We all know that a strong cup of coffee can give us that extra mental boost we may need to complete a brain-draining project or meet a tight deadline.
What works even better: Strategic eating is a healthful and reliable way to improve your ability to concentrate for the long haul—not just for a few hours at a time when you’re hyped-up on caffeine.
There’s no single food that will suddenly have you speed-reading a book in one sitting, but you can improve your overall powers of concentration by including the following foods in your diet…
• Eggs. When it comes to mental focus, it doesn’t get much better than eggs! They’re a leading source of a nutrient called choline, a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine—a key molecule of learning.
Eggs (including the yolks) also contain a variety of B vitamins, most of which have been stripped from the refined carbs that are so ubiquitous in the typical American diet. In particular, eggs are rich in vitamins B-6 and B-12, which are crucial for carrying out most cognitive functions (three large eggs will give you about half of your daily B-12 requirement)…and vitamin B-9 (also known as folate).
For optimal brain health, include up to 12 eggs in your diet each week. While cholesterol in one’s diet has only a minimal effect on blood levels of cholesterol, consult your doctor for advice on appropriate intake of eggs if cholesterol is a concern.
• Mussels. Three ounces of mussels—which is a modest serving—contain 20 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin B-12 (that’s nearly 10 times your daily requirement). Even a mild deficiency of this crucial brain-boosting vitamin can impair concentration and lead to fuzzy thinking.
But that’s not all. Three ounces of mussels will also give you 430 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—the equivalent of two to three typical fish oil supplement capsules. DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid needed for healthy brain function. Mussels are also loaded with zinc, a nutritional workhorse involved in more than 100 chemical reactions in the brain. Enjoy mussels twice a month.
Don’t like mussels? Other smart brain-boosting seafood selections include oysters (six oysters deliver three to four times your daily zinc needs)…anchovies, which have more omega-3s than tuna…and clams, which are an excellent source of vitamin B-12. Tasty choices: Caesar salad with anchovies…clam chowder…or pasta alle vongole (with clams).
• Beef. You’ve probably heard that eating too much red meat is linked to heart disease and even some types of cancer. However, you can minimize these risks and maximize your brainpower with a few small servings per week.
Here’s why: Beef is a potent source of heme iron (the most absorbable form), which is needed to transport oxygen through the blood and to the brain.
What I recommend: Opt for grass-fed beef. It has fewer calories, less fat and more nutrients (such as vitamin E) than conventional beef. Meat from grass-fed animals has two to three times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than meat from grain-fed animals. CLA helps protect the brain by counteracting the effects of harmful stress hormones.
Try to have grass-fed beef once or twice a week—but give it a supporting role instead of making it the star of your meal. Think grass-fed vegetable beef stew instead of a large steak. Note: Even though grass-fed beef is more expensive than conventional beef, you can save by opting for nontraditional cuts, such as beef shank, stew meats and roasts. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, black beans are an excellent substitute.
• Cruciferous vegetables. Take your pick—the list includes brussels sprouts, kale, arugula, bok choy, cauliflower and collard greens. As members of the Brassica plant family, these veggies contain sulfur-based anti-inflammatory compounds that help protect the brain. One of these compounds, sulforaphane, has even been shown to improve memory and learning after brain injury.
Aim for at least two cups of cruciferous vegetables daily—I put that much in my kale-blueberry smoothie every morning! Note: Consult your doctor before changing the amount of leafy greens you eat if you take warfarin, a blood thinner, since vitamin K–rich foods may interact.
Other good choices: Add purple cabbage to a stir-fry…or mash cauliflower instead of potatoes and season with brain-boosting turmeric and black pepper (to increase the absorption of turmeric).