When it's crunch time at work and you're staring at a never-ending to-do list, meal prep is likely the last thing on your mind. But what you might not realize is that the dietary choices you make each day actually play a major role in your productivity — for better ("I'm a focused, energetic all-star!") or for worse ("Can I just take a nap already?"). Read on to learn how to keep your mind laser-focused with healthy and nutritious foods as well as the ones you should steer clear of so your productivity stays on track.
1. Best: Salmon
Salmon is praised for being rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help to reduce your risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer and arthritis. And because omega-3s support brain function, they're great for productivity. "Omega-3s are components of the phospholipids that form the structure of cell membranes, including your brain's cell membranes," says Gabriella Vetere, a San Jose, California-based registered dietitian nutritionist. "And DHA [one of the omega-3s in salmon] is especially high in the retina and brain." Healthy cell membranes help your brain cells communicate properly, so you're ready to focus and learn. Vetere recommends that you aim for at least eight ounces of salmon weekly to maximize these brain-friendly benefits.
2. Best: Pumpkin Seeds
Craving crunchy foods? Reach for pumpkin seeds, which will both satisfy your craving and boost your energy. "The high magnesium content of pumpkin seeds promotes calmness, which will allow you to refocus and direct your productivity toward the task at hand," says Maggie Michalczyk, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Chicago. And because pumpkin seeds are loaded with both protein and healthy fat, they'll offer longer-lasting energy to keep you from feeling drained — or hungry — soon after you eat. Michalczyk recommends sprinkling some pumpkin seeds on your salads or adding them to your morning smoothie or parfait.
3. Best: Leafy Greens
Blending some spinach or kale into your morning smoothie isn't just a smart way to eat more veggies — it can also make you more productive. "Leafy green vegetables are a low-calorie source of B vitamins, which are essential for energy production," says registered dietitian nutritionist Gabriella Vetere. "Better utilization of energy means better productivity. I always suggest clients add in leafy greens to at least two of their meals." In addition to that highly Instagram-able green smoothie, include a side of spinach dressed with oil and vinegar with your lunch, or add a handful of greens to your favorite pasta or soup for a productivity boost.
Read more: The 6 Best Granolas and 4 to Avoid
4. Best: Green Tea
Leafy veggies aren't the only green foods that will end your midday slump; green tea can seriously boost your focus too. "Studies have shown that green tea promotes increased blood flow to the heart and brain," says Maggie Michalczyk, a registered dietitian nutritionist. It also contains antioxidants that protect your brain from cellular damage, which can keep your mind healthy as you age. Best of all, green tea is low in caffeine, averaging nine to 63 milligrams per cup (coffee, in comparison, boasts up to 130 milligrams), so it's a good option if you want to avoid caffeine jitters.
5. Best: Almonds
Nuts are a staple healthy snack because they're filling, nutritious and portable. As if you needed another reason to devour them, it turns out that they're also great for refocusing a wandering mind. "The healthy fats and fiber in them will not only keep you full until the next meal, but the act of chewing them actually helps to refocus your brain, causing you to think about chewing, then get back to the task at hand," Michalczyk says. Almonds also supply plenty of copper, a mineral essential for healthy brain function. Add a handful of almonds to your oatmeal at breakfast or keep a packet of them in your bag to enhance your concentration on the go.
6. Best: Berries
Not only are strawberries, blueberries and blackberries delicious, all of these berries are fantastic for enhancing your focus and boosting productivity, thanks to their natural sugar content. "The brain needs carbs for energy," Michalczyk says. "Without them you may often feel tired and not able to get anything done." Berries supply just enough sugar for energy, but they're also loaded with dietary fiber, so they'll raise your blood sugar slowly, instead of causing a blood sugar crash that leaves you feeling "foggy." Sweeten up your salad with a handful of chopped strawberries, add a handful of blueberries to your sandwich or wrap (they pair surprisingly well with turkey and avocado) or mix raspberries and blackberries into Greek yogurt or chia seed pudding.
