It wasn’t too long ago that I was sitting in the kitchen with my roommate, shamelessly dunking Oreos into a tub of peanut butter after a 12-hour marathon of cramming for finals at Van Pelt.
In my defense, I usually live a relatively healthy life, but come crunch time, it all goes to hell. Sound familiar?
College sophomore Stephanie Rogan put it well when she said, “I feel like during exams, calories don’t count.”
Whatever our excuse for eating like crap — whether we’re stressed, strapped for time or rewarding our hard work — deep down, we all know that eating that junk isn’t good for our bodies.
But get this: long before that junk food has any effect on your BMI, it can take a serious toll on your GPA.
According to a 2009 study from Cambridge University, what you eat while you study can have immediate effects on your ability to perform well on upcoming tests. The study finds that a short binge on fatty foods can have fast-acting, real effects on short-term memory.
In the study, a group of 42 rats learned a maze. Then, half the rats were switched to a high-fat diet while the other half continued to chow down on low-fat grub. After just five days, the rats eating high-fat food showed a striking decline in cognitive function — specifically, deterioration in their short-term memory. It seemed they just couldn’t remember the maze they had learned and made more mistakes in the maze then their low-fat diet counterparts.
The hard science behind these findings is by no means definitive, but the thinking is that a switch to fatty foods triggers insulin resistance. This means that the body is less efficient at converting blood glucose to energy needed to power the brain.
In case you, like me, are weary of putting your trust in a rat study, early findings from similar studies conducted on humans suggest that after adopting a high-fat diet, even just for a few days, humans suffer the same mental decline as the rodents — an effect referred to by some scientists as a “high-fat hangover.”
Despite the study’s limitations, its overall message is a valuable one for students.
Stressed, tired and fighting the clock, students tend to eat their worst at the precise time of year when we need our minds to be their sharpest. By eating high-fat junk, we’re messing with our short-term memory — you know, the kind of memory we rely on to memorize those 300 flashcards for an upcoming Bio final.
Even if you manage to avoid any long-term consequences and kick your unhealthy habits, when exams are over, the damage of your fatty food binge may already be done.
In an interview with The New York Times, the study’s lead author and Cambridge professor Andrew Murray stressed, “It was really striking how quickly these effects happened.’’
Unfortunately, nothing in science is ever one sided. In order to provide you with the whole story, I’m forced to complicate matters by telling you about another rat study, this one from the University of California, Irvine, which suggests that the consumption of fatty foods can actually improve long-term memory formation.
The thinking here is that fat in the food is converted to a memory-enhancing substance in the gut, an adaptation that would have been useful for animals who needed to remember where they ate their last high-fat meal.
Although I wish I could embrace the findings of this second study (and use it to justify that second bag of peanut M&M;’s!), after reading through both, the second study just isn’t as convincing as the first. Even the study’s author, neuroscientist Daniele Piomelli, does not recommend binging on fatty food in an effort to improve memory.
Midterms will sneak up on us before we know it, so consider both studies. And when faced with exams, weigh your options, taking into account your waistline, your transcript and, of course, your will power. Sally Engelhart is a College sophomore from Toronto. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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