It’s true: You are what you eat.
How you think, how you learn, and even how you process your emotions are all directly related to what we chomp on. New research on the topic is piling up quickly.
The last five to eight years have been particularly important to understand how food affects cognition, says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA. According to him, there are foods that can absolutely help with cognition—and foods that hinder it.
In short: some foods can help you be more productive.
Want to stay alert? Have sharper focus during the day? Avoid that mid-afternoon slump?
There’s an appetite for that.
Below is what you’ll need to investigate your own “productivity diet.”
1. Know your gut-brain connection
If we’re talking about what you eat, we’re also talking about your gut.
The enteric nervous system is often referred to as our “second brain.” It consists of neurons hidden in the walls of the gut and helps us digest food. There’s a growing body of evidence that says that the enteric nervous system—and the gut in general—can impact our mood.
“We think it’s one-way traffic, that the brain directs the body,” says Tamara Duker Freuman, author of The Bloated Belly Whisperer.
“More recently we’re understanding that that connection is a two-way street.”
Indeed, new evidence points to a direct connection between our gut health and our mood. A good mood means a better work rate, so one can reason that a healthier gut means we can get more done.
2. Watch your coffee intake
According to holistic nutritionist Lisa Kilgour, one possible sign that your current diet isn’t helping you to be productive as possible is that you’re drinking too much caffeine.
This could be due to early morning brain fog, a sign that you’re not getting enough sleep—or the right nutrients.
If the number of cups of coffee you’ve had has recently gone up, this could be a red flag, for your diet, your sleeping patterns, or both.
Your dietary choices and your sleeping habits are closely connected.
3. Hold breakfast tryouts
Breakfast sets the stage for the rest of the day. Kilgour recommends trying two or three different types, to see which ones work best for you.
“If you can get a breakfast that keeps you full for three, four, five hours in the morning, you’ll find that your energy level is better in the afternoon, too,” she says.
But not all breakfasts are created equal, even the healthy ones.
A smoothie or high-protein breakfast may work for some people, but if it leaves you feeling sluggish, it’s not for you. Our bodies are different, and one person’s energizing brunch is another’s bacon-heavy downer.
Even if you’re having a healthy breakfast, try out some other ones. See how it affects you, and really get to understand your perfect breakfast.
It may even be something that goes against the grain: For Kilgour, her high-productivity breakfast is two pieces of sourdough toast, with butter and peanut butter.
In other words, what’s best for you?
4. Get your Omega-3’s
Gomez-Pinilla says foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are perhaps some of the most important for maintaining cognitive function.
These fatty acids are part of the plasma membrane in the brain, and they help make these cells stronger and more functional. Cold-water fatty fish (think salmon, tuna, and sardines) are high in omega-3s. Nuts and seeds (walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds) and eggs are also good sources of omega-3s.
The best source of omega-3s, or any nutrient, is always actual food. But if you hate fish, you can take omega-3 supplements.
5. Don’t make this mistake
Kilgour sees one common mistake made by many of her patients: They skip a snack in the middle of the afternoon.
According to Kilgour: “that creates this cascading effect of problems.”
It starts with being foggy in the afternoon. Then, by the time you get home, you’re starving and your blood sugar is low. That can lead to short-term fixes, like eating everything out of your cupboard, which might mean you skip cooking a healthy dinner.
Then you don’t sleep as well and the next day is even worse.
“Just by adding a healthy energy-boosting snack at 3 or 4 p.m. can make a huge difference in how you eat the next day, how you sleep at night, how you feel,” Kilgour says.
But be careful: We generally want something sweet in that mid-afternoon window, since our blood sugar is low and our energy is on its way down.
Avoid cookies, donuts, sweetened coffee, or other common go-tos for people experiencing the afternoon crash. These will give you a short-term, artificial energy boost, but will just lead to a worse crash afterward.
Instead, go for a piece of fruit. This will bring up your blood sugar the right amount.
6. Add a fruit
No surprise here: the more plant-based foods you eat, the more your brain will hum along.
“Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans,” says Kilgour.
It’s not about going on an insane cleanse or diet. Instead, says Kilgour, it’s about adding foods that come from the ground.
