If you want to optimize your productivity and focus, it’s important to consider what you’re fueling your body with. Fast food, sugary cereal, and soda are not your friend. If your brain is starved for nutrition, it doesn’t matter how hard you work—your brain will not function to the best of its ability. That’s why eating brain-healthy foods is an absolute necessity, especially when tackling a large project or performing tasks that require a lot of cognitive ability.
In this post, we’ll outline some of the best and worst foods for your brain, so you can get your day off to the right start and continue feeling focused and alert throughout the day.
Nuts are much more than a convenient and crunchy snack; they’re also a unique blend of macronutrients, micronutrients, and bioactive phytochemicals. Nuts are loaded with brain healthy nutrients like zinc and vitamin E, and they’re packed with fiber, protein, and healthy fats.
In other words, they’re an excellent and natural fuel source for both your mind and body. A recent study on the Health Benefits of Nuts and Dried Food states that “epidemiological evidence suggests that regular nut consumption relates to better cognition.”
If you don’t know which nuts to choose, walnuts appear to be especially beneficial to brain health. A study on nut consumption for cognitive performance found an “association between walnut consumption and cognitive performance: out of the 6 studies, including 2 randomized controlled trials, only 1 did not find a positive association.”
Nuts are also excellent for heart health. According to another study referenced in the Cambridge University Press, “death attributed to cardiovascular and coronary heart diseases showed strong and consistent reductions with increasing nut/peanut butter consumption.”
In other words, when you need a lot of brainpower, it helps to go nuts for nuts. 🥜
2. Fatty Fish
Did you know that 60% of your brain is made of fat, and half of that fat is omega-3 fatty acids? Omega-3 fatty acids help build brain and nerve cells that play a vital role in learning and sharpening our memories; plus, studies show omega-3 fatty acids can help stave off cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Fatty fish, such as tuna, salmon, herring, and cod, are an important source of omega-3 fatty acids, which means fatty fish is ESSENTIAL to your brain health!
But wait—fish for breakfast? Yes! Instead of slapping some butter on your toasted bagel, try some cream cheese and smoked salmon. Smoked salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, and it likely feels a bit more breakfast-y than a big piece of cod. And a bagel and lox sounds pretty fancy, so you’ll be starting your day off in style! 🤩
3. Leafy Greens
Leafy greens, like broccoli, kale, and spinach, are loaded with vitamin K and antioxidants. Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin involved in sphingolipids metabolism, a class of lipids that contribute to the proliferation, differentiation, and survival of brain cells. In other words, vitamin K helps build more brain cells and keep our brain cells strong.
Leafy greens also contain a variety of other compounds that provide anti-inflammatory effects that fortify our brains against damage.
So, yes—we really do need to save room for broccoli. While leafy greens aren’t the most exciting vegetables, they are often the base for healthy veggie smoothies. If you can’t stomach spinach for breakfast, try putting it in a smoothie. Starting your day off with a smoothie provides necessary fuel for your brain and will leave you feeling fuller longer, so you’re less at risk of turning to a convenient, sugary snack before lunch.
Berries provide a wide variety of health benefits, as they’re packed with nutrients and antioxidants. Antioxidants prevent oxidative stress and inflammation and improve communication between brain cells; plus, studies suggest that berries can also improve memory and delay aging in the brain.
If you like sweets (and who doesn’t?), berries are a lot more appealing than broccoli and spinach. You can add berries to your smoothies or scatter a few over the top of your cereal or oatmeal in the morning. If you’re looking for something to snack on at work, bringing a small container of blueberries or strawberries with you means you won’t have to rely on the office vending machine for a sugary pick-me-up after lunch.
Turmeric is a yellow spice used in curry powder that’s been shown to be excellent for preserving and optimizing brain health.
The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, and it’s capable of crossing the barrier between our blood and our brain, which means it can enter the brain directly to improve the health of our brain cells. Turmeric improves learning and memory, helps brain cells grow, and it’s also been shown to ease depression and anxiety by boosting serotonin and dopamine levels.
Now, it’s important to mention that simply switching out your scrambled eggs and cereal for curry won’t automatically improve your cognition. Turmeric only contains a small amount of curcumin, so to get the full benefits of that compound, you may need to ingest it in the form of supplements (with a doctor’s okay and supervision.)
6. Bone Broth
Want to keep it simple in the morning? Well, instead of a hot cup of coffee or tea, what about a hot cup of bone broth?
While it may sound a little strange at first, bone broth is densely packed with essential fatty acids, which are clinically proven to boost brain function. Bone broth also contains a great deal of glycine, which is an amino acid that acts as a building block for making proteins in our body. Glycine fuels the production of serotonin, which boosts our mood, enhances our memory, increases mental alertness, and reduces stress.
If drinking straight-up bone broth seems like a little much, bone broth also makes an excellent base for a wide variety of soups that you can take with you to work for lunch or sip on in the morning in lieu of coffee.
Foods that Hinder Brain Power
1. Refined Carbohydrates
Now, we’re not hating on all carbohydrates. Whole foods that are high in carbs, such as quinoa, bananas, sweet potatoes, and apples, are packed with nutrients and very good for you. Refined carbs are another matter entirely.
During the refining process, carbohydrates have most of their fiber, minerals, and nutrients removed, so they’re mostly composed of sugars and heavily processed grains—in other words, empty calories. Refined carbs are found in white bread, white rice, pasta, pizza dough, breakfast cereals, pastries, snacks like chips and crackers, and other processed foods.
In addition to severely increasing the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and much more, refined carbs have been linked to neurocognitive deficits.
Yes, refined carbs are often delicious, but they’re not nutritious. There’s a time and place for pizza, and, unfortunately, it’s not right before a long day at work. Refined carbs will cause your energy to crash a couple of hours after consuming them, and they will trick your brain into believing you need more refined carbs. Save refined carbs for the weekend, and even then, consume them in moderation.
If toast is your go-to breakfast food, don’t despair—there are plenty of healthy breads out there that are perfect for toasting.
2. Sugar-Loaded Food and Drinks
Sure, this one probably seems obvious. Of course sugar is bad for you—who doesn’t know that? That’s why we don’t eat ice cream and skittles for breakfast.
The thing is, a lot of the food you think is healthy actually contains a TON of sugar. For example, you’ve probably heard that yogurt is good for you; after all, it’s loaded with probiotics, calcium, potassium, and protein. While that’s true, most of the commercial brand yogurts you find on grocery store shelves are chemically enhanced and loaded with sugar.
Many cereals suffer from the same issue. Cereal can be healthy too, but not when it’s mostly made from refined carbs and sugar.
Sugary drinks are definitely the biggest offenders. You probably already know there’s a lot of sugar in your Coca-Cola (39 grams in a 12oz can—it’s right there on the can), but do you really know how much sugar is in your frappuccino? For example, the Grande size of the Caramel Cocoa Cluster Frappuccino from Starbucks contains 68 grams of sugar! (Plus 17 grams of fat!) What? You would never order that? Well, a grande Pumpkin Spice Latte contains 50 grams of sugar! 🎃
Consuming a lot of sugar in the morning may give you a rush at first, but that rush will lead to a crash later in the day. And when you’re crashing, you may feel forced to lean on coffee or other sugary drinks just to get you through the day.
Food isn’t just for pleasure—it fuels our bodies and minds. We’re not expecting you to stop eating pizza and ice cream altogether, since those things are fantastic, but be considerate about the types of foods you consume in the morning and how you continue fueling your body throughout the day. If you struggle to find time for a healthy breakfast, build that time into your morning routine.
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