How To Eat To Maximize Cognitive Performance
Taking nootropic supplements is not the only way to gain a mental edge.
Optimize your diet for cognitive performance and start reaping the rewards today!
A large proportion of this site is dedicated to reviewing supplements that have been designed to enhance your memory, focus, and clarity. If you have arrived at this site, then it’s almost certain that you are looking for a way to gain a mental edge, whether it be to help you at work, at college, or just in your day to day life.
Taking natural supplements are a good way of giving your brain a boost, but there are other ways to bring about cognitive benefits.
Many people can experience significant increases in mental performance simply by making changes to their diet.
By altering both what you eat and how you eat it, you can experience tangible improvements in working memory function, focus, clarity of thought and mental energy. For many people, these changes will enhance not only your memory, but also your overall health, happiness and fitness.
If you think your brain could be performing better, and you think you could feel more mentally energetic, driven and focused, but you don’t want to start using nootropics right away, then try implementing some of the advice laid down below. You might be surprised at just what a difference these small changes can make to your life.
How To Eat For Brain Power – The Basics
Eating to optimise your brain power can be as simple as introducing some foods that you may not normally eat, but which can easily fit into anyone’s diet.
For instance, I think many people could get some immediate benefit from consuming green tea a few times per day.
Green tea is rich in both caffeine and theanine. These two compounds work synergistically to keep you alert, focused, and crucially, calm. This is important for busy executives and creative professionals, who regularly need to be at their peak during times of acute stress.
Green tea is particularly suitable for keeping you concentrated if you need to stay level headed and calm, as the relative abundance of theanine means that you will experience less of the side effects of caffeine over-consumption.
It also contains catechins. These are flavonoids that are thought to have significant benefits for humans when consumed on a regular basis.
For instance, the antioxidant action of catechins is thought to help prevent the neural cell death associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (ref).
Catechins are also thought to be capable of reducing LDL cholesterol (unhelpfully referred to as “bad cholesterol”). This study looked at the relationship between tea consumption and cardiovascular disease. The researchers found that “tea has favourable effects on CVD risk factors”, although the authors note that the only trials conducted thus far have been very short term.
In any case, green tea seems like a much better option than sugary drinks, or even coffee for that matter.
There’s no need to overdo it; just start with one cup of an afternoon instead of that soda you normally have, or swap it for that horrible vending machine coffee. Then, once you have a taste for it, introduce a second, maybe even a third cup. Consuming it at regular intervals throughout the day will keep you supplied with caffeine, theanine, and all the wonderful health benefits associated with regular green tea consumption.
Another good thing to introduce to your diet would be coconut oil.
Coconut oil seems to be all the rage at the minute, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s just the latest food fad. However, in this instance your skepticism would be unwarranted. The people raving about the health effects of consuming coconut oil are right on the money.
Coconut oil is full of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). These are saturated fats that have a very particular structure, which allows them to be used ALMOST directly by your cells for energy. By this I mean that they don’t need to be processed before use, and they require no energy expenditure for absorption or use – they basically go straight to the liver, where they are converted to ketones, which are then used by your cells for energy.
This has some immediate ramifications for optimising brain performance. The most important of these is the fact that, in consuming MCTs, you make a very efficient fuel source available to your brain cells.
MCTs are not stored as fat, and although evidence is at present quite paltry, it is thought that consuming them helps with fat oxidation, cholesterol control, and immune system function, to name just a few of the purported benefits.
The benefits of consuming coconut oil are discussed at great length on Dave Asprey’s Bulletproofexec.com.
While I strongly disagree with the whole “coffee and butter for breakfast” thing (nobody should skip a proper breakfast), Dave is clearly a very intelligent guy with a lot of interesting things to say about boosting your mental and physical performance. His understanding of coconut oil’s relationship with cognition is far deeper than mine, so that may be a good place to do some more reading.
Consuming more fats goes hand in hand with consuming less carbohydrates, which I will come to in due course.
All That Steams Is Not Coffee
It is, in my eyes, nothing short of a miracle substance.
