An introductory look into the benefits of food for the brain.
Nutrition – the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth
From a feeling of happiness and achievement to time management and appropriate prioritization, nutrition plays a crucial role in work-life balance and improves overall work product.
Think about how you start your day from a nutrition standpoint.
- Are you having a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea?v
- Are you eating a bowl of cereal, a smoothie, or just some scrambled eggs?
- From there, are you reaching a point where after a few hours of work, your mind is starting not to focus as well as it was when you first started?
- Do you then turn to snacks, candy, or drinks to help you reset?
These could be signs that it’s time to adjust your nutrition habits.
Let’s talk about the brain and its need for fuel (for this article, the “fuel” is considered food; however, there are other relevant necessities for the brain as well). The more we give our bodies different foods with various vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, the more we can nourish our brain and protect it from entering oxidative stress. Like emotional stress, oxidative stress can lead to tissue or cell damage.
“But coach, it’s not like I’m not eating anything at all throughout the day.”
Think of the fuel you put into your car. Current standards have most engines efficiently using “regular” fuel, but what if we used “premium” instead? The engines might be able to function more efficiently. The brain works precisely the same way. The better the “fuel,” the better our abilities to think efficiently, process tasks, and manage time. In contrast, depriving your body/brain of solid fuel can lead to difficulty concentrating, tiredness, headaches, and a lacking work-product.
“Okay, Coach, I get it, but how do I choose healthy brain-food if everything nowadays is labeled as ‘all-natural’ and ‘healthy.’ I’m pretty sure that cereal I ate this morning said it was a great source of iron, so that’s gotta be a good choice!”
There are A LOT of products that claim to do A LOT of things. First of all, let’s debunk a myth: Just saying “all-natural” doesn’t make it healthy. According to the current FDA standards, “natural” means no artificial or synthetic ingredients included or added to food. That doesn’t mean it’s automatically “right” for your goals. Next, just because a food is labeled as a great source of one nutrient doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an excess of other ingredients that might not help – like sugar.
“Woah! Woah! Woah Coach! I like my sugar. Why can’t I have sugar?”
I’m not here to tell you NOT to have sugar, but sugar is NOT helping the brain function, and since that’s the source of what we’re talking about, we should tackle the topic.
Aside from diabetes, heart disease, and tooth problems, consuming foods that are sweetened with sugar leads to our blood sugar levels rising quickly and then falling into a sudden crash that leaves us slow-thinking, cranky, and tired. It’s what we were talking about earlier when we questioned how your energy levels are throughout the day. Keeping sugar intake to a minimum has A TON of benefits, including brain health! Sugar has no actual nutritional value, so why bother with it?!
“Cuz it tastes good, coach, cuz it tastes good.”
Yep, completely understandable to say that. Did you know, though, that your ability to taste sweetness changes as you adapt to eating less sugar? Think about when you were younger, and you would eat a piece of fruit after a long day at the beach? Remember how great it tasted? Does it almost NOT taste as good as you remember? The same might go for a pasta sauce from years ago or any other food you loved. The more sugar in your foods, the more desensitized you become to actual sweetness. Excess sugar intake affects your taste buds by convincing you that some foods aren’t as sweet as you initially thought!
“Wow. So sugar isn’t a good fuel, and it’s also lulling me into a false sense of taste while making me get tired. Wait. What SHOULD I eat to help me avoid all this then?”
Brain Foods! While this list is not all-encompassing, try some of these foods added into your daily meals:
- Blueberries: Rich in antioxidants! These are a GREAT help throughout your day, in your mornings, and in general! Add them in oatmeal, salads, or eat them as is!
- Beans: Fiber, tons of B-Vitamins, and Omega Fatty Acids here! Beans are a solid choice to go into your eggs, foods, salads, and most other recipes!
- Nuts: All kinds like walnuts and almonds have protein and Omega Fatty Acids that will help give your brain some significant boosts (remember serving size, particularly with this food)!
- Avocados: Here’s some more Omega Fatty Acids (notice a trend here?) and a bunch of Vitamin E! Avocados give your brain some solid help in concentration and a potential decrease in inflammatory responses!
- Dark Greens: Spinach, Broccoli, Kale, and all other leafy dark greens make an impact! They’re generally high in fiber and Vitamin E, which helps a ton! Use these as salad ingredients, sides, sandwich add-ons, or stand-alone!
- Whole Grains: Complex Carbs, B-Vitamins, and Omega 3’s here to help with solid brain activity! From oatmeal to brown rice and everything in between, this is another category that features tons of great choices!
- Tomatoes: Antioxidants galore with this fruit (or vegetable depending on who you’re talking to)! The brain loves a good tomato or two to help with cell growth! Try adding them to your breakfasts, lunches, and dinners! From sandwich toppings to sides, there are many great ways to incorporate them!
- Lean Red Meats: Iron (found in lean red meats) helps with neurotransmitters and oxygen mobilization, so we’re not leaving this one out. Aside from some other potential health benefits, lean red meats help the brain in plenty of ways. If you’re vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or any other option that removes this from your diet, you’ve got plenty of other great choices too!
- Salmon: Omega 3’s are strong with the salmon! They’ll help you with improved brain function, so give this option a shot if you can with the diet you follow!
- Brown Rice: More B-Vitamins for the brain in this one! As with all others, watch the portions here, but know that brown rice works to give the brain some added chemicals it needs for proper function.
“Are you saying I should have these things exclusively?”
Not one bit. The foods above are examples of foods that help with brain health and function. You should still have other foods that make sense for you. Most notably, if you’re going to change your way of eating, it’s always best to consult your doctor first. Once you’ve got the green light to make guided changes, the goal should be to create a smooth transition.
The benefits of eating to give your brain a stronger focus go well beyond just your work product. Imagine feeling less overall fatigue when you get home at night, having a generally better mood consistently, or even having more concentration to improve everything you do throughout the day! Fill up the body with “Premium Fuel” and notice a shift happen in just a couple of weeks (or less)!
“So how do I start?”
Simple, take a look at that list of foods mentioned above one more time. How can you add them throughout your day? For breakfast before work? Lunch? Dinner time? The goal is to spread them out and not allow your body/brain to send you signals like fatigue, headaches, or general confusion. Make sure you have a solid breakfast with some brain food ingredients added in and bring some brain food snacks to work too! Add them into your daily lunch time routine and you’ll likely start to see some great overall improvements for yourself!