“Focus on adding an extra serving of fruit and vegetables each day,” she says. “Say, tomorrow, you bring an apple to work. Then later in the week you add some veggies to lunch. Then a few days later you have a piece of fruit with breakfast.”
Even if you slowly increase the addition of fruits and vegetables, it will start to nudge out the foods that are draining—the refined, processed foods—and will add directly adds to your energy.
“It’s a win every single time,” she says.
Gomez-Pinilla cites fruits and vegetables as being high in flavonoids, which can increase levels of BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Higher levels of flavonoids and BDNF have been shown to have positive effects on cognition.
“Blueberries, for example, have very strong effects on these molecules,” he says.
Other high-flavonoid foods: strawberries, blackberries, broccoli, and dark chocolate.
7. Go slow on fast food
Flavonoids make the brain more functional and can actually reduce the rate at which it ages. Other foods have the opposite effect.
High-caloric foods that are high in sugars, consumed in large amounts over extended periods of time, can have negative effects on your cognition. Fructose, a sugar commonly used in sodas like Pepsi and Coke, is particularly bad.
So are saturated fats in fast-food restaurants that can increase levels of free radicals in the body and replace the “good fats,” like omega-3 fatty acids.
Gomez-Pinilla stresses, however, that many of these negative effects are only seen when junk foods and sodas are consumed for extended periods of time.
In moderation, although not great for brain function, they don’t have sustained negative impacts. But if you’re chugging sodas and eating candy and burgers every day, it’s time to reassess your choices.
8. Treat your stomach issues
Certain people are predisposed to stomach issues that can cause bloating, cramps, or worse. IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, is probably the best known of these ailments. It’s often misunderstood or misdiagnosed by general practitioners, which can cause more suffering for an already uncomfortable patient.
Freuman, the author of the Bloated Belly best-seller, says some sufferers of IBS can’t work. Teachers, for example, can’t take bathroom breaks whenever they want.
“I’ve had teachers who just don’t eat,” in the hopes that an empty stomach will lessen symptoms, she says.
Others, like those who travel for work, are often miserable with IBS in a way that non-sufferers simply can’t comprehend. Indeed, stomach issues can become a source of anxiety and kill productivity, so if you suffer chronic bloating or frequent trips to the bathroom, Freuman recommends finding a specialist.
Don’t be discouraged if you’ve hit a wall with your primary care provider, or had bad luck diagnosing what ails you with other specialists. She knows some people have one bad experience with a doctor who doesn’t understand, and that these people then “swear off Western medicine.”
Instead, find a gastroenterologist who is well-versed in your type of condition. You may need to call their office and describe your symptoms to see if they sub-specialize in your condition. It’s a little time-consuming, but worth it.
“You want someone who sees a million patients just like you,” she says.
9. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Hydration is a big deal when it comes to focus. For a lot of people, drinking more water will help with cognition and productivity.
The best way to know if you’re drinking enough water? Look at your urine.
“If it’s pale yellow to clear, you’re good,” says Kilgour. But if it’s dark yellow, you need to drink more water—even if you’ve already had a few glasses.
10. Go to bed
“Getting to bed by 10 p.m. is incredibly important, and most people aren’t doing that,” Kilgour says. “Just doing that alone can make a huge difference in how you feel.”
Without a good night’s sleep, people tend to want more sugar the next morning. This can throw tomorrow’s diet off-kilter
For people who struggle with getting to sleep: just keep trying. Try everything, in fact. Kilgour once had a client who spent 20 years with insomnia, until the client realized her cold feet were what was keeping her awake. A good night’s rest may be as simple as putting on socks.
Bonus tip: you do you
“Our bodies don’t understand fads or fashions,” says Kilgour.
The biggest thing she teaches her clients is to eat a meal and notice how they feel afterward. Do they feel energy? Do they feel satisfied? Or do they feel tired and hungry?
Just using that as a guide, you can start seeing what types of food your body likes the best. If carbs help you feel energized for long periods of time, then look at ways you can upgrade that part of your meal—possibly by buying high-quality, fresh-baked bread. Make sure its fibrous and nutrient-rich.
Changes to your diet don’t need to be big and dramatic off the bat. You can start small: just eat an apple every day.
It’s really about finding the simplest, most comfortable thing to do.
“And then doing it tomorrow,” says Kilgour.