HomeArticlesThe best (and worst) foods to eat for focus

The best (and worst) foods to eat for focus

Trouble concentrating? The foods you eat could be to blame. Find out the best (and worst) foods to eat for focus.

Sarah Achleithner, health and wellness writer
10 mins
The ability to concentrate is critical for learning new things, achieving goals, and performing daily tasks. Whether you’re running a marathon or finishing a presentation at work, focus can be the difference between failure and success, and save you time and trouble. While you can improve focus with meditation, stress reduction, and other lifestyle changes, what you put on your fork also makes a difference.
Before discussing the best (and worst) foods to eat for focus, let’s first explore the relationship between brain chemistry and nutrition.
woman holding a picture of a brain with brain-healthy foods

The correlation between brain chemistry and nutrition

Nutrition can have a huge impact on day-to-day concentration and productivity. For example, when you skip meals or eat certain foods (like those high in sugar or sodium), you may notice that you feel foggy, lack energy, have difficulty remembering things and/or struggle to make decisions.
Why is the brain so reliant on nutrition for concentration and productivity? Research studies have shown that your gut and brain are in constant communication with each other via chemicals called neurotransmitters, which are produced in the brain and control feelings and emotions (like serotonin). Your gut microbes also produce a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)and short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) such as butyrate, propionate and acetate, all of which are thought to impact various brain functions including mood, fear and stress.. [19]. Your nutrition choices can have a substantial impact on neurotransmitter and SCFA production in the gut, thereby influencing brain function. Moreover, emerging research shows that the gut microbiota - which are profoundly impacted by nutrition - play an important role in the development of neurological and psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia, autism, depression and anxiety [19, 20].

Best foods to eat for focus

While there are certain “brain foods” that boost focus, there are some that do just the opposite. Here are some of the best (and worst) foods that can affect your ability to have a laser-like mental focus and concentration.
salmon filets with garlic and pesto in a bowl

Fatty fish

Fish high in healthy fats (like salmon, trout, sardines, and albacore tuna) contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for brain health. According to recent studies, the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is linked to improved memory, learning ability, and cognitive function thanks to the presence of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) [3].
To obtain maximum brain health benefits, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that adults should consume a minimum of 8 ounces of seafood per week. Try pairing these types of fatty fish with whole grains and vegetables to get an extra boost of brain power and improve your focus!

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds contain fiber, plant protein, and anti-inflammatory compounds, as well as vitamin E, and healthy fats. Specifically, vitamin E in nuts and seeds may help protect your brain and reduce cognitive decline [13]. They are also low GI, which will promote long-lasting energy and prevent blood sugar crashes. To maximize these brain health benefits, try adding them to your favorite salad, dessert, or smoothie bowl for added flavor and nutrition.

Dark leafy greens

These powerful greens (such as broccoli, kale, spinach, and collard greens) contain carotenoids, vitamin K, and folic acid. Leafy green vegetables also contain a plethora of B-vitamins which help metabolize homocysteine (an amino acid that plays a role in brain damage, cognitive and memory decline) and reduce its concentration in the bloodstream. Thus, these B-vitamins help to prevent long term damage, preserve brain health, and improve focus [14]. That’s why the USDA recommends adults to consume approximately 2-3 cups of leafy green vegetables per day, so to hit this amount, go ahead and throw them into smoothies, pastas, lasagnas, and soups to “secretly” boost your nutrient intake [4].
bowl of blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries

Berries

Berries are rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, as well as fiber, vitamin C and vitamin K. They also have a lower GI content than other fruits, which may help sustain energy levels and alertness.
In addition, research indicates that polyphenolic compounds in berries may help protect against neurodegenerative disorders and contribute to enhanced memory and focus [5]. Try adding fresh and frozen, unsweetened berries to salads, smoothies, and morning oatmeal for brain health benefits.

Dark chocolate

Satisfy your sweet tooth cravings and boost brain health with this antioxidant rich treat. Dark chocolate contains magnesium (to help destress), contains small doses of caffeine (to increase alertness), and stimulates “happy hormones” such as endorphins and serotonin. Dark chocolate contains flavonoids and anti-inflammatory agents, which appear to boost energy levels and enhance concentration and focus [6].
When choosing dark chocolate, be sure to check the nutrition labels and choose ones over 70% cocoa to get the most benefits. While dark chocolate is great for focus levels, moderation is key because it’s calorie-dense and rich in saturated fat, which has been linked with inflammation. Enjoy a small amount of dark chocolate with your morning oatmeal, an afternoon pick-me-up, or as an after-dinner dessert.

Worst foods to eat for focus

Sugary drinks
Drinks that contain added sugars (such as sodas, juices, and alcoholic beverages) can increase blood sugar levels and have negative consequences on the brain and overall health. Studies have shown that the constant consumption of sugary drinks can lead to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s, and dementia [7]. In addition, consuming these sugary drinks will lead to a blood sugar spike and subsequent crash, which wreaks havoc on focus and concentration levels throughout the day. To cut back on sugar sweetened beverages, you can enjoy some healthy alternatives, such as fruit-infused water, green tea, unsweetened soy milk, sparkling water, or homemade vegetable juice.
cereal spilling out of a glass jar onto a wood platform

Refined carbohydrates

Diets rich in refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, white flour, breakfast cereals, white pastas, sweets, and snacks) are associated with a host of health problems, including certain types of cancers, type 2 diabetes, and inflammatory diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia [8, 9]. In addition, refined carbohydrates often lead to blood sugar highs and lows, which can leave you feeling foggy and sleepy, and impact focus.

