Foods for Better Concentration

Last Editorial Review: 2/25/2005

Focusing on the types of foods that you eat may boost performance.

By Dulce Zamora
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

A friend suggested I take ginseng after I complained about having trouble concentrating on a big project. She said it might help with my focus.

Another pal, who participated in a 24-hour relay race, says that Red Bull, marketed as an "energy drink," does the trick for him.

There are apparently many theories on focus-enhancing food and beverages. Edibles from caffeine to sugar to proteins are touted to help boost concentration.

Ubiquitous ads for dietary supplements add to the mix. Such products are supposed to improve memory, attention, and brain function.

With all these options offered, what's a person to do on the eve of an important affair? Can certain victuals help boost alertness for an exam, a job interview, or a presentation?

Conversations with various experts reveal that there is both good and bad news. First, the reality is that there is no one magic food guaranteed to help people perform their best mentally and physically. The research on the connection between food and concentration is, for the most part, either lacking, or inconclusive. Some of the claims attached to certain foods are exaggerations of the truth, or downright false.

Now, for more the optimistic report: Certain fare may work for some people for a short-term, and studies are ongoing on the promising benefits of some nutrients on brain function.

Where does your favorite "food for thought" fit in?

A Cup of Joe With a Lump of Sugar

Many everyday folk will swear by the virtues of caffeine and sugar in picking them up at opportune moments. Their tonic might be a stimulant such as coffee or tea, or a sweet such as ice cream or pastries, or a food rich in both such as chocolate, energy drinks such as Red Bull, and sodas.

Caffeine can energize the fatigued, but the benefit is short-lived, says Noralyn L. Wilson, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). She says individual characteristics determine the length of the effect and someone's reaction to it.

Some people will feel "up" with the accelerated heart rate caused by the stimulant, while others may feel jittery and uncomfortable.

The discomfort may detract someone from concentrating on a task at hand. Problems may also come when the effects of caffeine wear off, or if too much of it is ingested.

"People can overdose on caffeine," says John Allred, PhD, professor emeritus of nutrition at Ohio State University, noting that too much of the substance could make a person become unfocused.

The effect of sugar on alertness, on the other hand, appears to be a bit more complex. It turns out that the brain uses glucose, a type of sugar, as a primary source of fuel.

In a study of 20 healthy older adults given a sweet drink or carbohydrates (which metabolize into glucose in the body), participants did significantly better in memory tests when they were given a placebo drink.

One of the investigators, Gordon Winocur, PhD, senior scientist for the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, says the research demonstrates that a high serving of glucose may have a fast, short-term benefit on mental ability.

"With older people, in particular, where glucose metabolism isn't very efficient, if you do something to increase the glucose uptake, it seems to translate into improved memory function," says Winocur.

Paul E. Gold, professor of psychology and psychiatry in the neuroscience program at the University of Illinois, has done a number of studies on the effect of glucose on learning and memory. He says the compound can, indeed, boost memory and thinking processes in the brain.

Yet he does not recommend it for the public, because he says a number of factors can interfere with the process, such as stress levels, and differences in how people metabolize glucose.

The variables make it hard to tell how much glucose will help with memory, says Gold. Plus, he says, there is the "inverted U" effect to consider.

"The inverted U means that as you increase the dose, the effects on memory, for example, will get better and better and better," he explains. "But, then, after some peak dose, they begin to get worse and worse and worse."

With really high doses of glucose, memory could actually be impaired, Gold explains.

Steak or Bagel for Breakfast?

The protein versus carbohydrate battle seems to be in the limelight these days, especially with high-protein, and low-carb diets inching their way into weight-conscious homes.

As a source for brainpower, however, neither carbs nor proteins appear to play a direct role on a person's ability to concentrate.

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."

©2004 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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