Mental Alertness: Foods that Boost (cont.)

"Carbohydrate boosts last a reasonable amount of time," Figlio tells WebMD. "Certainly the 90 minutes to a few hours it takes to test."

His conclusion: "Food matters. Even lousy food can give a short-term brain boost."

And if it works in kids, why not in adults, too?

Can Carbs Boost Brainpower?

Not so fast, says Judith Wurtman, PhD, director of a women's health program at the MIT Clinical Research Center in Boston. Few studies have been done on the various parts of the diet and how they affect children's mental alertness, she says: "We don't have data on whether kids do better on sardines or chocolate. Most of the studies are on eating versus going into class or a test without eating."

Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health in New York, is also skeptical that it's the extra carbohydrates or calories that would increase performance and boost mental alertness. "I haven't seen this report, but maybe the kids weren't eating at all, and anything improved their performance," she tells WebMD. "We do know nourishment improves brain function."

At least chemically speaking, carbs aren't the key to mental alertness, Wurtman tells WebMD. She explains that two brain chemicals, epinephrine and dopamine, govern mental alertness. These chemicals are made from an amino acid called tyrosine. If you're engaged in sustained mental activity, you need to replace the tyrosine -- and it comes from proteins, not carbs. "You don't need much, two to three ounces," she says.

"If you consume protein before a task, you can make sure whatever brainpower you, or your child, had going in is still there at the end of the task. Carbs do not really have an effect on mental alertness," Wurtman says.

But, according to Wurtman, eating more calories or glucose could end up helping people concentrate to a certain degree by calming them down. That extra crust in the deep-dish pizza may help your body make more serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical that calms you.

So "if someone is tapping their foot next to you, you may be able to tune it out," Wurtzman says. "Serotonin keeps anxiety from interfering with mental alertness."

"How about coffee for mental alertness? Coffee has been shown to increase reaction time"

So what have we learned?

  • To increase your own (or your child's) mental alertness, eating enough is important. "Not too much, though," says Kava. "Too much makes you sluggish; all the blood rushes to your digestive tract."
  • Protein is key, as it provides sustained fuel to the brain.
  • Carbohydrates can center you and help you resist distractions.
  • And fat? "If you eat a lot of fat and try to think, you can't," Wurtman says. Studies show that eating fat can cause fatigue.

Mental Alertness Foods

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