Maybe you resolved to eat healthier this semester but then the days got hectic and it was hello chocolate chip cookies and quarter-pounders. Forgoing a balanced diet for a load of junk food means depriving your brain of the essential nutrients it needs to function at its best. Here are 7 foods and snacks to fuel your cognition, improve your memory, and pump up your mental performance.
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Those bright, round yolks are rich in the essential nutrient choline, which the brain uses to create memory and also to help make a neurotransmitter that’s important for many other brain and nervous system functions. Eggs and milk are rich sources of choline, so pack an egg salad sandwich for lunch. Or start your day with a few slices of French toast.
Beans—and their relatives the legumes—are often underrated as a smart food choice. They’re low on the glycemic index, which means your body digests them slowly. And that keeps your energy consistent throughout the day, with fewer spikes and crashes in blood sugar. Your brain uses half your body’s sugar supply, so it needs a steady flow of glucose to stay sharp.
Lentils in particular are good sources of the brain-friendly B vitamins folate, thiamine, and vitamin B6, which support focus and energy. They’re rich in iron, which is important for cognitive function, and zinc, which may improve your memory.
Full of nutrients, fats, and a tiny bit of “slow” carbs, nuts are nature’s portable energy packages. Walnuts and almonds hog the nutrition spotlight, but cashews are a great source of 2 brain-boosting minerals, zinc and magnesium. Studies show that zinc may improve memory, while magnesium can help you sleep and may improve learning skills. Cashews also contain the B vitamin thiamine, which can lift your mood as well as provide mental energy, and vitamin E, which supports cognition. Make your own trail mix using a variety of nuts, dried fruit, and dark chocolate for a better pick-me-up than a candy bar.
Skip the exotic fruit and grab a box of raisins. They’re loaded with the trace mineral boron—an essential micronutrient for metabolism and good health and, if recent research is correct, possibly for the evolution of life on earth! Boron improves the brain’s electrical activity for clearer thinking and better short-term memory and also has anti-inflammatory effects. USDA researchers found that those who got the most boron—3.2 milligrams (mg) per day—performed about 10% better on attention and memory tests than those who ate the least. (Nuts are also good sources.)
Some tasty advice for students looking to get better grades: Study more and eat your cinnamon toast! This aromatic spice promotes better brain function by unleashing proteins called neurotrophic factors, which can help the brain generate new neurons and keep old ones healthy. And even if you’re in a rush, you can sprinkle a little cinnamon into your morning coffee.
When it comes to brain food, it’s hard to beat beets, which are rich in nitrates that may increase blood flow to the brain. Beets also contain carotenoids, which may stave off depression, and betaine, which the brain uses to make serotonin, a mood stabilizer. Toss some roasted beets into a salad, with goat cheese and walnuts.
OK—it’s not a food, per se, but water is essential for brain function. Healthy brain cells require a delicate balance between water and other elements. When you’re parched, that balance is disrupted and your brain cells can become less efficient, making it harder to focus your attention. A 2013 study found that being dehydrated—even just a little bit—can impact your brain’s performance. A dehydrated brain can be slow to react and sensitive to loud noises and lights (think hangover). Even your ability to calculate whether or not you’ll make it to class on time if you hit the snooze button can be compromised. So drink up! Keep a water bottle or glass nearby and refill it often.