Your nutrition questions answered
Please be advised that only general questions can be answered in this forum. If you have a specific nutrition-related concern and wish to make an appointment with our Registered Dietitian, a Health Services physician can provide a referral for this service if you are a registered University of Waterloo student.
What type of diet is good to improve concentration?
While there are no magic foods known to improve concentration, smart food strategies can definitely help! The ability to focus comes from giving your brain enough energy. This comes primarily from glucose, which our body gets from digesting carbohydrates, including fruit, vegetables, dairy products, beans or lentils, and grains such as 100% whole grain bread, cereals, rice or pasta. Having a low blood glucose (also referred to as blood sugar) can make you feel mentally fuzzy or tired.
Eating regularly, starting with breakfast and then every 3 to 5 hours throughout the day, is the best way to ensure that you will have enough glucose in your blood to fuel your brain. Numerous studies have shown that eating breakfast can improve attention and short-term memory and that breakfast-eaters perform better on tests.
Include carbohydrates with all meals and snacks and ignore the media hype about low-carb eating. Go for vegetables, fruits, 100% whole grain cereal, bread, rice or pasta. They deliver energy at a slower and steadier rate compared to refined grains and high sugar foods and drinks. For even longer lasting energy, add a source of protein such as nuts, meat, fish, eggs or tofu. Dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt, soy beverages and beans and lentils are good sources of both carbohydrates and protein. To power up your concentration, eat a hardboiled egg along with your breakfast bagel, tuna in your wrap at lunch, tofu and brown rice with your dinner veggie stir fry; have hummus with whole grain crackers, yogurt with frozen berries or an apple with peanut butter as a snack.
Avoid sugary foods or drinks, while these may provide a quick burst of energy they may leave you feeling worse in the long run. The same goes for caffeine. While it can help you to feel more focused, its effects are also short term. Found in coffee, colas, tea, and energy drinks, caffeine gives you a quick energy buzz but may leave you feeling jittery and uncomfortable if you overdo it. So drink caffeine-containing drinks in moderation (2 medium or large cups per day) and stick with a better strategy: eating regular, balanced meals and snacks.
The amount you eat can affect how you feel as well. Eating a very large meal can make you feel more sluggish, while eating too little can result in a low blood sugar or distracting feelings of hunger. Check out Canada’s Food Guide for advice on recommended amounts and portions as well as other student healthy eating resources on the Nutrition Services web page.
While omega 3 fatty acids are essential for brain function and development, current studies have not shown that taking a supplement will enhance concentration. Get these important nutrients by choosing foods such as fatty fish like salmon, walnuts, ground flax seed and canola oil. Taking other supplements like B vitamins are often purported to be brain-boosters, but there is no scientific evidence to support this practice either. It’s OK to take a multivitamin/mineral supplement, but avoid taking other supplements, including herbal or natural without first checking with your health care provider.
Other lifestyle practices besides eating regular and balanced meals will also enhance concentration. These include drinking plenty of water, getting a good night’s sleep (7 to 9 hours!), being active most days and taking regular breaks to relax and refuel.
Are there any foods a breastfeeding mom should avoid?
Eating a varied and nutritious diet while breastfeeding helps your baby get a great start in life. Since most substances readily pass into breast milk there are a few things you should avoid or limit.
Limit caffeine to no more than 300 mg per day. This is the equivalent of about 2 medium coffee shop cups of coffee or 6 cups of tea. Not enough is known about the safety of many herbal teas however citrus peel, ginger, lemon balm, orange peel and rose hip teas are considered safe.
Because there is no known safe level of alcohol, avoid or limit alcoholic drinks. If you do have an occasional alcoholic drink, wait at least 2 to 3 hours for it to naturally leave your breast milk.
Limit fish that are known to be higher in mercury to 150 grams per month. This includes large game fish such as tuna steaks, marlin, swordfish, orange roughy, and escobar. Limit canned, white albacore tuna to 300 grams per week. Canned light tuna is lower in mercury and does not need to be limited.
Avoid sweeteners containing saccharin or cyclamates. Acesulfame potassium, aspartame, and sucralose are safe to use in moderation.
While some things like garlic or spicy foods may change the flavour of breast milk you do not need to avoid them. However, since every baby is different, if you notice that your baby seems to be fussy after you eat certain foods, it won’t hurt to avoid them and then gradually reintroduce them at another time.
There is no current evidence that avoiding specific foods while breastfeeding prevents food allergies in babies. Speak with your health care provider if you have further questions about infants and food allergies.
For more information
EatRight Ontario: How to make healthy choices while breastfeeding
How do I gain weight on a vegetarian diet?
