"Your brain needs fuel to function," says registered dietitian, Elisa Bremner, the campus nutritionist at the Pleasantville Cottage School in Westchester, New York. And although there are several ways to feed your brain through your belly, complex carbohydrates are the best choice for the minute-to-minute fuel the brain needs to run smoothly. But your brain also requires specific nutrients to help build and maintain neurological structures. For example: "Choline is essential for our brain's neurotransmitters," says Bremner. Egg yolks are the most concentrated source of choline in the American diet, providing 680 milligrams per 100 grams."It's a common misconception that egg yolks are not healthy," says Bremner. "They're actually a very important source of choline, which is essential to the brain's sending the right messages to the rest of the body, which is, in turn, essential to a feeling of well-being, and the first step in figuring out how to focus better is figuring out how to feel better in general."
Popeye knew what's what: Improving your focus (and strength!) is just one of the great reasons to eat your spinach. Bremner recommends it because it's a good source of choline, loaded with fiber, and packed with tons of nutrients, all for just a few calories. Spinach has the potential to improve mental clarity, according to a study published in 2015 in the journal Alzheimers & Dementia. More research found that feeding aging rats spinach-rich diets significantly improved their learning capacity. Another study found that spinach is good for gut health and, says Bremner, when the gut is healthy, the brain works better. "An unhealthy gut can create a sense of uneasiness in the body, which can cause or even feel like anxiety," she says, which ranks high among other notable focus wreckers. "When we're feeling anxious, how to focus becomes less of an issue," Bremner points out. Get both eggs and spinach in one meal with this spinach omelet.
Like spinach, yogurt is good for the gut, which is, in turn, good for the brain, making it one of Bremner's top foods that help you concentrate. Among the many foods that help boost good bacteria, yogurt ranks high thanks to lactobacillus, which helps regulate a metabolite known as kynurenine, which is associated with mood. Lactobacillus can help improve depression symptoms, according to recent study. Like anxiety, depression can make focus elusive. Bremner points to a study out of UCLA demonstrating that regularly eating yogurt boosted brain function in women. According to the study author, Kirsten Tillisch, MD, an associate professor of medicine in the digestive diseases division at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, "Our findings indicate that some of the contents of yogurt may actually change the way our brain responds to the environment. When we consider the implications of this work, the old sayings that 'you are what you eat' and 'gut feelings' take on new meaning."
Bremner tells the students she works with to "think of blueberries as brainberries." Numerous studies have found that blueberries are the equivalent of brain food. Recent research from Tufts University found that a diet rich in blueberry extract has the potential to enhance short-term memory, which, of course is crucial to focus. "Blueberries are rich in polyphenols called anthocyanins, which give them their distinctive color," says Diane L. McKay, PhD, an assistant professor says in the Tufts Health and Nutrition Newsletter. Anthocyanins are plant pigments that provide certain fruits and vegetables with blue, red and purple coloring, and they're antioxidants, which are crucial to good health in general. In terms of benefiting cognitive function, "blueberries are one of the more potent foods," according to Martha Clare Morris, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Like blueberries, red cabbage contains anthocyanins—36 different ones, if you're counting. Bremner includes it on her list of go-to focus foods because it's also rich in fiber and low in calories. Additionally, research suggests that red cabbage provides a uniquely efficient anthocyanin delivery system: The more you eat, the more you absorb.
You've probably heard about all the health benefits of avocados, but these creamy treats will help you stay focused as well, Bremner says: They're high in tyrosine, an amino acid that is a precursor to the mood-boosting brain chemical dopamine. And that's not all—dopamine is known to increase attention, motivation and, of course, focus. Bremner says that the monounsaturated fats in avocado support the nerves in the brain.
The omega-3 fatty acids in wild-caught salmon are great for brain health, according to Bremner. Like the monounsaturated fats in avocado, these healthy fats are essential for supporting the nerves of the brain. Omega-3 fatty acids also help build brain cell membranes and can improve memory and mood by affording protection against depression. Farmed salmon is another rich source of omega-3's, but it also contains 20 percent more saturated fat, which is the kind of fats you should cut back on. But, this might be the most important reason to avoid farmed salmon.
This versatile nut packs a brainy punch. (Check out these 10 ideas for meals that incorporate walnuts.) A 2012 study found that walnuts help facilitate memory and brain function. All nuts contain healthy unsaturated fats which are good for your mind, Bremner notes, but she likes to recommend walnuts because they've shown up in brain studies more than any other nut. "Plus, they actually look like little brains!" Bremner also points out that because walnuts are high in protein and fiber, they support good health in general, and they promote well-being, "which can be very helpful in improving overall focus."
Like nuts, seeds are rich in unsaturated fats and thus support the brain. But pumpkin seeds, in particular, are an excellent source of the amino acid tryptophan, which makes them a safe and natural way to relieve symptoms of mild depression as well as insomnia. (Don't miss these other foods that help you sleep.) In addition, pumpkin seeds are a rich source of zinc, which has been shown to help boost the function of neurotransmitters, improve memory and enhance cognition. Bremner sees pumpkin seeds as the underdog of seeds. "Everyone seems to know that sunflower seeds are good for you," Bremner points out, "but I think pumpkin seeds have a lot to recommend them as well."
This wonder veggie stimulates repair and renewal of brain tissue, and research suggests it improves cognitive function. Broccoli contains a compound known as sulforophane, which is associated with the healthy growth of neural stem cells. The same substance is found in brussels sprouts, Bremner points out, but broccoli seems to be a much easier sell. "It's kind of easy to love," she says, so it's a natural recommendation when clients ask her how to stay focused. And did you know that broccoli can actually help whiten your teeth?