Feeling sluggish? 15 nutrient-packed brain foods that will boost your productivity
We’ve all been there. It’s mid-day, right after lunch, and you’ve just returned to the office after a satisfying meal—fried kway teow—at the usual kopitiam.
You slump into your chair as the banter between you and your colleagues trails off. You flip your MacBook Pro open, and all of a sudden you feel a wave of exhaustion wash over you.
Right on time, you think. Like clockwork, you slouch over to the pantry area to get a pick-me-up.
And the first thing you reach for is—let me guess—the coffee. Or tea. Or a can of Coke.
Then you head back to your desk, mug in hand, and get down to business. An hour later, you feel like your eyelids are dropping to the floor. The beverage had done its magic—but only briefly.
Now the hard work begins. And you wonder why this happens day in, day out.
You Are What You Eat
Here’s why: you’re making terrible food choices (don’t worry, I do too). And that’s largely because unhealthy food choices tend to be easier to purchase.
Think cheeseburgers and chicken rice. Queue for 5 minutes, pick your food up, and munch away.
If you’re interested in the science of why these foods are bad for your productivity, here’s what Dr. Ron Friedman has to say about it on Harvard Business Review:
Some foods, like pasta, bread, cereal and soda, release their glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy followed by a slump. Others, like high fat meals […] require our digestive system to work harder, reducing oxygen levels in the brain and making us groggy.
Glucose, he explains, “provides the energy our brains need to stay alert.” However, foods like pasta and white bread have a high glycemic index number, releasing glucose into your bloodstream rapidly.
Ideally, you would want to eat foods with a low glycemic index number, as they would release glucose at a gradual pace, minimizing blood sugar swings.
In any case, here’s a very unscientific but fairly accurate way to assess if you’re eating the wrong foods: if you feel unhealthy after eating your food, it probably is.
Here’s the good news. It’s not too hard to eat healthy—provided you’re willing to put in some effort. According to Dr. Friedman, the trick lies in “making healthy eating the easiest possible option.”
That means having brain foods available wherever, whenever.
The first step is to make sure that your office pantry is stocked with the following foods—all of which have a low glycemic index number—in case you feel a craving creeping up.
Bananas might be full of sugar and carbohydrates, but they are relatively low on the glycemic index, which makes them perfect for a constant boost of energy throughout the day.
In fact, according to researcher Leigh Gibson, the brain “works best with about 25 grams of glucose circulating in the blood stream—about the amount found in a banana.”
Even better, bananas are high in potassium, which helps to lower your blood pressure and relieve stress. Perfect for the workplace.
If you’re especially susceptible to that mid-day slump, this is the snack for you. A study conducted by Dr. Jeremy Spencer of Reading University revealed that consuming blueberries in the morning “boosts concentration and memory up to 5 hours later.”
So gulping down a blueberry smoothie at 8am in the morning would be just in time to help you overcome that post-lunch tiredness.
And if you don’t have blueberries handy, any other berries would do just fine. Dr Spencer explains that this brain boosting power is not unique to blueberries—all berries have flavonoids that help increase the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, keeping it going all day long.
Not only are oranges full of potassium, they also contains tons of vitamins which help your body develop a strong immune system.
More importantly, they have a glycemic index of 40—anything under 55 is considered as low—which will ensure a steady boost of energy throughout the day, as long as you don’t gobble them two at a time.
In fact, just the smell of oranges alone can lower anxiety levels and increase mental alertness. So it might be a good move to leave a basket of oranges on your desk.
Eggs are (in)famous amongst two groups of people: weightlifters (all that protein!) and health junkies (all that cholesterol!). However, there’s a whole lot more going on in that yolk which makes it excellent brain food.
Those oft-maligned yolks are packed with choline, vitamin B-12, and vitamin D—nutrients which are essential for brain development and memory retention.
Just don’t go overboard with them—keep within 2 to 6 eggs per week.
Research has shown that people who eat fish in their diet literally have bigger brains—in the areas associated with memory and cognition—than those who don’t.
This doesn’t mean you should happily head out to Long John Silver’s. Professor of psychiatry Dr James Becker clarifies:
Our study shows that people who ate a diet that included baked or broiled (grilled), but not fried, fish have larger brain volumes in regions associated with memory and cognition.