We all know what an incredible natural nootropic coffee is; few other substances can perk us up so quickly, and in such a subtle, imperceptible way, without any kind of hangover to speak of.
Fresh, high quality ground coffee should be an integral part of everyone’s morning. Not only does it provide a caffeine boost, but drinking fresh ground coffee is now associated with a trove of health benefits.
For instance, fresh coffee is rich in antioxidants.
There are several different types of anti-oxidants in coffee, with perhaps the most impressive being chlorogenic acid. This compound is incredibly effective at reducing oxidative damage incurred by cells and at eliminating free radicals in the bloodstream. It is also increasingly being linked with elevated fat oxidation, and better blood sugar level maintenance. These last two properties are why chlorogenic acid is increasingly found in fat loss sports supplements.
The evidence isn’t exactly concrete with these peripheral benefits, but if you do some digging you’ll find that chlorogenic acid looks like a very promising compound for all-round human health.
Researchers are now evaluating the claims that long-term, moderate coffee consumption is correlated with lower incidences of certain cancers and other diseases, such as diabetes.
That said, researchers have also observed a positive correlation between coffee consumption and certain cancers – namely, colorectal.
Of course, all of these correlations are relatively weak. But they are significant enough to discuss and evaluate further.
It will be a long time before any meaningful conclusions can be drawn, but thus far the potential benefits seem to heavily outweigh the dangers (so long as consumption does not reach ridiculous levels).
However, not all coffee is made equally.
As pointed out by Dave Asprey on his website, coffee beans are highly susceptible to contamination from certain mold toxins, called mycotoxins.
This study found that, of 40 commercially available coffee varieties tested, 18 brews contained Ochratoxin A; a substance that is known to be toxic and potentially even carcinogenic to the kidneys, as well as having a strong affinity for the brain. Ochratoxin A is thought to have a particularly strong affinity with the hippocampus.
According to some, mycotoxins like Ochratoxin A are found in plenty of commercially available coffee varieties, and it seems that the brewing process does little to remove these toxins from the coffee beans. That means they end up in your cup.
Does this mean that you need to be scared of coffee? Of course not!
The amount of mycotoxins that you will find in your average cup of coffee are likely to be so small as to be statistically meaningless.
The EU has fairly stringent standards when it comes to mycotoxins, and the US, while a bit slacker, still recognises it as something that needs keeping an eye on. So it is highly unlikely that the coffee you drink is going to be full of these mold toxins.
Not only that, but just because something is harmful to human health on its own doesn’t mean it poses a significant risk when consumed in foodstuffs that humans have been eating for millennia.
If your livelihood depends upon you being on top of your game, both physically and mentally, then it may be worth the extra effort to purchase high quality coffee that is less likely to contain mycotoxins.
An obvious choice here would be Asprey’s own Bulletproof Coffee. This stuff is supposedly grown in a unique way that reduces mycotoxin contamination.
However, there’s probably no need to spring for that stuff if you’re on a budget. Just buy coffee grown from high elevations, and try to stick to Arabica beans, as these are less likely to have mycotoxin contamination.
Intermittent Fasting For Mental Energy?
Intermittent fasting is now a hugely popular method of losing unwanted body fat.
It seems to work wonders for many people who have typically struggled with their weight. It also seems to be quite popular amongst bodybuilders, as it is in theory much better for muscle building and retention than traditional dieting, where you merely eat a caloric deficit on a daily basis.
Yet the benefits of intermittent fasting extend well beyond body recomposition.
By following intermittent fasting, you may find that you have more energy than ever before – your mornings may suddenly seem a great deal easier, and you will no longer have that 4pm slump where your concentration disappears and you just can’t wait to get home.
So, what is intermittent fasting?
In my opinion, the best overview of intermittent fasting can be found here.
As there are countless internet sources dedicated to intermittent fasting, I won’t go into great detail here. I will, however, give a quick overview of intermittent fasting (IF), and explain what effect it can have on cognitive performance and neurological health in general.
