Everyone is looking for ways to maximize productivity and make progress on lengthy to-do lists. College students and professionals are known for experimenting with short bursts of productivity, turning off social media notifications, or scheduling their days with planners and apps.
However, the best system in the world can’t help when the root of the problem starts inside the body. Rather than blaming laziness, procrastination or perfectionism — common scapegoats when it comes to a lack of productivity — you can do yourself a favor by looking at what you eat and drink. Because your diet directly impacts your performance3.
Glucose and Leptin: Your Brain’s Fuel
The majority of what we eat is converted into the brain’s version of gasoline, a sugar called glucose. Our bodies need to maintain a performance level of glucose to keep our brains firing on all cylinders. However, different foods release glucose at different speeds. This is why we have terms to refer to a “sugar rush” and a “sugar crash.” This is because sugar-rich foods provide a spike in glucose that doesn’t last very long. Since this high level of glucose is unsustainable, it leaves your brain feeling scattered and dissatisfied. This is also partially due to leptin levels. Leptin levels are responsible for informing your brain whether or not you feel full and satisfied1. If you don’t, your performance can suffer because it’s difficult to collect your thoughts and truly focus on one thing.
Studies1 have shown that you perform best when there are approximately 25 grams of glucose present in your blood. Leigh Gibson, a brain researcher at UCLA, states that this is approximately the amount of glucose present in a banana. You can get that amount of glucose in your bloodstream through many different foods, without noticing a difference in how you feel in the short-term. An example utilized in an article by Buffer mentions donuts. A donut’s glucose spike doesn’t last nearly as long, or compare to the leptin levels produced by a banana. This is due to the glycemic index number of both foods. Foods with a low number release glucose slowly, while the opposite is true for foods with a high glycemic index number.
You can take concrete steps to control the glucose levels in your brain, induce higher leptin levels and increase your focus and productivity by eating a high-energy, focus-friendly diet.
Is Breakfast the Secret to Mental Focus?
Many people are guilty of skipping breakfast. It’s the most commonly skipped meal of the day, since people are often in a rush to get out the door, or don’t feel like eating in the early morning when they first get up. Many articles have harped on the importance of breakfast when it comes to overall health and weight loss — after all, if you’re hungry in the midday because you haven’t eaten since dinner the night before, you’re far more likely to reach for an unhealthy, oversized menu item in order to compensate for the calories you missed. When a study was conducted on children in the classroom, in relation to whether they ate breakfast or not, their behavior, learning and overall performance was negatively affected.
“All the children in a class were told to skip breakfast one morning, and then, by random assignment, half of the children were given a good breakfast at school. The others got nothing. During the first part of the morning, the children who got breakfast learned more and misbehaved less (as judged by monitors who didn’t know which children had eaten). Then, after all the students were given a healthy snack in the middle of the morning, the differences disappeared as if by magic1.”
This study is valuable because it indicates the power of food to influence your brain. Rather than being fuel for the body alone, the brain is affected by everything that the body is fueled with. If the brain has to cope on subpar or nonexistent fuel, then it’s truly no wonder that it’s sometimes hard to focus, or impossible to truly start and maintain a streak of productivity throughout your day.
However, there is a crucial difference between missing meals and skipping them. Intermittent fasting has many health benefits, and adopting an IF protocol can also contribute to mental clarity. However, accidentally missing a meal and feeling as if you must make up for it later — especially if your most recent meal was lacking in nutrition — can result in brain fog and a lack of focus.
Foods that Decrease Focus
However, even though we’ve established that eating is a crucial part of maintaining focus, it’s important to emphasize the difference between foods that will increase and decrease focus. However, focusing on which foods will induce that sugar rush is not the only thing to consider. In an article provided by the Harvard Business Review2, “Some foods, like pasta, bread, cereal and soda, release their glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy followed by a slump. Others, like high fat meals (think cheeseburgers and BLTs) provide more sustained energy, but require our digestive system to work harder, reducing oxygen levels in the brain and making us groggy.” Accounting for the sugar content isn’t enough.
For instance, some foods require more water in order to process properly, or flush out of your system. Dehydration is a key culprit when it comes to a lack of focus, and foods such as cured meat often cause dehydration. Examples of cured meat involve deli lunch meat, bacon and ham3. They are high in salt, protein and nitrogen, which require a significant amount of water for the body to cope with. Since most people don’t drink enough water on a consistent basis anyway, cured meats are often a culprit, especially if you eat them regularly in that brown-bagged lunch you brought to work or school. If you eat these regularly, they may be part of the problem behind a “midday slump” that can leave you listless and unproductive during the second half of your work day.
Polyunsaturated fats and refined carbohydrates — for instance, the kind of elements that are key to unhealthy baked goods — also zap your focus. The negative impact on cognitive function is why these things are best to avoid.
