The COVID-19 pandemic has created new, incredibly demanding ways of life. Many of us are suddenly working from home, grappling with unimaginable stress. Those with kids are either adding home-schooling to the mix, or coping with sending them back to classrooms. For their part, many children are forced to adapt to remote learning.
It’s never been harder to focus on daily tasks, yet it’s never been more important that we’re able to do so.
Our diets can help. What we eat and drink has a significant impact on how well adults can concentrate, and the same goes for children who need to be able to learn at the kitchen table. The first, most basic step is an overall healthy approach.
“We look at [different] foods as they’re good for this or that, but if you don’t have a general healthy lifestyle, eating one food is not going to be the cure-all for your concentration,” said registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo. “Make sure you get enough sleep ― seven to eight hours a day ― and you’re not drinking tons of caffeine and crashing.”
The next step is to target specific parts of your diet that may need some help. Experts agree on certain nutrients that are especially crucial for brain function.
“Carbohydrates are our brains’ primary source of fuel,” said holistic nutritionist and health coach Shanon Whittingham. However, this refers to complex carbohydrates like vegetables and whole grains, not simple carbohydrates like baked goods and chips.
“Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, are made up of shorter chains of molecules and are quicker to digest than complex carbohydrates,” Whittingham explained. “Because simple carbohydrates break down in our body at a faster speed than complex carbohydrates, when we consume them, we will feel an immediate energy boost. However, this reaction literally spikes our blood sugar levels, so the energy boost will only fuel us for a short period of time.”
Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, have longer molecule chains. Our bodies take longer to break these down, which creates a more lasting, consistent energy source.
It’s key for adults to pick the right kind of carbs, and this goes for children, too.
“A meal based in carbohydrates such as a bagel or toast, sugary cereals, pastries or other sweet breakfast items may leave some children feeling hungry before lunchtime, and this can be distracting to the learning process,” said registered dietician Jill Castle, founder of The Nourished Child parent education website.
Complex carbohydrates, aka the good carbs, include vegetables, legumes and beans, fruits, and whole grains like brown rice, whole grain bread, oatmeal and whole wheat pasta.
Two common ways a meal can sabotage mental focus are spiking your energy so quickly that it crashes soon thereafter, and not making you feel full enough, so you’re quickly distracted by hunger again. Protein is a major solution.
Protein takes the body long enough to break it down that blood sugar rises slowly and steadily, explained Meredith Bull, a licensed naturopathic doctor. Furthermore, protein helps with nerve function, cellular health and hormone production ― all crucial for focus and concentration. “Protein is especially needed for neurotransmitter synthesis, the chemical signals within the brain that determine its functioning and thus its ability to process and focus,” Bull added.
“Protein helps by blunting big increases or drops in blood sugar, which may alter some children’s behavior,” Castle said, confirming that protein is just as important for kids’ meals as it is for adults.
Balanced by complex carbs, healthy fats and fiber, sources of protein should be part of your breakfast and lunch. These include eggs, legumes and beans, lean meats, and poultry, fish, milk, yogurt, cheese and nuts.
“Healthy fats, such as those found in fatty fish, olive oil or avocado, provide omega-3 fats that allow the information highway ― or, neurotransmission ― to establish and transmit messages across the brain,” Castle said. “Healthy fats also promote the transportation of more oxygen to the brain and may enhance problem solving, concentration and memory.”
Stick to expert-recommended foods to make it easiest to select healthy fats. Nutritionist and wellness coach Chioma Atanmo suggests salmon, canned tuna, flax seeds, walnuts and avocados.
Rizzo and Whittingham both emphasized the importance of walnuts, with Rizzo citing a study that found walnuts can help “improve performance on cognitive function test for memory, concentration and information processing speed in adults.”
Avocados boast monounsaturated fats, which help reduce blood pressure and therefore ward off cognitive decline. That means that avocados and other healthy fats aren’t just helping you stay focused for the day, but they’re helping maintain brain function long term.
According to both Rizzo and Atanmo, fiber goes hand in hand with protein, making sure you’re full enough that you won’t want to snack between meals, derailing your focus. Castle emphasized fiber’s importance, especially for children, explaining its necessary role in maintaining fullness and establishing regular bowel habits.
For healthy sources of fiber, round out your diet with fruits like raspberries, pears, apples (with skin), bananas, oranges and strawberries; vegetables like broccoli, peas, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, corn, carrots and cauliflower; grains like whole wheat pastas, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal and rye or whole-wheat bread; and legumes, nuts and seeds like lentils, black beans, chia seeds and almonds.
Nutrients can be split into macronutrients and micronutrients, Bull explained, and our bodies need both. The nutrients above ― carbohydrates and protein ― are macro. Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals and other compounds needed in smaller amounts, but still essential.
Most relevant for brain function are the micronutrients, or vitamins, considered antioxidants. Antioxidants improve communication between our brain cells and help reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disease, Whittingham said. They fight the free radicals that can lead to mental decline. Some of the easiest to come by antioxidants are vitamins C and E.
To get your vitamin E, Whittingham recommended nuts. Peanut butter is a good source, and you can also eat collard greens, spinach, asparagus, red bell peppers, pumpkin, mangos and avocados.
For vitamin C, Rizzo suggested berries ― darker berries like blueberries and strawberries also have the antioxidant anthocyanin. Tomatoes, broccoli, oranges, spinach and beets are also good sources of vitamin C.
Dark chocolate is another good antioxidant source because of its cacao, which has flavonoids, though Rizzo stressed it’s important to choose 85%-95% cacao to avoid sugar and cocoa butter. Coffee is another source of antioxidants, plus its caffeine is good for focus in moderation (too much can cause you to crash).
“Some sources of protein, like eggs, contain choline, which aids the developing memory center,” Castle said. Choline helps produce the fats that support cell membranes, the compounds that transmit cell-to-cell messages, and acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in memory.
In addition to eggs, sources of choline include cod, salmon, cauliflower and broccoli.
It’s all well and good to know these nutrients and dietary sources, but our stressful schedules can leave us reaching for what’s fastest. This usually means processed foods, which are full of simple carbs and are detrimental for focus. Our experts have ideas for convenient meals that incorporate these macronutrients and micronutrients.
Rizzo’s banana walnut chia oat cups pack in protein, healthy fats, fiber and complex carbs, and are fun enough to interest kids. Her strawberry spring salad offers antioxidants, fiber, protein and healthy fats.
Whittingham recommended combining antioxidant-rich blueberries with protein-rich yogurt in a parfait. Lentils boast complex carbs, protein and fiber, so try currying them with brown rice, putting them into a chili, or using them to make patties on whole-grain bread.
For kids, Castle’s ideas include: scrambled eggs with spinach and cheese for protein, choline and antioxidants; avocado and egg on whole grain toast for fiber, healthy fats, protein and choline; a whole-grain waffle with nut butter and banana for complex carbs, fiber, healthy fats and protein; and whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce for complex carbs, fiber and antioxidants. If kids do want snacks, a trail mix with nuts, dried fruit and dark chocolate chips will help keep them happy, healthy and focused.