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The five best and five worst foods for focus.

Between texts, social media posts, and news updates, we live in a world of constant distractions. In our attempt to focus, we may reach for foods and beverages that can help or hurt. Some foods can improve attention, and others can cloud our thinking. Here are the five best and worst foods for focus:

Five best foods for focus:

  1. There’s a reason more than 80 percent of American adults drink coffee and other caffeinated drinks—a cup of coffee wakes you up and prepares you to take on the day. In a 2016 review, researchers looked at caffeine’s effects on physical and mental function and found that it improves alertness, attention, and reaction time.
  2. Salmon and other fatty fish. The omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish such as salmon, trout, herring, and mackerel have been shown to boost brain health. Omega-3 fatty acids help build brain and nerve cells, and they are important for learning and memory. “Salmon is one of the first foods I encourage my clients to eat more often,” says April Bruns, RD, registered dietitian and personal trainer in Twin Falls, Idaho. And herring and mackerel are also good sources of Vitamin D, which has been shown to help prevent age-related cognitive decline.
  3. Blueberries and other berry fruits. These tasty little pearls are chocked full of antioxidants that fight inflammation and oxidative stress—two processes that can take a toll on brain function. In a 2019 review, researchers found blueberries can improve thinking and memory in both children and adults. Not to mention all the other health benefits berries offer, including a lower risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
  4. The refreshing scent of an orange alone is enough to wake up your brain. Eat the citrus fruit, and you get a hefty dose of vitamin C, an important nutrient for brain health. In a 2019 study, participants with higher blood concentrations of vitamin C did better on tasks that involved attention, focus and memory than those whose vitamin C levels were low. One medium orange serves up nearly a full day’s supply of vitamin C.
  5. Green tea. Not a coffee drinker? Worry not. There’s another beverage that offers similar stimulating effects. “Green teanaturally contains caffeine, which will increase alertness,” says Todd Cooperman, MD, president of Consumerlab.com, who has done extensive studies on the health benefits of green tea. It also serves up a dose of an amino acid called L-theanine, which can induce feelings of relaxation at the same time. Feeling alert yet calm is the perfect recipe for focus.

Five worst foods for focus:

  1. Soda and other sugary drinks. A caffeinated soda may give you a quick boost, but the negatives will quickly outweigh the pleasurable sugar rush. There are countless reasons to stay away from soda, with the negative toll on your brain capacity being only one. Soda and other sugary beverages contain high fructose corn syrup, which has been shown in animal studies to dampen memory and brain function. Sugary beverages are also linked with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, all of which can increase risk of metabolic syndrome and dementia. Diet soda is no better. A recent study found drinking as little as one diet soda per day triples risk of developing a stroke or dementia.
  2. Processed cheese. A plate of gooey nachos may sound like the perfect snack when you need to focus to study or finish a work project, but refrain. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, processed cheeses such as Cheez Whiz, mozzarella cheese sticks, and American cheese can cause a buildup of proteins in your body associated with memory loss.
  3. Anyone who has ever woken up with a hangover knows alcohol doesn’t exactly clear your head. In fact, chronic alcohol use can cause brain tissue to shrink and interfere with neurotransmitters that help transmit messages within the brain. Alcohol can also cause deficiency in vitamin B12, an important nutrient for brain health.
  4. Red meat. Beef, lamb, and other forms of red meat are high in saturated fat, which appears to be as bad for the brain as it is for the heart. In a study done at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, women who ate the highest amounts of saturated fats from red meat and butter did worse on memory and thinking tests than women who had small amounts of saturated fat.
  5. If you think you’re doing your brain a favor by substituting saturated fat from butter with a stick or tub of margarine, think again. The trans fats in margarine are just as bad for your blood vessels and brain as the saturated form. In a study published in the journal Neurology, researchers discovered that older people with the highest level of a trans-fat called elaidic acid in their blood were at increased risk for dementia. Instead of solid fats like butter or margarine, use olive, soybean, or canola oil.

Ironically, some of the foods and beverages we are quickest to reach for when we need to concentrate are the worst when it comes to helping us think.  Remember, what you put in your stomach will also feed your brain.

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