Many of us continue to struggle with “pandemic brain,” and I’m often asked about foods that can boost our focus and productivity levels. The truth is that our ability to focus depends on a wide range of healthy habits — not only what we eat, but how we eat, how much we sleep, sit, move, and drink. While nootropic supplements (a class of supplements that boost brain performance) have been rising in popularity, the less marketable truth is that we cannot eat poorly, skimp on sleep, sit all day long, and then pop a pill and expect to miraculously attain a state of productivity. When it comes to focus, the investment we put into our lifestyle habits delivers a tenfold return.
Here are three easy healthy eating strategies you can adopt today to sharpen your focus, just in time to meet your next deadline at work.
1. Avoid sugar highs and lows by bringing balance to each meal.
Nothing kills focus more than a sugar crash. But sugar doesn’t just come from sweets and sugary treats; foods high in refined carbohydrates, like bread and pasta, can also cause these highs and lows. Sugar (or glucose) is what’s left when your body breaks down carbohydrates. As a result, when your plate is filled with refined carbohydrates (like a piece of toast, a plate of pasta, or a bowl of rice), but lacking in good fats, fiber, and protein, you step onto what I like to call the “sugar roller coaster ride”: sugar highs that lead to jittery, unsustainable energy, and sugar lows that leave you feeling depleted and unproductive.
To maximize your ability to focus, you want to balance each meal appropriately, preventing those highs and lows by stabilizing your sugars with plentiful fiber from non-starchy veggies, good fats like olive oil, nuts, and seeds, and quality protein like hemp seeds, eggs, or fish.
Try these Microsteps:
Add one sugar-stabilizing food to your meal. Adding some nuts or seeds, like slivered almonds or sesame seeds, will help you feel less tempted to snack throughout the day.
Swap one high-sugar fruit, like bananas or oranges, with a low-sugar one, like strawberries or grapefruit.
2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
When it comes to improving our focus and our overall health, drinking water is one of the most effective ways to do both. When we don’t get enough, we become dehydrated. We may experience fogginess, fatigue, and find it hard to focus.
Our brains are made up of 75 percent water, and even mild dehydration can rob us of our full brain power. Studies by the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory, for example, showed that dehydration can adversely affect concentration, mood, and reasoning, and can also cause headaches and anxiety. On the flip side, scientists found that staying hydrated can lead to an increase in productivity by as much as 14 percent.
Here are some Microsteps to try:
Drink a glass of water first thing when you wake up in the morning. We actually wake up dehydrated — simply by breathing while we sleep, we experience fluid loss. Before checking your phone, make a point to hydrate and replenish what was lost while you were sleeping.
When you are hit by a feeling of fatigue, drink a glass of water. Even a 1% dehydration level can cause fatigue and a decrease in productivity by up to 12%.
3. Give your meal the attention it deserves.
Paying attention to your food begins with planning. Before eating, take 30 seconds to consider what your body is telling you it needs right now. Which foods in your fridge or your pantry are going to provide you with the energy and focus you need to sustain you until your next meal?
When it’s time to dig in, enjoy your meal without distractions. Rather than picking up your phone or reaching for the remote, focus instead on the experience of eating: What do you smell, taste, see? Are you chewing your foods thoroughly, or gulping them down? Where does your mind go when you’re munching away? Staying connected to all your senses as you experience your meal isn’t just an exercise in mindfulness, it’s a way to replenish your energy and focus too. Think of mealtime as an opportunity to recharge, reflect, and give your food your full attention.
Try this Microstep:
At each meal, note the flavor, look, and texture of your food. Being mindful of the experience of eating can help you feel more satisfied by nutritious foods.
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