7. Best: Oatmeal
Another source of healthy carbs that boost productivity? Oatmeal. "Oatmeal is a whole grain, which offers sustained energy, making it easier to focus," Rene Ficek, a registered dietitian at Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating, explains. Oatmeal packs a ton of fiber to keep your blood sugar stable (so you won't experience a "sugar crash") as well as B vitamins to help your body use energy properly. Best of all, it's so versatile that you can make a different focus-boosting breakfast every day without getting bored. Or why not have a bowl of savory oatmeal for lunch?
8. Best: Wheat Germ
While you're dressing up your oatmeal, try adding a spoonful or two of wheat germ for extra energy. It may sound odd, like nutritional yeast (more on that later), but wheat germ is actually just a part of the wheat kernel that's removed during the refining process — which is too bad, because it's bursting with nutrients. "Wheat germ is my favorite food to feed the brain," says Laura Cipullo, a registered dietitian based in New York. "It is a great source of magnesium and vitamin E, both responsible for neurological function." Wheat germ also comes loaded with energy-boosting B vitamins to keep you feeling productive. Wheat germ works well added to dry cereal too, and it blends beautifully into your favorite smoothie.
9. Best: Avocados
Yes, another excuse to eat avocado toast! Avos are great for your productivity and energy levels because they're high in protein (compared to other fruits) and high in healthy fats, explains Samantha Walters, a registered dietitian based in Baltimore, Maryland. "Because they're rich in vitamin K and folate, avocados help with cognitive function, specifically memory and concentration, and they reduce the risk of strokes," she says. They're also rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, a type of fat that helps stabilize your blood sugar levels, so you'll have sustained energy throughout the day.
10. Best: Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast ("nooch" for short) should definitely be in your desk drawer full of productivity-enhancing foods, according to Cipullo. It may sound weird, but hang in there with us: Nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast that comes in the form of little yellow flakes. It tastes a lot like cheese (if that didn't get your attention, we don't know what will). Like wheat germ, nutritional yeast is high in B vitamins, and it's also one of the only vegan-friendly natural sources of vitamin B-12. Getting enough B-12 is important for feeling energized and productive because it helps make red blood cells, which are the cells that carry oxygen to your brain. "If you want more bang for your sprinkle, get nutritional yeast fortified with B-12," Cipullo says. Use it to add cheesy flavor to dressings, sauces, pesto and casseroles. Or step out of the box and cook your oatmeal and grains in chicken broth enhanced with nutritional yeast for a delicious, savory porridge.
11. Best: Lemon Water
Lemon water is a great way to start your day and help you stay focused (as well as making you feel pretty fancy). "Citrus fruits like lemons and limes are rich in vitamin C, which can boost the body's immune system," Ficek says. Lemons will also infuse your water with electrolytes, turning ordinary wet stuff into an easy DIY energy drink. Drink a glass of lemon water when you wake up, then sip some plain ol' agua all day to stay hydrated.
12. Best: Eggs
If you're looking for an affordable and healthy protein source, you can't ask for a better food than eggs — and it just so happens that they're full of nutrients to improve your focus too. "They contain choline, an essential nutrient that boosts brain function and memory," says Jan Hauser, a certified nutritionist based in Dallas. Choline helps your brain cells communicate with each other, which makes it especially vital when you need to get things done. Eggs also provide iron, copper and vitamin C to support your overall brain health. Bring a container of hard-boiled eggs into the office on Monday to enjoy as a snack all week long.
13. Best: Broccoli
While its close cousin kale usually gets more attention, broccoli boasts some serious productivity-enhancing benefits itself. "Broccoli contains high amounts of vitamin K and choline, which are known to help keep your brain function sharp," says Samantha Walters, a registered dietitian. "Its high vitamin C levels are crucial for brain and nerve function, including mood and memory." Broccoli also supplies iron, which helps promote healthy blood flow, providing a steady supply of fresh oxygen to the brain. Make a big batch of roasted broccoli on the weekend, and use the leftovers in soups, salads and wraps.
