10 foods that help you focus when you need to most

Improve your smarts, memory, attention and energy with these eats
© Woman's Day // © Woman's Day

The concentration diet

If you’ve tried loads of coffee or energy drinks to keep you awake and alert, you know that their side effects—jitters, GI distress—aren’t pretty. The good news: You can eat your way out of a too-tired-to-do-anything morning or an afternoon slump in the office. These 10 foods help your brain stay focused, healthy and sharp.

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1. Quinoa

Carbohydrates are the ultimate brain food. “They supply your brain with quick energy,” says registered dietitian Brooke Schantz, founder of Bitchin’ Nutrition. Be sure to choose complex carbs (like whole grains), which don’t cause drastic blood sugar spikes as refined carbs (like doughnuts) do. Since research shows breakfast can make you more alert, include carbs in your morning meal if you want to be on top of your game in the A.M. A great alternative to hot cereal is quinoa. Serve it warm, stirring in milk and fruit, like apples or berries.

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2. Chicken

Getting enough iron in your diet doesn’t just keep your energy levels humming—the mineral also boosts mental acuity. In one 2014 study in the journal Nutrients, women who ate protein-rich lunches—with foods like beef, chicken and cheese—saw their body’s iron levels rise, in addition to better memory, planning speed and attention abilities. The researchers think it’s because eating nutrient-dense lunches improved the participants’ diets overall, including iron levels. 

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3. Eggs

Don’t skip the yolk! They contain lutein, an antioxidant usually associated with sharp eyesight. But having lower levels of lutein in your brain is linked with mild cognitive impairment. Two eggs also provide 250 mg of choline, a good-for-your-noggin B vitamin that helps maintain brain-cell structure. Plus, their high-quality protein and fat can keep you full so you can focus on the task at hand. Worried about eggs’ cholesterol? People who ate seven per week didn’t have higher levels of heart disease or stroke, according to a 2012 meta-analysis published in BMJ.

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4. Peppermint tea

Go on; take a whiff. Peppermint’s pungent odor is strong enough to wake you up. In a study from West Virginia’s Wheeling Jesuit University in 2011, video game players who were exposed to peppermint scent completed more game levels and found it easier to do so than those who didn’t get a sniff. Mint is arousing, say researchers, so participants were able to sustain attention and focus on the game for longer. To take on that 3 P.M. brain fog, brew a cup of peppermint tea.  

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5. Beets

The juice is suddenly the newest superfood. It’s been shown to improve athletic performance, and now a study from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, found that the drink may stave off dementia. Beetroot juice is packed with nitrates, substances that help dilate blood vessels, and the study discovered that the juice improved blood flow to brain’s white matter, which “functions like highways, connecting other brain regions,” explains study co-author Jonathan Burdette, MD, a professor at Wake Forest. “Improving blood flow to the frontal lobes in the brain may improve attention, alertness and focus,” he adds. 

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6. Peanuts

These are the ideal snack if you want to ward off distraction-inducing hunger. (When your stomach rumbles, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else!) In a new study in the British Journal of Nutrition, eating peanuts or peanut butter can decrease your desire to eat—even eight hours later. Peanuts stabilize blood sugar and cause the release of hunger-taming hormones to tell you you’re full and satisfied. For your next snack, make it an apple with peanut butter. “The protein and fiber in this snack will keep you full for a long time,” says Schantz. 

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7. Dried fruit

Not only do dried apricots and apples provide natural sugar sources that your brain can use for quick energy, but they’re also chewy. And according to 2014 Japanese brain scans, there’s greater activity in regions associated with working memory and alertness while you chew. Chomping on gum works, too (make it sugarless), but dried fruit can sneak in nutrients. Just keep the serving to less than ¼ cup to control calories. 

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8. Sage

The herb is a vital brain booster: In a 2011 study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, participants who took a sage oil supplement performed better on memory and attention tasks after an hour. Four hours later, they also felt less mentally tired and more alert. That’s because sage inhibits an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, a potent brain chemical that improves cognitive function, explains study co-author David Kennedy, PhD, a professor at Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK. All types of sage can work—so sprinkle dried or fresh leaves on your lunchtime salad. 

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9. Mackerel

Fatty fish like this contain a host of omega 3 fatty acids, most importantly, DHA. Running low on these nutrients may slow down your brain. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition discovered that healthy women who increased their intake over six months did better on memory tests compared to a placebo group. Along with mackerel, sardines, tuna and salmon are all high in omega 3s. Mix a tin of canned fish—available in delicious flavors like Cole’s Mackerel in Piripiri sauce or Bella Wild Caught Sardines in cayenne pepper flavored extra virgin olive oil—with chopped veggies and herbs, and spread on two pieces of whole-grain bread.

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