Why Good Bacteria Are Important
The list of foods that can destroy focus is long. However, one thread that ties all these foods together are theories that involve bacteria in your gut. According to an article published by Harvard Medical School4, “serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods, and inhibit pain.” This is why researchers suggest that instead of reaching for sugar, which can mess with dopamine transmitters and cause crankiness and lack of focus during a sugar crash, you reach for foods that induce serotonin. However, serotonin is mostly produced in the gastrointestinal tract, which means that good and bad bacteria in your gut can effect your emotional health, as well as your intestinal health and serotonin levels. Good bacteria “play an essential role in your health. They protect the lining of your intestines and ensure they provide a strong barrier against toxins and “bad” bacteria; they limit inflammation, they improve how well you absorb nutrients from your food and they activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and the brain4.”
How can you encourage the growth of these good bacteria? Probiotic supplements are highly recommended by researchers, for starters. However, the food that you eat makes the biggest difference. Diets that tend to be high in fruits, lean meats, organic dairy, and fish and seafood are your best bet4. This makes sense, considering the foods and drinks that are highly recommended when it comes to boosting your focus.
Drinking Water Creates Clarity
One of the most important ways to maintain focus and ensure that you stay sharp involves your water intake. Rather than reaching for a cup of coffee or a soda, many people are starting to take notice of how adequate hydration influences their performance, mood and overall health. However, recent studies have highlighted how different factors can impact the amount water you should be drinking each day.
How Much Water Is Needed to Cultivate Focus
Firstly, it’s important to take your diet into consideration. If you consume a lot of foods that are mostly water — such as watermelon, for instance — you will need fewer glasses of water per day than someone who does not. If you are pregnant or breast-feeding or if you exercise often, you should boost your water intake. However, a good rule of thumb for most people is to consume 15.5 cups of fluids for men, and 11.5 cups of fluids for women, on the daily5. This is because the brain is composed of 85% water, and many symptoms are linked to a lack of water. This varied list3 includes “problems with focus and attention, brain fatigue, brain fog, headaches, sleep disturbances, irritability, and depression. … the production of neurotransmitters (such as dopamine and norepinephrine — responsible for better executive functioning) and hormones within the brain also depend on water. [When adequately hydrated], you will be able to think faster by 14%, stay focused for longer, and be more creative!”
Is There Anything Blueberries Can’t Do?
According to Psychology Compass3, there are an entire host of foods that can boost your focus and add onto the benefits of staying adequately hydrated. One example is blueberries! This is because while blueberries are rich in an entire host of important vitamins, they also have high flavonoid levels.
Flavonoids are responsible for triggering enzymes that encourage blood and oxygen flow to the brain. The best part is, that including blueberries in your meals — whether in the form of a smoothie, on top of yogurt, or with cereal — they can still help you skip the afternoon slump and maintain productivity throughout your entire workday. In a study3, volunteers were divided into two groups. One consumed a blueberry smoothie in the mid-morning hours, while the second group consumed a control-drink. The test came in the mid-afternoon, when both groups were assigned mental tasks. By the time the afternoon slump came, the control group’s performance dropped by 15%. The group that consumed the blueberry smoothie demonstrated superior performance.
Avocados Produce Awareness
Avocados, known as a powerhouse of good fats, are an important element to brain health. This is because they are high in monounsaturated fats, which helps produce chemicals in the brain that assist with information retention. Avocados are also helpful when it comes to keeping your blood sugar levels even, which prevents any dips that could make you irrationally hungry, or spikes that will end in a less-than-productive crash6. Additionally, “avocados are also high in tyrosine-amino acid precursor to dopamine. This is the feel-good neurotransmitter in our brains that keeps us motivated and focused3.”
The Power of Potassium
Potassium is one of the main elements responsible for accelerated brain function. This powerhouse speeds up neuron connections, which increases brain response times and makes thinking faster and more focused. Potatoes, yogurt and bananas are all packed with potassium and will help you over your mid-day mental slump.
It’s Time to Take Back Your Mental Focus With Intelligent Supplementation
It can seem like the odds are stacked against us when faced with economic and social forces that impact our health in ways that we still don’t fully understand. From corporate influence on food production to the hidden histories behind our diseases, the legacy of poor health in the U.S. is one that is suffered by too many for too long .
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Citations and Sources
- 1. Widrich L. How Your Productivity is Determined by What you Eat. Resources. https://buffer.com/resources/the-science-behind-how-your-nutrition-will-decide-your-productivity-for-today. Published October 17, 2012. Accessed May 6, 2019.
- 2. Friedman R. What You Eat Affects Your Productivity. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2014/10/what-you-eat-affects-your-productivity. Published October 17, 2014. Accessed May 6, 2019.
- 3. Eating your way to focus and concentration. Psychology Compass. https://psychologycompass.com/blog/eating-your-way-to-focus-and-concentration/. Published October 4, 2017. Accessed May 6, 2019.
- 4. Selhub MD E. Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food – Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626. Published November 16, 2015. Accessed May 6, 2019.
- 5. Water: How much should you drink every day? Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/water/art-20044256. Published 2017. Accessed May 6, 2019.
- 6. 4 Nutritionist-Approved Foods to Boost Your Brain and Fight Fatigue. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/brain-food-for-fatigue#4. Accessed May 6, 2019.