How to Tweak Your Diet for Peak Mental Performance

How to Tweak Your Diet for Peak Mental Performance

As the summer haze begins to wear off and many return to school, it’s important to reinforce the importance of diet when it comes to staying focused on important tasks. Whether this means long hours studying and doing homework, or staying focused at work, making wiser nutritional choices can directly impact your brain’s potential.

Mindless munching and binging on coffee should not be a part of your study/focus plan. Instead, here are healthier and easier alternatives that will fuel your brain when you need it to perform its best.

This is Your Brain on Junk Food

It should come as no surprise that eating junk food – foods high in refined sugars and fats – can have a negative impact on the body as a whole. So to eat junk food while studying or during periods of high focus and concentration, would be a huge disservice to your brain! Over time, your cognitive health will surely suffer.

Lately, much research has focused on the correlation between diet and cognitive health & development. So far the results point to a trend: when it comes to nurturing the brain and increasing potential, the worst choices are foods that are often most convenient, but have no nutritional value. You know, that bag of chips, the salty snacks, the deceptively small sized tub of rich ice cream.

Poor food choices can cause cognitive decline if eaten continuously over time. Prime example: while sugary snacks give us the energy we yearn for while studying, they can also aggravate inflammation, which – in turn – hinders the brain’s ability to function at its peak ability.

Trans fats and saturated fats

dietHave long been deemed unhealthy, yet due to sheer convenience and cravings, they are still major culprits for many of today’s health concerns. According to the publication, Neurobiology of Aging by Neal D. Barnard, “… higher intake of saturated or trans fat is associated with increased risk of dementia, AD, and MCI (mild cognitive impairment), and with a greater degree of cognitive decline in later life.” Like fuel for a car, the brain does require fats to function properly. But it is best to stick to healthier, nutrient-rich fats like fish, olive or coconut oil.

Some foods that are high in trans and saturated fats are: doughnuts, cookies, cakes, many fast food items, and essentially anything baked using shortening. This is not say that you must completely eradicate these foods from your diet. However, it would be wise to steer clear of them when you need your brain performing to its full potential.

Refined carbohydrates

Should also be limited in order to better focus and retain information. Glucose from carbohydrates does allow your brain to produce more energy. So naturally when looking for an energy boost, one often looks to carbs to supply that jolt. Too much sugar or refined carbohydrates at one time, however, can actually deprive your brain of glucose – depleting its energy supply and compromising your brain’s power to concentrate, remember, and learn. This is where you crash.

Neurologist, Dr. David Perlmutter, has found that diets high in refined carbohydrates increase the risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment. Another study found that higher sugar intake, overtime, yielded an increase in cognitive decline and a reduction in memory. Foods like soda, fruit juice, candy, white (bleached) bread and pasta, and foods containing corn syrup should all be avoided while studying and/or concentrating. Despite their ability to provide instant energy due to a spike in blood sugar, this isn’t sustainable and is often followed by a hard crash and a need for more complex carbs. So when you pick up your books, put down the M&Ms.

dietBut eating for better brain performance doesn’t mean existing on nothing but broccoli and water.

Here are a tasty few suggestions for how you can keep your energy level.

Trade Your Coffee for Green Tea

This is an easy switch to make and is also significantly cheaper! Instead of gulping down cups of coffee and eventually crashing, try green tea. Not only is it gentler on the body, but countless studies have been conducted to prove green tea’s ability to enhance memory and cognitive functions.

How, you ask? Green tea contains an amino acid called L-Theanine. L-Theanine stimulates dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter often called the “motivation molecule.”

It helps you get focused and productive, which is exactly what you need when studying or focusing on complex tasks. It also helps to stimulate GABA, another neurotransmitter that helps you keep calm under stress. That’s right, there’s a scientific reason why green tea chills people out.

I understand that it is hard to give up that instant gratification that coffee gives; there’s a significantly higher amount of caffeine in an 8 oz serving of coffee (100-200 mg) than green tea (about 35-70 mg). But green tea just has far better benefits.

One of the wonderful things about tea is that different kinds can be blended to boost the caffeine.

For example, you can add black tea to your cup of green tea and reap about 60-90 more mg of caffeine. This is a sustainable way to get caffeine, as well as, the benefits of green tea. Your brain will thank you and you will find that you’re more motivated to go the extra mile, and even  better able to retain information.

Choose the Foods and Portions Your Brain Will Thrive On

diet for healthy brain functionStudying and trying to remain focused for long hours is often accompanied by mindless eating. Finishing a family sized bag of chips or cookies is a bit too easy when you’re attempting to focus on something else. Sure, you get a boost of energy but at what cost?

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed relatively healthy people who ate junk food for five days performed worse on cognitive tests measuring attention, speed, and mood.  That means if you habitually eat junk food, the negative impact is much worse than just an isolated sugar crash.

There are many foods out there to replace the empty calorie culprits we often reach for. For example Phenylalanine, an amino acid found in various meats, nuts and legumes; triggers the neurotransmitters directly related to memory concentration and focus. So instead of reaching for that bag of chips,

Grab a handful of nuts.

Walnuts are a great plant source for omega-3 fatty acids which certainly nourish and heal the brain. Just try to avoid the heavily-salted brands.

For something more filling try a:


With lean ground beef containing plenty of phenylalanine; black beans containing anthocyanins that have been shown to boost brain power; cheddar cheese which provides about 5% of the recommended daily value of the ever important vitamin B6. And to bring it over the top:

Switch out that rice for quinoa.

Quinoa is an amazing complete full protein, meaning it contains all 9 amino acids. It is also chock full of fiber and iron, and can be cooked and serve similarly to rice.

Craving something sweet? Replace the candy or sundae with one of my personal favorites:

Frozen yogurt covered blueberries.

frozen yogurt covered blueberriesBlueberries by themselves are an amazing superfood that contain flavonoids. Flavonoids have been shown to improve memory, learning, and general cognitive function; including, reasoning skills, decision making, verbal comprehension, and numerical ability. These are all key when trying to focus or study. I enjoy them beneath frozen greek yogurt because the added protein helps to keep me satiated longer, plus it’s delicious!

Roasted chickpeas

An awesome alternative to chips or buttery popcorn. They are loaded with magnesium which speeds up the flow of messages to the brain, while also allowing for more blood flow. Chickpeas can be roasted and seasoned to suite your needs. Sweetened with cinnamon and honey, or dusted with garlic and parmesan… chickpeas are sure to satisfy.

There are many many foods that feed not only our bodies but our brains as well. So utilizing them while studying and to enhance focus and memory is well… a no-brainer! Ordering a pizza or heading to the drive-thru, though convenient, isn’t usually the best option when trying to maximize your brain power and capabilities.

Eating more intentionally and choosing foods that nourish your body and mind, is a sure fire way to get the most out of your brain.

Limiting refined carbohydrates and trans fats is not always easy. But once you’ve made some positive changes, you will be amazed at the benefits.

Studying, staying focused, concentrating, and memorization will all be improved. You’ll be able to plunge forward, without having to worry about the dreaded sugar crash or sluggish after effects of junk food.

How do you curb your cravings for junk food? How do you moderate unhealthy food? Please feel free to join the conversation by posting a comment below!