Highly processed foods

Highly processed foods are rich in added sugar, salt, and other additives, making them a go-to option for fast energy. However, these foods also include saturated and trans fats, and emerging research shows that these types of dietary fat can negatively affect focus levels [15]. In one study, researchers found that those who consumed a meal higher in saturated fat had more difficulty concentrating and performing tasks over five hours than those who had eaten unsaturated fat meals [16]. Be sure to limit (or avoid) excessive intake of butter, cured and processed meats, cheese, coconut/palm oil, and milk chocolate, as these foods have a high saturated fat content.
friends toasting with red wine in wine glasses

Excess alcohol

Heavy alcohol consumption is associated with changes in brain volume and metabolism, as well as altered neurotransmitter function [10]. Excess alcohol can also ruin your sleep patterns, resulting in fatigue, poor memory consolidation, “brain fog” and reduced focus [17]. In addition, t hungover people report greater perceived effort during task performance [21].
To reduce the risk of alcohol-related harms, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults of legal drinking age should limit alcohol intake to >1 drink/day for women, and >2 drinks/day for men [22].

High mercury content fish

Large fish (such as tuna, swordfish, tilefish, and shark) can have negative effects on the brain due to their mercury content. Studies show that high mercury consumption can lead to neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease) and impaired cognitive and motor function [11]. Therefore, to maintain your focus and reduce risks for other brain-related diseases, limit your intake of large fish and focus on small fish such as salmon, sardines, trout and herring, instead.
man standing at a desk concentrating on paperwork

Nutrition tips to maximize focus and concentration

To make the most of your diet and focus levels, try these nutrition tips:
  • Eat the rainbow. Colorful produce items contain a plethora of brain-boosting vitamins that will help increase concentration levels and boost brain health.
  • Limit refined (simple) carbohydrates. These low glycemic index foods will result in a crash, leaving you with a lack of motivation and focus. Instead, choose more whole grain options that will provide more steady glucose levels.
  • Incorporate brain-supporting foods. By focusing on a diet rich in berries, nuts and seeds, fatty fish, and whole grains, your risk of inflammatory diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and dementia may decrease. In addition, these types of foods may result in improved focus and concentration over time.
  • Eat small, frequent meals. Now that we’ve covered some of the best (and worst) foods to eat for focus, let’s talk about optimal times to eat them. As previously mentioned, the foods you eat play a large role in your ability to focus throughout the day. Foods with a low glycemic index number will gradually release glucose into your bloodstream, which helps minimize blood sugar swings and optimizes brain power and mental focus. So, let’s take a look at a few examples. If you ate a donut (a food with a high glycemic index), you would experience a blood sugar spike followed by a subsequent crash, which leads to you feeling unfocused and easily distracted. On the other hand, if you ate a bowl of oatmeal (a food with a low glycemic index), you would experience steadier glucose levels, which results in better focus and improved attention levels. How much you eat also plays a role in concentration levels. Eating large amounts of food at once can lead to crashes during the day, so by eating smaller portions more frequently, you can maintain a more even glucose level and keep your brain operating at full speed. In addition, you can listen to your body’s hunger cues when it comes to improving focus with diet. If you’re hungry or happen to skip a meal, you may notice your productivity levels drop until you decide to eat.
CTA 3: Fill your nutrient gaps

Summary

Food has the power to dictate your mood, energy levels, and cognition. Eat a wide variety of minimally-processed whole foods, and limit sugary drinks, refined carbohydrate, alcohol and high mercury fish to maximize concentration and protect your brain.
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose or replace personalized medical care.

Key takeaways

  • Research shows that certain types of food have a positive and negative impact on productivity, focus, and motivation [1].
  • Foods with a low glycemic index number will gradually release glucose into your bloodstream, which helps minimize blood sugar swings and optimizes mental focus.
  • Berries, nuts, leafy greens, dark chocolate and fatty fish have been shown to support brain function.
  • Conversely, sugary drinks, alcohol, refined carbs and high mercury fish can have a negative impact on cognition and brain health.
  • Eating smaller portions more frequently will result in even glucose levels and keep your brain operating at full speed.

References:

  1. Schulze, M. B., Martínez-González, M. A., Fung, T. T., Lichtenstein, A. H., & Forouhi, N. G. (2018). Food based dietary patterns and chronic disease prevention. BMJ. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k2396
  2. Burgess, L. (2020, January 2). 12 best brain foods: Memory, concentration, and brain health. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324044#oily-fish.
  3. Ellis, E. (2020). Brain Health and Fish. EatRight. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/healthy-aging/brain-health-and-fish?utm_source=Social_Toolkit&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=2021Q1.
  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2021). Vegetables. MyPlate. https://www.myplate.gov/eat-healthy/vegetables.
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  13. Basambombo, L. L., Carmichael, P.-H., Côté, S., & Laurin, D. (2016). Use of Vitamin E and C Supplements for the Prevention of Cognitive Decline. Annals of Pharmacotherapy, 51(2), 118–124. https://doi.org/10.1177/1060028016673072
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