Brain foods are more important than ever to know about and consume. Our new working environment demands changes in our diets and foods that boost our concentration and focus.
Working from home has proved to be more difficult than it initially seemed. Staying home all day completing remote work sounded like an excellent plan when businesses started to close in March, but challenges quickly arose. Along with the stress of a global pandemic and worrying about our health and that of our loved ones, work has become harder. We have become more distracted. Kids need help with their school work. Now your dog has access to your lap all day and could insist on pets at all times. And for those of us with no responsibilities other than ourselves – a very tempting memory foam mattress with a cloud-like comforter.
Many of us are working from the same room that we sleep in; we don’t have a space specifically for our work. Sometimes we only muster up enough energy to grab a safe-for-work shirt from the pile of clothes beside our bed and secure our laptop on our pijama’ed-lap before a nine am meeting. We’ve perfectly curated the professional background for our zoom calls, but beyond what our colleagues see is the mess of our lives in a global pandemic.
The Cook and Culture Team is going through it too. We communicate through video calls several times a week, and we all struggle in our own way to find the quiet and calm working environment that is conducive to maximum productivity — not that we believe productivity is the ultimate goal. At this time, we should focus on our health and that of our loved ones and communities, but we also need to continue chugging along in our world, following our passions, and contributing to our communities in our own ways. So whether or not you just need to get that nine to five job done or you’re spending this time to write the next great American novel – we believe in you – we could all use a little brain boost — maybe a “brain blast” as Jimmy Neutron would say.
It’s hard to resist the pantry’s whispering of your name, and you might feel obligated to eat those Doritos, pop tarts, packaged muffins, that you know you shouldn’t eat, but think you need to in the name of no food waste (okay, yes eat them, but maybe change up your grocery list next time.) But we know that it is more beneficial to nourish our bodies during our work from home days. And that’s what we’re here to help you with. We have crafted a list of the best brain foods to boost your focus and concentration. With these foods, you can finish your work efficiently and spend the rest of your time relaxing, playing with your kids, snuggling back under that cloud-like comforter or a weighted blanket.
This is how my WFH day goes when I’m not filling my morning with brain foods. (This happened to me during a Cook & Culture meeting.)
Marchan, Gabrielle. “Brain Foods.” 2020.
You don’t want this. And we don’t want this for you. Let’s jump right into the brain foods that can power your WFH day and prevent your day from going like this.
Brain Foods to Boost Your Focus and Productivity
Dehydration causes concentration problems. Go fill up your glass. Don’t read any more until you do.
Did you drink more water?
Coffee and Tea
- You might have been thinking that your daily cup of coffee hasn’t been doing you any favors (especially when you feel you need a daily nap at three in the afternoon), but coffee is a brain food. The main reason coffee makes it onto the list of brain foods is its caffeine content. Of course, similar effects can come from caffeine in other forms and may be especially beneficial for those who may experience increased anxiety from coffee and high amounts of caffeine.
- For example, matcha can provide you with the caffeine without the jitters. Some experience a more zen-ful sense of focus rather than the crazy one I feel right now after a few cups of coffee while listening to the Mario Kart soundtrack. Matcha has a combination of caffeine and high amounts of l-theanine, a stress-reducing compound. The combination creates a calmer state of productivity. If you want to know more about teas that can help with focus, concentration, memory, and brain function, check out this article about teas for focus and studying. (4)
- In a Harvard Health Blog, Stephanie Watson states, “the caffeine in coffee might offer not just a momentary mental boost but also longer-term effects on thinking skills.” Caffeine has the ability to trick your brain by blocking the chemical that prevents the release of excitatory brain chemicals. Now, these chemicals can flow freely. (6)
- Lots of cream and sugar can counter the effects of the brain boost that coffee gives you. Coffee with a splash of oat milk is a great way to enjoy your daily cup. Cook and Culture’s healthy Pumpkin Spice Latte might be the way to go if you want a little more excitement and flavor.
- Can you believe it? Yes, chocolate is on our list of brain foods — dark chocolate, of course. Flavanols, the type of antioxidant found in dark chocolate and cocoa, is what places chocolate on this list.
- When it comes to cacao content, the higher the better. Cacao is the unprocessed, raw version of cocoa. You can get cacao in the form of nibs, which can add a hint of a deep bitter chocolate flavor, or as powder.