IF is essentially a method of eating whereby you only eat during specified “feeding windows”, and fast for the rest of the time.
Note here that I said “method of eating” and not a “diet”. This distinction is important. IF is not about cutting calories, or even changing the exact things that you eat.
Rather, it is about changing the way that you eat your food. More specifically, it is about changing when you eat your food.
So, if you were to follow intermittent fasting, you would simply attempt to get all of your daily calories eaten within a space of, say, 8 hours, with the other 16 hours of your day being ‘fasted’.
‘Fasted’ here means minimal calories. It won’t matter a great deal if you consume a diet soda that has a negligible (<10) caloric content, or if you take some milk in your coffee.
There are lots of meal plans online that can help you start IF, and there are lots of ways you can employ the concept, doing it as much or as little as you like.
How does it improve my mental performance?
There is an overwhelming body of anecdotal evidence suggesting that intermittent fasting helps improve your cognitive performance.
One of the most consistent things I hear from people talking about their experiences with intermittent fasting is just how wide awake and full of energy they feel when they first wake up.
This seems a little counter-intuitive, but it actually makes perfect sense.
First of all, the concept of bringing about physiological improvements by putting the body under stress is a well accepted one. It’s essentially how all forms of exercise work to bring about improvements in health and well-being.
Running helps make the body better at coping with extended aerobic stress.
Weight lifting helps prime the body for intense anaerobic exertions.
So, it stands to reason that placing your brain under the “strain” of fasting helps prepare it for periods of scarcity. After a period of intermittent fasting, you are, in a sense, no longer dependent on influxes of food to kick-start your brain in the morning; you are no longer a slave to your morning pastries and sugary coffee.
This is, in my opinion, partly why people feel so alive and ready to face the day while practising intermittent fasting. They are not so encumbered by the ups and downs of blood sugar levels and all the drowsiness and lethargy that comes with them.
Secondly, intermittent fasting brings about actual physiological changes that help you feel more focused and full of energy than you do when eating ‘normally’.
When we take in very little food, our body very quickly begins to conserve energy. One of the consequences of this is that your body begins to get rid of old and damaged cells, as well as giving your existing cells a sort of ‘revamp’.
While researchers here focused on the immune system, this same process applies to the brain, the other major organs, and just about every other system in the body. By fasting for even moderate periods of time every now and again, you could be giving your nervous system and brain cells a much needed overhaul.
That’s all well and good, but is there any hard scientific evidence to support these claims?
Why yes, yes there is.
Check out this article published on the University of Southern California’s website. Here researchers found that periods of fasting induces “immune system regeneration, shifting stem cells from a dormant state to a state of self-renewal”.
If you take the time to do some quick research, you’ll find that clinicians have been interested in the health benefits of intermittent fasting for a long time.
Increasingly, they are also interested in the potential neurological benefits. In particular, more attention is being given to intermittent fasting’s potential as a way of improving brain function.
For anyone looking to improve their memory, recall, learning speed and overall cognitive abilities, intermittent fasting represents a healthy, free, and immediately accessible method of achieving your goals.
It won’t work for everyone, but there’s only one way to find out if it will work for you: give it a shot!
Low Carb, High Performance
To make it clear from the outset, I am not an advocate of the keto diet as far as maximising cognitive performance goes. In fact, I am not convinced that an ultra-low carb diet is all that healthy for anyone in the long-term (and short-term diets are generally pointless unless you’re a bodybuilder or model), and if we aren’t happy and healthy in the long-term, then nootropic enhancements are rather futile.
We should also make it clear from the get-go that “low carb”, as most people use the term, is not a concrete concept. It can refer to diets in which people get 5% or less of their daily calories from carbs. Equally, it can refer to diets where people get as much as 35% of their daily calories from carbs.
The use of the term is also highly relative to the person you are referring to, so absolute amounts are unhelpful. For example, if you’re a 220lb powerlifter, then 100g of carbs is probably pretty damn low-carb as far as you’re concerned. The same is not true of a buddhist monk. So we are obviously not dealing with absolute number here.
