If the new school year has you scrambling for tips on how to help your kids do better in class, or if you’re looking for ways to increase your own productivity, start by examining your diet. Studies have shown that certain foods serve as fuel for our brains, helping us increase concentration and memory function—they’ve even been shown to help slow down the mind’s natural aging process. The next time you really need to stay alert or pay attention, try to eat more of these 7 foods that have been shown to help improve brain function and increase our ability to focus. Combine this practice with other good habits, like working out to your favorite Beachbody® DVD (mine’s Chalene Johnson’s Turbo Jam), and you’ll soon find yourself at the head of the class—at any age.
At only 40 calories a cup, a serving of spinach contains almost half your daily requirement of folic acid, an essential nutrient for cell growth, blood production, and preventing memory loss. And spinach is one of the most nutrient-dense foods available—just 1 cup of spinach also contains all your body’s daily requirements of vitamins A and K, plus most of the folate and manganese you need each day too. These nutrients improve brain function and slow down the effects of premature aging by helping to prevent the negative effects of oxidation on the brain. Spinach is also rich in iron, as well as lutein, which helps promote healthy eyesight.
Smart Tip: Try losing the iceberg lettuce and adding spinach leaves instead to your next dinner salad—or add fresh spinach to an omelet!
As a good source of insoluble fiber, oatmeal provides a stable energy that helps your brain maintain consistent focus and concentration. Eating oatmeal can also slow down the digestion of starch, reducing the frequent spikes in blood sugar that can often occur after a big meal. The iron, magnesium, and zinc in oatmeal encourage cell growth and can help rev up the metabolism and regulate blood sugar. To get oatmeal’s maximum nutritional benefits, avoid the pre-flavored instant packets, which are loaded with sugar, and stick with the plain, slower-cooking kind—it still cooks up in the microwave in just 2 or 3 minutes.
Smart Tip: Turn up oatmeal’s flavor naturally by preparing it with low-fat or nonfat milk and topping it with fresh blueberries or banana slices.
Many studies have shown that eating oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help boost memory, concentration, and mental acuity. Omega-3 acids also appear to strengthen the brain’s synapses that are directly related to learning and memorization. And if that’s not reason enough to eat more fish, the omega-3 fatty acids also help slow down cognitive decline.
Smart Tip: When choosing fish, watch mercury levels, and consider wild salmon, albacore tuna, and mackerel, which all contain omega-3s with minimal environmental contaminants.
Eating just a handful of these nuts every day can help prevent the decline of cognitive and motor function, increase brain resiliency, and improve cell function. Walnuts are loaded with protein and omega-3 fatty acids that help balance the unstable neurotransmitters that can contribute to depression and mood swings.
Smart Tip: Sprinkle a handful of chopped walnuts on salads, or fill a travel container for a healthy on-the-go snack. You’ll feel full longer, reducing the temptation to binge between meals.
Many types of berries, especially blueberries and strawberries, contain flavonoids, which have been linked to brain cell growth and improved memory. Berries with the darkest, richest colors generally offer the most nutritional value. Eat the real thing to reap the benefits, and avoid anything that contains “berry flavoring.” The antioxidants, vitamin C, and anti-inflammatory properties in berries have been shown to help preserve brain function and can be a helpful factor in battling the onset of dementia.
Smart Tip: Sprinkle berries on salads, cereal, or yogurt, or make yourself a fresh berry fruit smoothie.
Widely known as a top calcium source for bone development and strength, yogurt also contains enough protein and carbohydrates in just one serving to help keep both the body and the brain energized throughout the day. Yogurt also contains amino acids that can encourage the production of neurotransmitters, and enough vitamin B to contribute—along with the protein—to the growth of brain tissue, while helping to slow down the aging process.
Smart Tip: Eat yogurt topped with berries for breakfast or lunch, or if you’re having a salad, nix the bottled dressing and make your own by mixing a quarter of a cup of plain nonfat or low-fat yogurt with fresh herbs.
These low-calorie, nutrient-dense wonders are rich in protein as well as choline, an important nutrient that helps regulate the brain and nervous system by acting as a messenger between muscles and nerves. If you’ve been avoiding eggs because you’re worried about your cholesterol, take note: Numerous research studies have indicated that eating eggs as part of a healthy diet has not been shown to be a contributing factor to heart disease. The nutrients in eggs also help increase memory development and aid in concentration. Another plus? Egg yolks contain lutein, which has been shown to help maintain and sometimes improve eye health.
Smart Tip: Enjoy an egg and spinach omelet for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.