Want to feel more alert? To keep up your mental energy and focus, you’ve got to eat the right foods, at the right time. The next time your mood or motivation is feeling low, think back. When did you last eat? What did you have? Have you been drinking enough liquids? Skipped meals, unbalanced meals, and dehydration can all zap your mental energy and focus. (And don’t forget that getting adequate sleep and rest is part of the equation, too).
What is mental energy?
It includes your overall mood and motivation, as well as your attention and focus. When your mental engine is revved up, there’s a good chance your diet had something to do with it. So, here’s some "food for thought"…
What to eat to keep your mental energy up all day long?
– Eat the right carbohydrates
Glucose is derived from carbohydrates in your diet. After they’re been broken down during the digestive process, carbohydrates enter the bloodstream as glucose (or ‘blood sugar’) which help to fuel your brain. Since your brain is active 24/7, it has high energy demands and needs a continuous supply of fuel. To do this, try to stick to the carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains to give your brain the nutrients it needs. These high-fibre foods take time to digest, which leads to a gradual release of glucose into your system. On the other hand, a meal high in processed carbohydrates (such as those found in starchy, sugary foods) is digested relatively quickly, which can cause a quick rise in your blood sugar, often followed by a quick drop. This blood sugar ‘crash’ can make you feel mentally sluggish.
– Fuel your brain at regular intervals
Since your brain wants a steady source of glucose, it’s important to eat at regular intervals throughout the day to keep your mental energy from dipping too low. Aim for small meals and/or snacks every 3-4 hours.
– Start the day with breakfast
There’s plenty to be said about the importance of breakfast, and giving your brain a boost is just another reason to enjoy a meal first thing. While you were sleeping, your brain was busy, leaving the tank fairly empty by morning. Do your brain a favour and start your day with a well-balanced breakfast that includes the essential macro and micronutrients.
– Meet your protein needs
Even though your brain doesn’t use protein directly for fuel, it does use amino acids – which are derived from the proteins that you eat. The recommendation is to get up to 30% of your daily calories from protein, so make sure you include proteins from poultry, fish, dairy products, nuts and beans in your daily diet, to keep your body performing as it should. ‘Complete’ proteins are best, such as those found in soy protein.
– Drink up
Mild dehydration can reduce alertness and your ability to concentrate, and by the time you feel thirsty, your mental energy has already taken a hit. Water is always a good choice, but coffee and tea in moderation contribute to your daily fluid intake too. Caffeine-containing beverages may help with focus and concentration – but be smart about it. You don’t want to ignore your diet and simply rely on caffeine to keep you going through the day. You need to hydrate properly and eat right. And, monitor your own response to the caffeine you’re taking in. If it makes you jittery or keeps you up at night, you’d be wise to cut back.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.