We know that diet can affect nearly every part of our bodies, inside and out. It turns out that what we eat also just might make us smarter. From memory to attention span to the ability to learn new skills, what we consume can help us stay sharp and perform our best at work and school.
Here are eight types of foods and nutrients that may help to maximize brainpower, energy and focus. While there’s no guarantee that simply consuming more of these foods will raise your IQ, every little bit helps.
Diets rich in blueberries have been shown to improve memory and ability to learn. Fresh and frozen are equally nutritious, making it easy to incorporate blueberries year-round. Try them with low-fat cottage cheese, on top of a whole grain cereal, or in a protein-rich, brain-boosting smoothie blended with Greek yogurt or protein powder, a splash of milk, and a low- or no-calorie sweetener.
Those who eat more than two servings of vegetables daily (particularly leafy greens) have been shown to have the brain age of people five years younger.
Tips for sneaking in extra greens: Dunk broccoli into a protein-rich spinach dip (made with low-fat plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream). Snack on kale chips (bake kale florets at 375 degrees for 10 to15 minutes; add a sprinkle of sea salt, grated Parmesan, or a few tablespoons of nutritional yeast – a cheese-like vegan flake or powder found in bulk bins at health food stores). Or toss a handful of greens into an omelet or your favorite smoothie.
Not only does this aromatic herb (salvia officinalis) add flavor and interest to your favorite dishes, but studies have shown that supplementing with a gram of sage might enhance memory and overall thinking skills. You can incorporate sage as a supplement (check first with your physician or pharmacist to ensure that there are no interactions with medications), or use sage in cooking – it pairs well with chicken, lean burgers, white beans or lentil soups.
Higher-fat fish (think salmon, mackerel, sardines) are full of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fat that is essential for brain development and function. It may help memory and slow the rate of cognitive decline as we get older. An added benefit: The protein in fish may help to enhance alertness and memory more than carbs alone.
But don’t think you’re getting the same benefits from foods with added DHA. Eggs, milk and peanut butter that are fortified with DHA typically have just 30 to 50 milligrams per serving. Salmon, by comparison, has more than 2400 mg of DHA per 6-ounce serving.
Plant-based omega-3s (e.g. flaxseed and walnuts) contain almost no DHA. Instead, they mostly contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a different type of omega-3 fat that doesn’t provide the same benefits as fish oil, and less than 5 percent of ALA is converted into DHA.
Adult women need 18 mg of iron daily; men and post-menopausal women need 8 mg per day. While adding more iron-rich foods won’t automatically boost brainpower, being even mildly deficient in iron can negatively impact learning, memory and attention span. It’s estimated that 9 percent of females over age 12 have iron-deficiency anemia.
Blood tests are used to evaluate iron stores, and iron supplementation may be warranted. For many, however, an iron-containing multivitamin along with a diet that consists of enough iron-rich foods is sufficient. And fortunately, when iron levels return to normal, impaired brain function also is typically restored.
Love ’em or hate ’em, chicken livers are among the top food sources of iron, with 12.8 mg per 3-ounce serving (and though they’re high in cholesterol, they’re relatively low in saturated fat). Other sources of iron include oysters (nearly 10 mg per dozen) and lean beef (6 milligrams per 6 ounces). Leafy greens, along with iron-fortified cereals, breads, bars and shakes, are also good sources of iron, but remember that the iron in plant-based and fortified foods isn’t absorbed as readily by the body as the iron in meat, seafood or poultry. Include a source of vitamin C with these non-meat iron-rich foods to enhance iron absorption.
Glucose is our brain’s preferred source of energy, but instead of white or sugary carbs, which can leave you bottomed out after a short-term energy burst, incorporate slow-digesting fiber-rich carbs that will provide a steady release of brain-boosting glucose. Top picks: Beans, oats, apples and whole grain bread.
Green tea and coffee
Drinking caffeinated green tea or coffee throughout the day can boost mental performance and alertness, as well as improve attention span, reaction time, and other thinking and learning skills. The effects are short-lived, however, and more isn’t necessarily better. Too much caffeine can leave you feeling jittery, irritable and interfere with sleep, so try to have your last cup no later than mid-afternoon.
Most health organizations recommend an upper limit of 300 milligrams caffeine daily. A cup of brewed coffee typically has 100 to150 mg, and green tea ranges from 25 to 40 mg per 8-ounce cup.
Being dehydrated can have negative effects on cognitive performance, including memory, attention span and motor skills. Studies have shown that when students are allowed to bring water into exams, they perform better than students who didn’t.
To ensure that you’re sufficiently hydrated, aim for half of your body weight in ounces of fluid every day. So a person who weighs 150 pounds would need at least 75 ounces daily.
Those who tend to sweat a lot usually need even more. To figure out how much more, weigh yourself before and after, and for every pound of sweat lost, add another 16 ounces of fluid.
And you’re not limited to water: Any alcohol-free liquid can count toward your fluid intake (even the above-mentioned caffeinated tea and coffee). Sparkling water, flavored water, milk and smoothies are hydrating, along with soup, pudding and yogurt. Even juicy fruits and vegetables can be considered as part of your daily fluid intake.
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD is a sports and lifestyle Dietitian, board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly American Dietetic Association). She manages the nutrition program at Ochsner’s Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans, advising clients in weight loss, muscle building, endurance training, eating disorders and general health and wellness.
As a columnist for The Times-Picayune newspaper, Molly covers the latest trends in the nutrition and the fitness industry. She is also the nutrition and fitness expert for New Orleans’ ABC affiliate WGNO with a weekly segment on “Good Morning New Orleans, Get the Skinny with Molly.”
Serving as a spokesperson at various events of the New Orleans community, Molly is featured regularly as a nutritional expert on local and national news stories. She has appeared in numerous media outlets, including Vogue, The New York Times, Newsweek, Shape, Health, Fitness, Runner’s World, Wine Enthusiast, Cosmopolitan, WebMD and CNN.com. For more information, please visit www.nola.com.
This article was first published in The Times-Picayune newspaper and has been posted on this blog with permission of the The Times-Picayune and the author.
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