While people who want to gain weight are often jokingly told “oh, I wish I had your problem,” gaining weight can be a significant challenge for the underweight individual. Yet, being underweight does pose some health risks, including possible nutrient deficiencies, decreased immune response, altered hormonal function and decreased bone mass. Eating more nutrient- and energy-dense (higher calorie) foods should be the focus for anyone who wishes to add some weight.
Both vegetarians and non-vegetarians would benefit from the use of fats and oils, which have more than twice the calories by weight of carbohydrates or protein. Healthy choices include nuts of all types, nut butter, seeds, vegetable oils such as olive or canola oil, salad dressings, olives, and avocado. Use higher fat dairy or soy beverages and avoid the 0% fat or 1% fat versions of these.
Legumes such as chickpeas, dried beans or lentils, as well as spreads like hummus or bean dips, are also energy-dense foods. Read the nutrition label on packaged foods like ready-to-serve breakfast cereals to choose those with the most calories per serving, being mindful to also choose whole grain cereals or baked goods that don’t have sugar as the first or second ingredient. Along with vegetables and fruit, include grains, a source of protein from either plants or milk products or alternatives, and at least some healthy fat or oil with all meals.
Be sure not to skip meals, and have a snack in between most meals if you aren’t already doing so. Rather than focusing only on water to quench your thirst, you may also wish to add a glass or two of 100% fruit juice, milk, or soy drink every day. Avoid drinking a lot at meals, which can cause you to fill up more quickly and decrease the portions of other foods you eat. Extras like ice cream or non-dairy frozen desserts, chocolate and other treats can also be included in moderation in a healthy diet, just don’t leave out other more nutritious foods to do so.
Also, to tip the scales to weight gain mode, exercise in moderation and avoid lots of high-intensity cardio work or strength training. Focus on gentle activities like walking, stretching, or lighter weights for the time being.
Here are some food suggestions to try. You can find more ideas in Tips for Gaining Weight.
Breakfast: Add seeds or nuts to oatmeal or granola or peanut butter or almond butter to whole grain toast or banana smoothies.
Lunch and dinner: Stir fry vegetables or tofu or drizzle olive oil on steamed vegetables or pasta. Add avocado slices, almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, raw pumpkin seeds or chickpeas to salads. Eat more energy-dense veggies, like carrots, beets, squash and potatoes and sweet potatoes; try cubing them, mixing with olive oil and seasonings then oven roasting.
Snacks: Mash a ripe avocado and stir into salsa; use generously with corn or other whole grain tortilla chips or whole grain crackers. Top a bowl of Greek yogurt with a few spoonfuls each of berries, sliced almonds, and granola. Use hummus as a dip for raw veggies or pita wedge. Try a commercial trail mix or make your own mixtures of nuts, seeds, dried fruits, pretzels, and cereal to keep in your backpack or as an energizing study snack.
These tips should help you to slowly gain weight in a healthy way. However, if you still have difficulty and haven’t already discussed this with your family physician or other health professional, make an appointment to do so. Health Services sees all registered UW students. To make an appointment call 519-888-4096. You will need your student ID number and an OHIP or other provincial health card, UHIP card or the equivalent.
Should I take a vitamin?
Think food first! Most healthy people can meet their vitamin and mineral requirements by following Canada’s Food Guide although some people might need supplements. A Registered Dietitian can help you decide or answer questions you have about food or supplements.
Will eating extra protein help me bulk up?
Protein alone does not build muscle mass. A strength-training program, along with enough calories from healthy foods, recovery time and sleep, are also needed for building muscle. Overdoing protein won’t build bigger muscles, nor will using pricey protein powders. Most people get enough protein from eating Canada’s Food Guide portions of protein-rich foods such as lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, lower-fat milk and alternatives, and legumes. However, some athletes might benefit from eating more protein, especially in post-workout snacks.
Do I really need to drink 8 glasses of water a day?
Water is your best choice for staying hydrated, so sip often, especially in hot weather or when you’re active. However, you don’t need to drink exactly 8 glasses a day. The amount you need depends on many factors, including your age, physical size, activity level and environmental conditions like heat and humidity. Other liquids, like milk, tea and coffee are also hydrating, as are foods like soups, watermelon and tomatoes.
Will an energy drink help me study better?
Energy drinks are an expensive way to load up on a lot of sugar (up to 14 teaspoons per can) and caffeine. The safety, dosages, and effectiveness of other ingredients like taurine, glucuronolactone, and Gingko Biloba is unclear, especially when taken all at once or in combination with caffeine or certain medications. If you choose to use energy drinks, there are some things you should know. They are not recommended for children or pregnant or breastfeeding women. They should not be consumed on an empty stomach or mixed with alcohol. Energy drinks should not be confused with sports drinks and should never be used to rehydrate during sports activities. The best way to get energized is to eat well, be active, stay hydrated and get enough sleep.
Are artificial sweeteners bad for me?
