What foods can I eat to improve cognition and focus?


by Tara Postnikoff

When discussing nutrition in athletic training, we often think about food as fuel—specifically, which foods will energize our bodies and make us faster or stronger. This is valuable information, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that proper nutrition can also improve our mental focus and cognitive function. With that in mind, let’s explore the foods we can eat to feed the brain.

Compared to our other organs, the brain is greedy. It requires a lot of energy to work effectively and oversee what is happening in the rest of the body. The brain accounts for roughly 2% of total body weight but can demand up to 20% of total resting metabolic rate (RMR). For someone with a 1300 k/cal RMR, this can mean approximately 260 calories are needed just to fuel the brain.

Josh Bean / Unsplash

The brain relies heavily on glucose to fuel its energy demands, but that doesn’t mean we should start increasing our sugar intake. While the brain doesn’t store much fuel, it can convert other metabolites into the type of fuel it needs. So, even in a low-carb situation, your brain has sufficient resources to function.

It’s important to realize that the vitamins and minerals needed by our bodies come from the foods we eat, specifically fruits and vegetables. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables in a multitude of colours will help ensure that you are getting the nutrients you need.

Here are some key foods and nutrients to supercharge the brain:

Water. Plants naturally contain a high percentage of water, which is needed for the transport of nutrients and elimination of wastes.

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA. Omega-3s provide building blocks for healthy brain development and function, and have been explored for their potential role in preventing everything from ADHD to Alzheimer’s disease. Foods rich in Omega-3s include flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and cold water fish (such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout and tuna).

Vitamin D. Essential for brain development and function, a vitamin D deficiency is sometimes associated with depression and other mood disorders. Inaddition to exposure to sunlight, we can get vitamin D from egg yolks, fatty fish, beef liver and fortified foods.Probiotics.As discussed in an earlier “Ask a Nutritionist” article, having enough good gut bacteria will help promote mental health through the “gut-brain axis.” Probiotics have been shown to help improve gut flora.

Caffeine. Since it’s a stimulant, caffeine improves mental and physical performance by promoting blood flow to the brain and body. Too much of it may lead to agitation and insomnia, so try to limit your consumption to a maximum of 200 mg a day (about two cups of coffee, four black teas or eight green teas).

Dark chocolate. The polyphenols in dark chocolate (80% and up) improve vascular reactivity, which is the ability of blood vessels to change their diameter so that more oxygen and nutrient-carrying blood can flow through them. Increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain boosts mental performance and alertness.

B vitamins. B-Vitamins – B3, B6, and B12 have been shown to help with improved mood and condition.  Many of the B-complex vitamins can be found in grain, legumes and green leafy vegetables, whereas B12 is found in fish, eggs, meat and cheese.

Blueberries. They’re high on the antioxidant scale and are thought to improve memory and learning. Blueberries also contain anthocyanins and flavonoids, nutrients that help protect the brain from free radical damage and age-related mental decline.

While these food choices can have a positive effect on the brain, other foods should be limited due to their possible negative impact. The first example is alcohol, since it is a nervous system depressant. Sugar may provide a brief distraction, but it can leave you feeling worse both emotionally and physically. Lastly, limit your consumption of processed foods, since most of them are devoid of nutrients.

A final piece of good news for runners and walkers: moderate exercise has also been shown to have a positive impact on the brain. This means that in addition to choosing the right foods, your training efforts will help feed your brain and improve your ability to focus.


Tara Postnikoff is a Registered Nutritional Consultant, certified Personal Trainer and triathlon/running coach in Toronto. She is an avid distance runner and triathlete, and a regular guest speaker for Running Room training programs. To learn more, visit her website at www.heal-nutrition.com.

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