- Just because it’s dark chocolate doesn’t mean it’s free of sugar. Therefore, the sugar content has to be taken into account when consuming chocolate for the purpose of enhancing brain function. Healthline spoke to Jessica Cording, New York-based dietician, who suggests 85 percent dark chocolate; “With [85 percent], you’re getting more cacao and less cane sugar. So, you’re able to reap those antioxidant, anti-inflammatory benefits without as many negative consequences of the added sugar in there.” (8)
Plant-based Omega-3 fatty acids
- Other lists of brain foods often include fish at the top of the list because of its high content of omega-3 fatty acids. However, fish are not the only source of omega-3’s. The type of omega-3 fatty acids that fish contain are Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This is the converted form of the omega-3s that exist in plant sources. The omega-3 in plant sources is Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Our bodies use EPA and DHA but are entirely capable of converting ALA into DHA and EPA, making plant sources an excellent way to get your omega-3’s. Using plant sources instead of fish just means you’re going to have to eat a bit more of it to get all the effects and make it so your body can do that necessary converting. (7)
- Plant-based sources include flax seeds, walnuts, seaweed, and algae (which makes sense since fish are rich in it), edamame, kidney beans, hemp seeds. Omega-3’s improve the communication between brain cells and helps build cell membranes. (1, 7)
- Specifically, walnuts improve memory, processing speed, and concentration. (3)
- Of course, blueberries are a brain food. That’s how we’ve been taught to think of them. These berries contain high amounts of antioxidants, vitamin E, vitamin C, and flavonoids. Flavonoids stimulate the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain which helps us learn and focus. They have also been shown to improve spatial memory. (3, 5)
- The peak time for blueberries is shown to be five hours after eating them. This is when it will really improve your focus. This study, in which participants drank a blueberry smoothie in the morning and performed mental tasks in the afternoon, found that those who drank the smoothie performed better on mental tasks five hours later compared to those who consumed the control drink. (3)
- Blueberries are great to snack on all the time, but if you’re looking to change it up or wondering how you can add it to other foods, check out this list of 56 healthy ways to use blueberries.
What Else to Eat
Other foods to eat to keep your brain in tip-top shape include coconut oil, dark leafy greens, beets, whole grains, and turmeric. These foods prevent cognitive decline and support a healthy functioning brain throughout your life.
What Not to Eat
Although it is our general philosophy to add things to your diet rather than subtract, there are some food or rather ingredients to avoid if you’re looking to enhance your focus.
You might be tempted to have some candy sitting by your desk for a little kick when you’re feeling sluggish, but don’t be fooled. High amounts of sugar will not increase your productivity on a work-from-home day. When we were discussing coffee, we mentioned how the sugar and cream you might want to add will negate the beneficial brain effects of the coffee or tea. Diets high in sugar lead to a decline in cognitive function and can disrupt healthy gut bacteria which also leads to negative effects on the brain. That glass of orange juice in the morning isn’t helping you get through your work-from-home day. (5)
This also goes for artificial sweeteners like aspartame. They make your memory worse.
High fructose corn syrup is a big no-no. It inhibits learning and the formation of brain neurons. (9)
How to Incorporate the Best Brain Foods into Your Morning Routine
Breakfast can include steel-cut oatmeal with flax and blueberries. (If you have extra time in the morning, warm up some diced apple in a pot with coconut oil. Get that going with some cinnamon and nutmeg before adding your water and oats.) Alongside your oatmeal, have a big glass of water to start the day and some coffee or tea. Remember not to add lots of sugar to your oats or your warm drink.
A snack could include walnuts and dark chocolate. Cut your walnuts into smaller pieces so they’re easier to manage, especially with their bitterness. Add some different kinds of seeds to mix it up.
We know what we eat is incredibly important in relation to how we feel, but sometimes you need something else to spark your motivation to work or boost your productivity.
Here are some things to consider:
Random things that we find helpful:
- Putting on a hat. A hat seems to limit my field of view which makes me focus on my task rather than what is happening around me. Or you can use the hat just to cover your eyes and forget about everything.
- Wear shoes. Putting shoes on makes me less like laying in bed and more like getting my business done.
Now that you know what to eat to improve your concentration during these crazy days working from home, get to it!
And when you’re done, let us know how our tips helped you and if you have any funny tricks to get you motivated.
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