Foods for Better Concentration (cont.)

Carbohydrates convert into glucose in the body, but Wilson says that process may take a while. Carbs usually aren't available for the body to use until after at least two to four hours, she says, while proteins aren't usually available until after at least four hours.

But, even then, it's not guaranteed that the mix of foods will target the brain and make it more alert, or that one single nutrient will improve concentration and memory in the long-term.

Experts do know, based on scientific research, that whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains support health in general.

"If an individual consistently eats a healthy diet, their level of performance will be enhanced," says Wilson, "If not, it might decrease ability to concentrate."

Other factors that might interfere with a person's focus include eating too much or too little.

A heavy meal right before an important affair might make a person feel lethargic, says Wilson, primarily because blood is being diverted from the brain to the stomach for digestion.

On the other extreme, people who don't take in enough calories because they skip meals or are on a restrictive diet may experience hunger pangs -- which could certainly be distracting.

Additionally, studies show that children who eat breakfast tend to have better short-term memory than their peers who do not eat such meals. Kids who eat high-caloric breakfasts, however, had impaired concentration.

The other extreme, the high-fat diet, may negatively impact alertness. In several studies, rats that were fed high-fat meals tended to have poorer learning and memory than counterparts who were fed more balanced diets.

Supplement Soup

Store shelves are flooded with vitamins, minerals, and herbs with claims to boost physical and mental health. The sheer number may be overwhelming -- actually requiring a bit of focus to decipher -- but if you're looking to improve your concentration for a big test or interview, here's a quick review of what's out there.

There are reports that vitamins B, C, E, beta-carotene, and magnesium can boost brain power. But, before you pop in that pill, experts say there is no conclusive evidence that any of them can specifically help with concentration or memory.

Besides, says Wilson, all of those substances are present in high amounts in real foods. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, and beta-carotene in carrots, spinach, and other dark green, leafy vegetables.

"There's a place for supplements and nutrients," she says, "but they're not substitutes for whole foods."

The professional opinion on dietary supplements containing anything from omega-3 fatty acids (naturally found in fish), vinpocetine (derived from the periwinkle plant), or choline (a major nutrient in lecithin) appears to be a mixed bag.

Allred says he has yet to see evidence that such nutrients, including ginseng, gingko, or formulated combinations of vitamins, minerals, and herbs works for mental health.

However, Mark A. McDaniel, PhD, who has reviewed several scientific studies on various nutrients touted to aid memory, is a bit more hopeful that some supplements may benefit the brain.

McDaniel, chair of the department of psychology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, describes himself as "cautiously optimistic," even though his review revealed that there is not enough research either way to confidently say that certain nutrients affect memory.

Gold also reviewed the literature on gingko, and came up with the similar result of uncertainty. He advises people not to bother with trying gingko to enhance focus and concentration, pointing to the potentially negative consequences.

Getting Ready for the Big Day

With the mixed verdict on foods, there doesn't seem to be much one specifically can ingest in the short-term to help with concentration and focus. Instead of fretting over the news, the experts interviewed by WebMD advise sticking to the basics in preparing for an important affair.

Their recommendations:

  • Do the necessary prep work for the test, job interview, or presentation.
  • Get a good night's sleep.
  • Exercise to help sharpen thinking.
  • Meditate to clear thinking and relax.
  • Eat a well-balanced meal.

Oh, and it might also help to swallow your fear.

Published Feb. 9, 2004.

SOURCES: Noralyn L. Wilson, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).John Allred, PhD, professor emeritus, nutrition, Ohio State University. Gordon Winocur, PhD, senior scientist, Rotman Research Institute, Toronto. Paul E. Gold, professor of psychology and psychiatry, neuroscience program, University of Illinois. Mark A. McDaniel, chair, department of psychology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. University of California Berkeley Guide to Dietary Supplements, Journal of Adolescent Health, January 1991: "Effects of breakfast size on short-term memory, concentration, mood, and blood glucose."

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Last Editorial Review: 2/25/2005 8:09:29 PM