You have a big presentation to give in 15 minutes. But suddenly, you're so tired and unfocused you have a hard time remembering your name, much less your entire speech. Barring illegal substances, there's got to be something to give you a jolt of brain power, but what? Coffee? Sugar? Salmon? (Don't laugh, we'll get to that.) In fact, there are a number of healthy foods to eat for brain power. Some may help in the short term; others, you should include in your diet for long-term aid in boosting alertness, concentration, and performance.
Of course, the best approach is to maintain a healthy diet overall.
"If you're eating poorly and think you'll have a snack and go in and take a test and do well, you're fooling yourself," says Elizabeth Somer, author of 10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman's Diet. "But if you've been feeding your brain [the natural brain foods] it needs for weeks and months, then that light snack and a cup of coffee before you go in to take an exam will be great."
3 Natural Brain Foods for Short-Term Boosts
1. Caffeine, with a Caveat
"Coffee is good in the short term," says Somer. "One or two cups can improve alertness and brain power temporarily.
"But if you keep going back for cup and after cup, you'll be too rattled to think clearly. If you're fueling your day with caffeine, it exacerbates the problems and adds to fatigue. You can go through caffeine withdrawal. It's definitely a double-edged sword."
"It can boost concentration, help you focus, and also provide antioxidants," she says.
2. Quality Carbs for Concentration
"Eating a small carb snack before a test - a whole-wheat English muffin with a little peanut butter and a glass of orange juice, will help boost concentration and brainpower, and is better than going in on an empty stomach," Somer says.
"Quality (complex) carbs, not jelly beans or a Snickers bar, can supply the brain with the fuel it needs to operate optimally."
But she warns against too much of a good thing: "If you have a big plate of pasta and some bread at lunch before a meeting, you're going to want to take a siesta."
3. Glucose for Memory
Everyone has heard of the "sugar high." But is it real, and is it a good thing?
A small study of older adults examined this issue: they were given a sweet drink or other carbs - and those participants fared better on memory tests than others who were given a placebo.
Somer says you'll get more bang for your buck with whole grains (that is, healthy complex carbs) rather than a quick hit of sugar.
"You'll get the glucose level you need without the spikes," she says
Natural Brain Foods for Long-Term Benefits
1. Natural Brain Foods for Alertness: Fish for Omega-3s
"People who eat lots of omega-3s maintain brain capacity, concentration and alertness much better," says Somer.
Kulze recommends getting your omega-3 fatty acids from oily, cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and trout.
Aim for three servings per week. You can also get omega 3s in fortified eggs.
2. Natural Brain Foods for Cognition: Dark Fruits and Veggies for Antioxidants
"The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables protect the brain from oxidants that damage delicate cell membranes and brain cells, and may cause dementia," Somer says. "Maintaining a high antioxidant level is important for cognition and memory."
Look for darker colored fruits and vegetables for highest levels. Most nutritionists name blueberries as the ultimate antioxidant powerhouse.
3. Natural Brain Foods for Memory: Spinach, Broccoli, and Beans for B Vitamins
"Vitamins like B-6 and B-12 are important in maintaining your nervous system in general and are associated with improved memory and alertness," Somer says.
While B-12 and folic acid (folate) are best absorbed in supplement form, she says, "be aware that as you get older you need more B-12. Foods like spinach, broccoli, or beans are a good source of folate."
2 Eating Tips for Brain Power
1. Don't Skip Breakfast
"Steel-cut oats would be a great choice," Kulze says. "They are an excellent source of glucose delivered over a long period of time."
2. But Do Skip the Late Nights
No amount of food can help if you're not getting enough rest. Get a good night's sleep, and when you wake up, select foods that will stimulate your taste buds - and your brain as well.