Even neuroscientists—who are intimately familiar with how the brain works—aren't immune to this mid-day afternoon slump. The difference is, they know how to hack it. The same goes for registered dietitians; they know what foods fuel the brain and vice versa, the ones that can make you wish nap time didn't end in kindergarten.
You know what can help you get over The Wall? Snacks. (Finally, a solution we can all truly get behind.) Of course, it matters *what* you snack on. If you want to stock your snack stash like a neuroscientist and RD—two people who know how to power through a workday better than most—keep reading. They're about to reveal all their recommendations.
Nutrients linked to helping with focus and productivity
When it comes to eating for focus and productivity, neuroscientist, Cleaning Up The Mental Mess author, and NeuroCycle app founder Caroline Leaf, PhD says it is emotional, physical, and metacognitive. "Your mind empowers and drives the entire digestive process," she says. "This is why I place a lot of emphasis on the 'mindset behind the meal'—our state of mind itself can be a 'nutrient.'" That means it isn't just what you eat that can affect how productive (or not) you are, and sometimes, you need a mindset shift. Read: if you need a break, take a break.
But Dr. Leaf says there are some foods that can help with this mindset shift. One she's particularly into is the functional adaptogenic mushroom known as lion's mane. "Some studies have shown lion's mane may help with focus, mood regulation, and memory building," she explains.
If you're not familiar with lion's mane, you are likely familiar with something else Dr. Leaf utilizes to foster that mindset shift: caffeine. "Caffeine has been linked to supporting alertness and concentration," she says, adding that people who are sensitive to caffeine should stick to having it only in the morning or early afternoon because it may disrupt their sleep.
In terms of nutrients, Dr. Leaf says she focuses on complex carbs, such as whole grains, sweet potatoes, beans, and yogurt. "These foods are linked to helping with brain fog and distractedness," she says. Nutrition expert Maya Feller, RD, says that besides complex carbs, protein and healthy fats are two other nutrients linked to helping with brain fog and concentration.
Having these nutrient guidelines in mind helps lay the foundation for what foods for focus to go for. Below, Feller and Dr. Leaf share their favorites.
8 foods for focus and productivity to help you power through the day:
There's a reason why some dietitians call eggs nature's multivitamin; they are a goldmine of nutrients. Feller says she loves eggs because they have protein and healthy fats as well as another nutrient called choline. "Eggs are one of the richest sources of dietary choline. Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that has widespread cognitive functions including mood, memory, learning ability, and attention," she says.
Watch the video below to learn more about the health benefits of eggs:
Pairing your eggs with avocado will take your foods-for-focus snack to the next level. "Avocados are rich in monounsaturated fats, which help to support nerve cells and support transmission across neurons," Feller says. If you're vegan, make yourself some avocado toast, pairing the fruit with a slice of whole grain bread. That will give you the complex carbs Dr. Leaf pointed out are so good for productivity.
3. Dark chocolate
If you're craving something sweet, Dr. Leaf recommends reaching for dark chocolate. "[Studies show] it may help with mood regulation by supporting healthy hormone levels," she says. It's also full of antioxidants which are good for blood flow—and blood flow is crucial for brain health, including focus.
4. Adaptogenic coffee
Remember how Dr. Leaf said she uses both lion's mane and caffeine to improve her mood and focus? Fortunately, it's a duo that's popping up in more places, such as in these Taika black coffees ($59 for 12) and Earth & Star lattes ($6 each).
5. Yogurt with granola
Dr. Leaf loves this two-ingredient snack because both the yogurt and granola are good sources of complex carbs. Pro brain tip: go for Greek yogurt or skyr to get the maximum amount of protein.
"All nuts and seeds are nutrient-rich and are a good source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids," Feller says, adding that they also have melatonin and polyphenols—two other nutrients linked to focus and productivity. Can't decide which type of nut to go for? She says to reach for walnuts. "They're rich in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin that has been associated with reduced risks of depression and anxiety as well as improving memory function," she says.
7. Salmon with veggies
If you're trying to figure out what lunch can help you power through your day, Feller recommends salmon with cruciferous veggies or leafy greens. The salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which she calls the ultimate brain food. "Omega-3s are found in the cell membrane of brain cells and are needed for proper communication between brain cells," she says. Feller adds that cruciferous veggies are high in phytochemicals and antioxidants such as lutein, zeaxanthin, glucosinolates, and sulforaphane—all shown to help reduce inflammation in the brain. As for the leafy greens? She says they can contribute to focus because they're high in micronutrients—particularly potassium, vitamin K, and the carotenoid lutein, which have all been shown to improve attention and cognitive function.
Whether the food you go for off this list is eggs, avocado, salmon, or one of the others, Feller says you can increase its brain-supporting benefits by adding turmeric to it. "The compound curcumin found in turmeric has been shown to enhance BDNF levels," she explains. "BDNF is a neurotransmitter that is important for cognitive performance, learning, and memory." Adding flavor and brain benefits? Now that's a major snacking win.
Watch the video below to learn more about the health benefits of turmeric:
As you can see, there are a lot of foods that can work in your favor in terms of helping provide the focus and productivity you need to get through the day—whether you're craving something savory or sweet. Sure, a snack isn't always the solution to a mid-day prob. But isn't it nice to know that it can be one? Just like in kindergarten, sometimes a snack is all you need to feel better. (Okay, and maybe a good nap, too.)
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