Feeling forgetful, spacey or just mentally off? It could be lack of sleep, an impending illness or hormones, but it may also be because of your diet. That's because food plays a major role in brain health — when you eat the right nutrients, you encourage healthy blood flow to your brain.
To help banish that spacey feeling, here are the top brain foods for focus that may help improve your concentration.
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1. Whole Grains
FYI, a food that's low on the glycemic index is one that when digested causes a slower, steadier rise in your blood sugar versus a quick spike. Whole grains are low on the glycemic index — some include whole-wheat spaghetti, brown rice and barley, according to Harvard Health Publishing. (Keep in mind, though, that these products often have additives to help preserve them for longer. Read each product label thoroughly.)
On the other hand, choosing foods heavy in simple sugars or refined carbs like white rice and white bread are associated with difficulty with concentration and attention. What's more, these refined carb foods fall short on the other nutrients (think: B vitamins and fiber) that your brain needs for optimal function.
Seeds like sunflower, chia, flax and hemp are all great ways to get healthy, unsaturated fat into your diet. Plus, they're easy to add to a variety of recipes or snacks.
Research suggests that eating a diet heavy in so-called unhealthy, saturated fat hinders concentration, per a June 2020 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
When people assigned female at birth (AFAB) ate a saturated fat-heavy meal their attention was sub-par compared to when they ate a meal that was high in healthy fat.
Mood is said to be more affected by mild dehydration than performance is, at least in most adults. But in vulnerable populations — like kids and older adults — even mild dehydration inhibits cognitive function, according to a June 2017 study in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism.
One of the easiest ways to stay hydrated is by drinking water. Aim to drink between 11.5 and 15.5 cups every day, according to the Mayo Clinic.
A cup of coffee can really give you a pick-me-up when you need it. The caffeine in coffee has an overwhelmingly positive effect on alertness, concentration and moodiness, per April 2016 research in Practical Neurology.
But drinking too much caffeine can lead to the jitters, which might make you feel more distracted than focused. Take a look at the labels of products you drink or use, as some non-herbal teas, chocolates, energy drinks and even medications can have caffeine.
Promising research has looked specifically at a mixture of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries for focus.
When a small group of young adults drank a smoothie that included all of these berries, their executive functioning (memory, attention, flexible thinking) was improved over the following 6 hours, and they demonstrated better accuracy on cognitive tests for the entire day compared to those who had a placebo, according to a November 2019 study in Nutrients.
6. Fatty Fish
We're talking salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout and even shellfish like oysters and mussels. Why? They're all a great way to get omega-3 fats. And those particular fats have been shown to help improve memory and general brain function, per an August 2018 review in Current Neuropharmacology.
Nuts — in general — are great for your mind. In a study of people AFAB, those who ate a serving of nuts five days a week had the cognitive function of people AFAB two years their junior, per a May 2014 study in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging.
And newer research shows that of all the nuts, walnuts might be the best: In a review of research on nuts and cognitive function, experts found that the studies of walnuts were the most consistent. Regularly eating walnuts is good for brain function, including attention, processing speed and executive function, and more, per a June 2021 study in Advances in Nutrition.
8. Red Bell Peppers
Red bell peppers are one of the top foods high in vitamin C, and this important nutrient does more than keep your immune system in tip-top shape. Vitamin C was found to help with cognition and protect against oxidative stress associated with mental deterioration, according to the Nutricion Hospitalaria study. (Note: Oxidative stress protection benefits have also been found in many neurodegenerative conditions.)
In fact, just eating more veggies can also help your focus: In a two-week trial, young adults who were historically not so great at eating fruits and veggies upped their intake by two servings a day, reported a boost in their vitality and flourishing — including motivation — according to a February 2017 study in PLOS ONE. More motivation was the biggest boost participants reported experiencing.
That said, in another group, researchers only told the participants to eat more fruits and vegetables, rather than providing them with the produce, and those participants didn't report a significant increase in their motivation and vitality.
Drinking tea — both black and green — seems to offer a host of brain health benefits, including memory, cognitive performance and concentration. Just make sure you're not overdoing it: too much caffeine can increase jitters and anxiety, per the Mayo Clinic.
Part of the benefit comes from the caffeine in tea, but also there's another compound in tea called theanine that plays a role, according to a December 2013 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In fact, researchers think theanine is the reason that tea out-performed caffeine in one study that tested attention.
- Nutrients: "Flavonoid-Rich Mixed Berries Maintain and Improve Cognitive Function Over a 6 h Period in Young Healthy Adults"
- Curr Neuropharmacol: "Functional and Structural Benefits Induced by Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids During Aging"
- Practical Neurology: "Effects of coffee/caffeine on brain health and disease: What should I tell my patients?"
- Harvard Health: "Glycemic Index"
- Nutr Hosp: "[Nutrition strategies that improve cognitive function]"
- Mayo Clinic: "Water: How much should you drink every day?"
- AJCN: "Afternoon distraction: a high-saturated-fat meal and endotoxemia impact postmeal attention in a randomized crossover trial"
- Adv Nutr: "Nut Consumption for Cognitive Performance: A Systematic Review"
- J Nutr Healthy Aging: "LONG-TERM INTAKE OF NUTS IN RELATION TO COGNITIVE FUNCTION IN OLDER WOMEN"
- Ann Nutr Metab: "Effects of Dehydration on Brain Functioning: A Life-Span Perspective"
- Current Neuropharmacol: "Impact of Dietary Fats on Brain Functions"
- PLOS ONE: "Let them eat fruit! The effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on psychological well-being in young adults: A randomized controlled trial"
- AJCN: "Acute effects of tea consumption on attention and mood"
- Mayo Clinic: "Caffeine: How Much Is Too Much?"