Why? This is because all the essential fatty acids are destroyed in the high heat of frying. Sorry guys.
6. Whole Wheat Bread
No, I’m not talking about processed white bread. Whole wheat bread contains tons of carbohydrates which are low on the glycemic index, giving you the energy you so desperately need.
Also, whole wheat bread contains wheat germ, which in turn is full of folate and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which contribute to brain function.
Aside from looking exactly like a brain (they do, right?), walnuts are incredibly good at boosting brain power.
How good? A study led by Dr. Lenore Arab found that “those who ate more walnuts performed better on a series of six cognitive tests.” And this was consistent “no matter the person’s age, gender or ethnicity.”
And all you need to do is chow down a handful of them everyday. Each walnut contains a wide range of nutrients—it is known as the ultimate superfood—and dripping with omega-3 fatty acids as well. All the stuff that your brain loves.
Like walnuts, almonds are another superfood that contains lots and lots of vitamins and minerals.
Other than vitamin B6, vitamin E, magnesium, and potassium (as if that’s not enough), almonds also contain zinc, which help to fight the free radicals in your bloodstream—these free radicals attack and break down all of your cells, especially brain cells.
Let’s not forget those lovely omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, too. Nuts are pretty awesome.
9. Sunflower Seeds
Similar to its nutty cousins, sunflower seeds are high in vitamin E—which incidentally also help in the fight against free radicals—as well as magnesium.
Additionally, sunflower seeds contain tryptophan, which is a key ingredient in the production of serotonin. And serotonin helps to calm and relax your body. So if you’re feeling stressed, just pop a handful of these seeds into your mouth, and you might feel better.
Just don’t consume too many, or you might feel a bit too relaxed…
Avocado might be a “fatty fruit,” but don’t be fooled—this is the good kind of fat. This creamy green superfood is full of monounsaturated fat, which “contributes to healthy blood flow,” says Dr. Ann Kulze.
“And healthy blood flow means a healthy brain,” she adds.
11. Raw Carrots
Your mother probably fed you a ton of carrots when you were young, telling you that it would help you to avoid wearing spectacles. And she was right—this crunchy vegetable contains lots of beta-carotene, which helps nourish your eyes.
Turns out, the humble carrot is excellent for your brain as well. It has high levels of a compound called luteolin, which “potentially reduces age-related inflammation in the brain, resulting in better brain function,” according to researchers from the University of Illinois.
Broccoli has a bad rep in popular culture for being the icky vegetable (“remember to eat your broccolis!”).
However, it is one of the few superfoods that checks out almost all the boxes (you’ll see this in the table at the end of this article). It has loads of choline, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and vitamins A, B, C, and E. It puts the super in superfood, that’s for sure.
To top it off, broccoli has a glycemic index number of 10.
13. Dark Leafy Greens
I had to point broccoli out because it is just that awesome. But really, you should make sure that your meal includes any type of vegetable that’s available. Think kale, spinach, and bok choy. Just go for it.
Did you know that there’s a host of bacteria living in us? Specifically, they can be found in our gastrointestinal tracts—or guts—and they help in the digestive process.
It’s not just that. Scientists have found that these germs “can also alter our brain chemistry.” The Atlantic reports:
Just how this happens is still being figured out, but one pathway might be the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the stomach. The bacteria stimulate the vagus nerve, and that, in turn, stimulates the production of various neurotransmitters—the brain chemicals that partly determine what we think and how we feel.
And yoghurt is full of these impressive living bacteria called probiotics. More reason to go out and indulge in some froyo.
15. Dark Chocolate
Let’s end this article with the really good stuff. Yes, you should eat more chocolate. No, not milk chocolate. Pick dark chocolate instead, because the darker the chocolate is, the better it is for your brain.
Why? Because cocoa is high in flavanols, which “have marked antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and are thought to be responsible for much of the health benefit ascribed to chocolate consumption.”
Specifically, these flavanols “enhance brain blood flow and improve cognitive health,” improving learning, memory, and focus.
Dark chocolate also boosts the production of endorphins, which literally puts a smile on your face and diminishes the effects of stress. Exactly what you need at the office.
Do you chow on any other healthy snacks at the office? Let us know in the comments below, and we might add it into our list!