14. Best: Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Studies have proven time and time again that extra-virgin olive oil is incredibly good for you, providing benefits that range from lowering your risk of heart disease to protecting your brain from Alzheimer's. "Extra-virgin olive oil contains polyphenols, important antioxidants which can improve memory as well as reverse any brain changes related to age or disease," Walters says. It also boasts powerful anti-inflammatory properties that benefit the health of your heart and brain. And, like all fats, it helps slow digestion to keep you full for longer, so you won't get distracted by hunger pangs.
Read more: The 9 Best Foods for Your Brain
15. Best: Cheese
We saved what may be the "best" best food for last. Indulging in a cheesy snack may be just what you need to power through the day. "Cheese, especially sharp cheddar cheese, contains conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA," says Jan Hauser, a certified nutritionist. "This omega-6 fat helps release energy from fat stores, boosts your metabolism, increases muscle strength and enhances exercise endurance." It's also a great source of protein for long-lasting energy and supplies iron, calcium and B vitamins (including B-12) to support productivity. It is high in calories, however, so keep your serving size to about an ounce (about the size of the tip of your thumb).
1. Worst: Sugary Drinks
Made from tons of sugar — and often very little else — sugary drinks set you up for a wicked sugar crash. "A can of soda might give you a temporary sugar rush, but it's likely to be followed by a drop in blood sugar, especially if you don't consume any food at the same time," says Susan Bowerman, a registered dietitian based in Los Angeles. "That drop in blood sugar can leave you feeling tired, fuzzy and light-headed." That's true if you're drinking obvious sugary drinks like soda, but it also applies to healthier-sounding beverages like fruit juice, which is high in natural sugar. Go for low-sugar beverages instead — like unsweetened coconut water or maple water — and snack on whole fruit over fruit juices.
Pretzels seem like a healthier alternative to the typical vending-machine fare, but they might actually sabotage your productivity. "Most pretzels are made with refined white flour, so they're pure starch," Bowerman says. "On top of that, they're a lot more dense than many other refined flour products like white bread, so your body gets a huge slug of starch per serving." And since they're low in fiber, that starch raises your blood sugar levels fast, leading to a blood sugar spike and crash that drains your energy.
3. Store-Bought Cookies and Cakes
Baked sweets suffer the same refined-carb woes as pretzels, and they have way more sugar. They're also loaded with heavily refined vegetable oils that can make getting through your to-do list feel more challenging. "Fats are what we use to build the brain," explains registered dietitian nutritionist Gabriella Vetere. "By using these inferior sources of fats, you are more likely to have poor cognitive function and inflammation throughout the body." If you need to satisfy your sweet tooth with baked goods, go for homemade ones made with higher-quality fats like olive oil, avocado oil, unrefined coconut oil or grass-fed butter.
4. Processed Frozen Dinners
Frozen dinners may be convenient, especially if you're working late at the office, but they're loaded with sodium (salt), a nutrient that may sabotage your productivity. "It's common knowledge that a high-salt diet affects your blood pressure and is hard on your heart, but foods that contain high amounts of salt can affect your cognitive function and impair your ability to think," says Rene Ficek, a registered dietitian. Brain-draining salty foods include fast food, canned soups and other very processed fare. Prepare your own meals as often as possible so that you can control the amount of salt you eat.
5. Worst: Chips and French Fries
Chips and fries are so delicious, but the combination of fast-digesting sugars and processed fats can wreak havoc on your productivity. "When you eat fries or potato chips, you're sending a big load of starch and fat into your system," Bowerman says. That starch disrupts your blood sugar, similar to pretzels and sugary foods. At the same time, a huge dose of fat taxes your digestive system, so your body diverts energy to breaking down your food instead of fueling your creativity. Skip the vending machine and the drive-thru. If you're craving fries, go for a healthy, veggie-based baked option instead.