Artificial sweeteners can be part of healthy eating. Health Canada approves all sweeteners for safety before they can be sold in Canada and also establishes strict guidelines for how food producers can use them and what amounts are safe to eat. Artificial sweeteners do not contain nutrients but add a sweet taste while limiting calories and can be enjoyed in moderation when consumed as part of a healthy diet.
Do I need a sports drink when I work out?
Sports drinks, which provide fluid, carbohydrates, sodium and potassium, are better than plain water if you are working out for more than an hour. They should also be used if you are taking part in a very intense activity like hockey or football, especially when you wear protective equipment that makes you sweaty. If you are active in very hot or humid weather or sweat heavily if you notice white salt lines on your exercise clothes) also consider using these in addition. Sports drinks should not be confused with energy drinks, which should never be used during physical activity.
Will cutting out carbs help me to lose weight?
Cutting carbohydrates might help you lose weight in the short-term it’s mostly because you are eating less food and fewer calories. To lose weight and keep it off, exercise regularly and use Canada’s Food Guide to plan a balanced diet.
Are organic foods better for me?
Both organic and non-organic foods are nutritious and safe to eat and, like any food purchase, are a personal choice. Remember to rinse all fresh produce thoroughly under running water, regardless of whether or not you have purchased organic.
Is a detox diet safe?
Don’t believe the hype about detox diets: keep your body healthy with good-for-you-foods. Detox diets claim to cleanse your system of toxins, but your liver, kidneys, and intestines already do that for you. Some detox diets might actually be harmful.
What should I look for on a nutrition label?
The Nutrition Facts table has information on calories and nutrients. It’s easy to understand when you know what to look for. Follow these three steps:
- Check the serving size and compare this to the amount you actually eat.
- Read the %DV to see if a product has a little or a lot of a nutrient: 5 percent or less is a little, and 15 percent or more is a lot.
- Choose foods with more vitamins, minerals and fibre, and less fat (saturated and trans), sodium and sugar.
Is brown sugar or honey better for me than sugar?
Nutritionally speaking, they are all pretty much the same. Although honey, brown sugar, and agave syrup are more natural, they are still sugars that contain concentrated sources of calories with very few other nutrients. Your body can’t tell the difference between these and white sugar. Excess sugar in any form gives you extra calories so whichever sweeteners you choose, use small amounts.
Will I gain weight if I snack at night?
Late-night snacking can lead to weight gain, but it’s not due to the time on the clock. After dinner snacking may mean you eat more calories than your body needs in a day, especially if you’re having high-calorie snack foods and sweetened beverages. Are you truly hungry or just bored, tired, or stressed? If you are hungry and want a snack, try to keep it healthy.
Will certain foods help me to lose weight more quickly?
Sorry, but there is no food that burns fat or makes you lose weight more quickly! Fad diets that focus on single foods, including those above, are restrictive and lack nutrients needed for good health. It’s true that when you eat only one type of food, like cabbage soup, you might eat less and take in fewer calories than you need and lose weight at first. But in the end, these diets are boring, don’t create healthy habits you can stick with, and don’t help with long-term weight loss. The best way to lose weight is to eat healthy foods in the right portions and be active.
Should I stay away from cow’s milk?
Not true! Canadian milk, both organic and non-organic, meets strict government standards so it’s safe and healthy. Growth hormones to stimulate milk production are not permitted for use in Canadian dairy cattle. Just like humans, cows sometimes get sick and need medications like antibiotics. If this happens, the cow is identified and milked separately until she is healthy again. Her milk is properly disposed of until the medication is out of her system.
How can I eat enough vegetables and fruit when they are so expensive?
Nothing beats the taste of fresh produce in season, especially when they are locally grown. But frozen and canned produce is also a healthy choice since it’s usually picked and packed at the peak of ripeness when nutrient levels are highest. Frozen or canned produce is affordable and allows Canadians to enjoy a variety of vegetables and fruits year-round. Cooking with frozen or canned produce can save you time in the kitchen but check out the labels - the healthiest choices contain no added sugar, fat or salt.
Is sea salt better for me than regular salt?
Sea salt, just like kosher and gourmet salt, has about the same amount of sodium as table salt so it is not a healthier choice. Too much sodium can be harmful to your health so whichever salt you choose, use less and flavour foods with garlic, lemon and herbs and spices instead.
Is it true that gluten-free diets are healthier?
A gluten-free diet is the only healthy way of eating for people diagnosed with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. Gluten is a type of protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye, and any foods made with these grains. Unless you have celiac disease, a gluten sensitivity or are allergic to one of these grains, you don’t need to avoid them, nor is there any health advantage to doing so. Whether the grain you choose is gluten-free (such as corn, rice, millet or quinoa) or not, enjoying more whole grains is a healthy choice.