Can’t Focus? Could Be Your Lunch—5 Foods to Help

Filed in The Healthy Writer by on April 8, 2014 • views: 1700

Business woman working in office on whiteYou’ve got thirty minutes of uninterrupted time.

You sit down to write, paint, compose, or work on that personal project you’re passionate about.

You have only thirty minutes, and then you’ve got to go back to work, pick up the kids, make dinner, or take a loved one to the doctor.

You sit down, thrilled with the space of time that has opened up in front of you. You take up your keyboard, paintbrush, pen, or other tool and prepare to start.

You stare. You shift positions. You heave a big sigh. A minute passes, and then another. Maybe you write a word or two, or pull a few brush strokes across the canvas. But then you stop. Your mind is mush. Your eyes droop, and suddenly all you want to do is take a nap.

What happened? You were so eager to dive in. Where did all that inspirational energy go?

Though there can be a number of reasons for choking just when you have a moment to do what you’ve longed to do all day long—and many are emotional or psychological in nature—there is one that you may not have thought about: what you had for lunch.

Food Affects Focus

We all love quoting the phrase “you are what you eat,” but few of us take the time to stop and think about how what we put into our mouths will affect the way our brains work.

As writers and artists, we rely on optimal brain functioning to create our masterpieces, yet rarely do we really consider the fuel we’re using to supply its power. You’ve already had some experience with the concept. You know how you can feel more alert after drinking a cup of coffee, or more sluggish about 30 minutes after eating a candy bar.

But it’s not just caffeine and chocolate that alters your ability to focus on what you love—every food has some impact on mood, energy, and the powers of creativity.

Foods that Hurt Brain Functioning

Let’s start with those things that impair cognitive (brain) functioning.

Turns out fast food may be worse for your thinking powers than you may have thought. A 2012 study discovered that fatty foods may actually damage neurons in the brain, in a manner similar to the way a mini stroke would.

Another study the same year evaluated the effects of a high-sugar and a low-omega-3-fatty-acid diet, and found it was associated with lower cognitive scores. Bowman and colleagues also reported in 2012 that a diet with high trans fats was associated with reduced cognitive function and “less total cerebral brain volume.”

An earlier study echoes these findings, noting, “…diets that are high in saturated fat are becoming notorious for reducing molecular substrates that support cognitive processing and increasing the risk of neurological dysfunction in both humans and animals.”

Foods that Improve Brain Functioning

While foods high in sugar and fat are likely to leave you staring at the blank page for the entirety of your 30-minute time window, foods high in omega-3 fatty acids may do the opposite.

“[A] diet that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids is garnering appreciation for supporting cognitive processes in humans,” writes Gómez-Pinilla in a 2010 study.

The University of Maryland Medical Center agrees, stating, “Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavioral function.”

They add that symptoms of omega-3 deficiency include mood swings, poor memory, and depression. Good sources of omega-3s include walnuts, flaxseed, salmon, sardines, shrimp, and anchovies, or you can go for supplements to make sure you’re getting enough.

Here are some other foods that are likely to help you focus. Power up on these on a regular basis and you’ll be ready whenever the next time window pops up:

  1. Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries—eat a variety of these on a regular basis to stimulate blood flow to the brain and improve concentration. According to a 2009 study, participants who ate a bowl full of berries for breakfast did much better at mental tasks in the mid afternoon than did those who didn’t.
  2. Green tea: A 2012 study found that drinking green tea may activate areas of the brain linked to working memory. An earlier 2006 study found that a higher intake of green tea was associated with a lower prevalence of cognitive impairment (dementia) in old age.
  3. Yogurt: Your stomach is connected to your brain more than you may realize. According to a study from UCLA, bacteria ingested in food can affect brain function. Women who regularly ate yogurt, which is full of probiotics (beneficial bacteria), showed altered brain function in MRI scans, including greater coordination between different sections of the brain.
  4. Carrots: High in carotenoids, carrots and other similar foods may help maintain cognitive health. A 2012 study found that participants who supplemented with specific carotenoids “lutein” and “zeaxanthin” improved memory scores and rate of learning. Other foods high in these nutrients include kale, spinach, collards, and turnip greens.
  5. Eggs: New research out of Tufts University is examining the effect of eggs on cognitive function. Scientists already have enough evidence to believe the study will show positive results. Eggs are rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, and are also great sources of protein. “The investigators hypothesize that there will be a significant increase in cognitive function measures in older adults provided with meals containing two eggs a day at the end of six months, while no significant improvements will be observed in older adults given daily meals containing egg substitute,” said lead researcher Elizabeth Johnson and her team.

If you want to think of it more simply, before you put food or drink into your mouth, ask yourself, “Is this item good for my heart?” If so, it’s likely good for your brain, too. Try it, and see if next time you sit down to enjoy a few minutes work on your project, your brain doesn’t respond much better.

Do you eat a healthy diet to improve your creative output? What do you think of the idea?

Sources

“Fatty Foods May Cause Brain Damage, Suggests Research,” Huffington Post, July 9, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/09/07/health-fatty-food-might-cause-brain-damage_n_1864699.html?just_reloaded=1.

Jill N. Barnes and Michael J. Joyner, “Sugar highs and lows: the impact of diet on cognitive function,” The Journal of Physiology, June 15, 2012, http://jp.physoc.org/content/590/12/2831.full.

G.L. Bowman, et al., “Nutrient biomarker patterns, cognitive function, and MRI measures of brain aging,” Neurology January 24, 2012 vol. 78 no. 4 241-249, http://www.neurology.org/content/78/4/241.abstract?ijkey=e9f7d79dc5c2af9fb672ae948a7580c0ac64709b&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha.

Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function, Nat Rev Neurosci. Jul 2008; 9(7): 568–578, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/.

David Derbyshire, “A bowl of blueberries keeps the brain active in the afternoon,” Huffington Post, September 14, 2009, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1212579/A-bowl-blueberries-day-keeps-brain-active-afternoon.html.

Stephen Daniells, “Green tea may influence brain function & boost working memory,” Nutraingredients, August 31, 2012, http://www.nutraingredients-usa.com/Research/Green-tea-may-influence-brain-function-boost-working-memory-Study.

Shinichi Kuriyama, et al., “Green tea consumption and cognitive function: a cross-sectional study from the Tsurugaya Project,” Am J Clin Nutr February 2006 vol. 83 no. 2 355-361, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/83/2/355.full.

Rachel Champeau, “Changing gut bacteria through diet affects brain function, UCLA study shows,” UCLA Newsroom, May 28, 2013, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/changing-gut-bacteria-through-245617.aspx.

Johnson EJ, “A possible role for lutein and zeaxanthin in cognitive function in the elderly,” Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Nov;96(5):1161S-5S, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23053547.

“Study Suggests Eating Eggs May Help Prevent Dementia,” womensbrainhealth.org, April 2, 2014, http://womensbrainhealth.org/thinktank/study-suggests-eating-eggs-may-help-prevent-dementia/.

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  1. Paula says:

    Would like a little more guidance on the egg thing, as every time I eat two eggs for breakfast I exceed my allowance of cholesterol for the day – and that can’t be good for my heart.