it the most energy-hungry organ. Ensuring your athlete’s brain is properly fueled is essential for quick thinking and sharp performance both in school and on the field. On the other hand, a deficit in brain fuel can lead to brain fog and difficulty paying attention. Let’s explore how you can keep your athlete’s brain fueled:

Give it enough fuel

Since the brain requires a significant amount of energy to function optimally, the most crucial thing your young athlete can do is to eat enough. Research shows that the younger the child, the more energy the brain requires. By age 5, the brain already uses almost half of the body’s energy and fuel. Therefore, it is vital to ensure your athlete is consuming enough healthy calories.

The downside of deficiency

Athletes who intentionally or unintentionally restrict calories may experience a decrease in their performance both on and off the field. A survey conducted in Australia found that 42 percent of school-age children regularly skip breakfast.

According to Bupa Chief Medical Officer Dr. Christine Bennett, “Skipping breakfast is the healthy lifestyle equivalent of driving your car on an empty petrol tank – it inevitably runs out when you most need it. Research shows that skipping breakfast results in reduced learning, reduced attention, and poor food choices for the rest of the day.”

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Hydration and brain health

Proper hydration also plays a role in optimal brain health. Research indicates that dehydration can lead to a sharp decrease in cognitive function. If your athletes regularly train in hot conditions or engage in high-intensity training, it is crucial to ensure they drink enough water during practice and throughout the day.

The impact of junk food on the brain

Unfortunately, some foods, particularly ultra-processed ones, can be detrimental to brain health. According to research published in the British Medical Journal, highly processed foods are directly correlated with a slight decrease in IQ among young children. Additionally, a large-scale study found increased levels of hyperactivity in children who regularly consume artificial food colors and the preservative sodium benzoate, commonly found in many highly processed junk foods. Early research also suggests that regular consumption of sugary drinks by adolescents may impair learning and memory.

Eating a well-rounded diet

So, what should athletes be eating for optimal brain health? All three macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein) are crucial for brain function, and the focus should be on whole foods. Meals should include lean proteins like chicken, fish, or tofu; carbohydrate sources such as sweet potatoes and brown rice; and healthy fats like avocados or olive oil. Furthermore, incorporate plenty of fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, into their diet. A whole food-based diet with a variety of plant-based foods provides the necessary building blocks for optimized brain health.

The importance of Omega-3 fatty acids

Research from 2008 highlights the critical role of Omega-3 fatty acids in brain health. According to Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, a UCLA professor of neurosurgery, “Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain… Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal brain function.” The study showed that children with increased Omega-3 fatty acid intake tend to perform better in school. You can find Omega-3s in fatty fish, fish oils, and walnuts.

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Vitamins and minerals for brain health

Eating a whole food-based diet with a variety of foods generally provides the necessary vitamins and minerals for better brain health. However, there are a few worth focusing on, as listed by Harvard Health:

  • Zinc: Found in meat, fish, dairy, and nuts.
  • Iron: Found in red meat, beans, and dark leafy greens.
  • Choline: Found in eggs, meat, and dairy.
  • Vitamins A, D, B6, and B12: Vitamin D is best obtained through sun exposure but can also be found in some fatty fish or fortified dairy products.

Be sneaky

If you struggle to get your picky eater to consume certain brain-healthy foods, try a different approach. Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business suggest serving the food without mentioning its health benefits or highlighting how delicious it is.


While many athletes focus on nutrition to fuel their bodies, it is equally important for maintaining a healthy brain function. By following these strategies, you can help your athlete eat in a way that promotes optimal brain health.


Q: How much energy does the brain require?
A: The brain uses approximately 20 percent of the body’s energy.

Q: What happens if athletes restrict calories?
A: Restricting calories can lead to a decrease in performance both on and off the field.

Q: What role does hydration play in brain health?
A: Proper hydration is crucial for optimal brain health and cognitive function.

Q: Are highly processed foods harmful to the brain?
A: Yes, research suggests that highly processed foods can have a negative impact on brain health.

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Q: Are Omega-3 fatty acids important for brain health?
A: Yes, Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal brain function and cognitive performance.


In this article, we explored the importance of nutrition for brain health in young athletes. Ensuring adequate fuel, avoiding calorie restriction, staying hydrated, and consuming a well-rounded diet of whole foods are all crucial for optimal brain function. Omega-3 fatty acids, along with essential vitamins and minerals, also play a significant role. By following these guidelines, you can help your athlete thrive both academically and athletically. For more expert-driven articles and resources, visit our website.