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food for thought

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

With summer vacation over, it’s time to switch your brain back to work mode.

Shifting your sleep schedule, organizing your workspace and prioritizing tasks can help you get into a productive mindset.

So can resetting your diet and nutritional intake. The foods you eat have a direct impact on your ability to focus, concentrate and think at work.

The following strategies – many of which I’ve previously written about – help provide your brain the fuel, nutrients and phytochemicals it needs to perform at its peak.

Choose the right carbohydrates

Your brain cells rely on glucose for energy, which comes mainly from foods rich in carbohydrates. Glucose is also needed to synthesize acetylcholine, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that’s involved in memory, attention and learning.

For sustained energy, incorporate slow burning (low glycemic) carbohydrates in your meals and snacks. These include large-flake and steel-cut oats, quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, whole grain rye bread, sweet potato, new potatoes, whole grain pasta, beans and lentils, yogurt and most types of fruit.

Include protein at every meal

Protein-rich foods supply tyrosine, an amino acid that prompts the brain to manufacture norepinephrine and dopamine, neurotransmitters that promote alertness and activity.

Plus, protein in meals and snacks helps you feel full longer. That’s a good thing since research suggests feeling hungry can reduce your ability to focus and make smart decisions.

Greek and Icelandic yogurt, eggs, chicken, fish, lean meat, beans and lentils, bean pastas, tofu, tempeh and edamame are excellent sources of protein.

Why you need to prioritize protein at breakfast

Limit saturated fats

According to a study published in 2020, eating too much saturated fat at lunch may reduce productivity later in the afternoon.

When participants ate a lunch high in saturated fat – versus one high in monounsaturated fat – they had more difficulty completing a performance test that measured sustained attention, concentration and reaction time. (Both lunches had identical foods, as well as calories and grams of carbohydrate, protein and fat.)

When consumed in excess, it’s thought that saturated fatty acids can cross the blood-brain barrier, triggering an inflammatory response.

Foods higher in saturated fat include fast food (e.g., pizza, cheeseburgers), fatty meats (e.g., rib eye steak, sausage, salami, corned beef, chicken wings) and full fat dairy (e.g., cheese, cream, butter).

Focus on unsaturated fats found in foods such as salmon, trout, olive oil, avocado oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.

Prioritize fruits and vegetables

According to a 2015 study of 405 adults, participants who ate up to seven fruit and vegetable servings throughout the day reported feeling happier, more engaged and more creative at work.

Fruits and vegetables contain key nutrients that support the brain’s production of dopamine, which is also involved in motivation and engagement. They also deliver anti-inflammatory nutrients and phytochemicals.

Bring between-meal snacks

Eat every three hours to keep your glucose level stable and to prevent feeling overly hungry midmorning and midafternoon. (Blood glucose dips two to four hours after eating a mixed meal.)

Brain-friendly snacks include carbohydrate, protein and healthy fats. Dried fruit and nuts, raw vegetables and hummus, apple slices with almond butter, roasted chickpeas, and yogurt with berries and chopped walnuts are good choices.

Sneak in vitamin E

This antioxidant nutrient shields brain cell membranes from damage caused by harmful free radicals. Among older adults, higher levels of vitamin E in the body have been tied to better cognitive performance.

Adults need 15 mg of vitamin E each day. Excellent sources include sunflower seeds (12 mg per one-quarter cup), almonds (9 mg per one-quarter cup), hazelnuts, peanuts, almond butter, peanut butter and cooked leafy greens.

Stay hydrated

Drink water throughout the work day to enhance mental performance. Even minor dehydration has been shown to impair attention, memory and psychomotor (brain-muscle) skills.

Adults need 2.2 (females) and 3.0 litres (males) of water each day. Consider using a water bottle with time markings if you need a reminder to drink water.

Caffeinated coffee, which enhances mental alertness, counts toward your daily water requirement. Drinking too much, however, can make you irritable or anxious and interfere with sleep.

Limit daily caffeine intake to 400 mg, the equivalent of three eight-ounce cups of brewed coffee.

Caffeine: How much coffee is too much coffee?

Get back to planning, prepping

A key to consistently eating a healthy diet is meal planning to ensure you have the right foods, meals and snacks on hand.

Research has shown that meal planners eat a wider variety of foods (especially fruits and vegetables) than people who don’t plan meals in advance.

When cooking meals, plan for leftovers to have for lunch the next day. Or, consider meal prepping for the week.

Batch cook whole grains, make a large chickpea salad, hard boil a half dozen eggs, chop vegetables for snacks and salads or grill a few days’ worth of salmon, chicken or tofu.

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