You will also no doubt find plenty of people on the internet claiming that a keto diet (practically unworkable as it is) is capable of curing all sorts of ailments. This is incorrect: if you think you’re unwell in any way, your first port of call should be a doctor, not a blogger.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s discuss the pros and cons of a relatively low-carb diet in terms of enhancing cognitive function.
By low carb, I am speaking quite relatively. Carbohydrates are an invaluable and fundamentally necessary constituent of a well-balanced, healthy human diet. Fruits, grains, pulses – all these things should be eaten on a regular basis.
Simple sugars are actually the brain’s favoured source of fuel. The brain will use glucose before any other type of fuel. This is true of much of the human body, which is, at the end of the day, a sugar powered machine. But the brain is of particular interest, not just because we are searching for nootropic enhancements, but because the brain is a greedy beast, demanding about 25% of our body’s total energy expenditure.
So what happens when all the glucose dries up? Doesn’t the brain just use fat?
Unfortunately, the brain can’t use fat for energy directly. An extremely low carbohydrate diet, like a proper ketogenic diet, essentially mimics conditions of starvation as far as the brain is concerned.
So how does the brain get around this?
It gets around this by turning fat into ketones.
Ketones are produced by the liver from the breakdown of fatty acids, either those that you eat, or those that you have stored around your gut. These ketones are released into the bloodstream, taken up by cells where they are needed, and used as fuel by the mitochondria, which release energy.
While glucose is the brain’s favourite fuel, it is thought that ketones are actually a much more efficient fuel, using less oxygen per unit of energy produced. However, this is not the main benefit of encouraging ketosis.
In my opinion, the main benefit of encouraging the use of ketones over glucose is that ketosis seems to lead to a proliferation in the number of mitochondria in brain cells.
This blog post from Scientific American states quite clearly that ketosis is known to increase the number of mitochondria in brain cells.
So Should I ‘Go Keto’?
While there seems to be benefits to “going keto”, I think adopting the diet is not ideal if you want to be broadly healthy, happy, and mentally on top of your game in the long-term.
But that does not mean that we should discount some of the diet’s principles altogether. There are plenty of benefits to be derived from simply eating a relatively low carb diet, with many more of your daily calories coming from healthy fats and protein.
So there is no real need to avoid carbs altogether, or to reduce them to just 5% of your daily calories as many people suggest you do.
By gradually reducing the amount of carbohydrates that we eat, we do a number of things:
- Naturally increase the amount of healthy dietary fats that we consume
- Eliminate frequent insulin spikes, which leads to insulin sensitivity
- Eliminate blood sugar crashes that drain mental energy and focus
- During a fasted period, having low glucose levels may encourage mitochondrial proliferation just as a full ketogenic diet does
- Naturally increase the amount of lean, nutritionally-dense, protein-packed foods that we eat; fewer potatoes and rice means more oily fish and nuts
Carbohydrates are great. They are an essential part of our diet. But if you want to eat for maximum mental performance, carbohydrates should be slightly reduced to allow for greater consumption of healthy fats, lean and nutritionally-dense protein sources, and vegetables.
By also keeping carbohydrate intake relatively low, periods of intermittent fasting are more likely to encourage the mitochondrial proliferation that is thought to occur during full-scale ketosis.
Relying less on carbohydrates throughout the day will also help prevent large fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which will in turn prevent insulin spikes and the energy crashes that come with them. The long-term health effects of having frequent insulin spikes are also quite worrying, so this is something we want to try to minimise regardless of its effect on cognitive function.
Putting It All Together
How Do I Eat To Maximise Brain Function?
Now that we’ve been through some of the most important principles for maximising brain function through our diet, let’s try to put them all together in a simple, easy to follow meal plan.
I will try to make this as easy as possible to modify. Obviously, the exact foods are not all set in stone; they are just examples. You should, however, try to eat foods that are roughly similar in nutritional content.
All of the meal plans below should be fit into an intermittent fasting schedule when possible.
I won’t dictate times here, or what to eat on fasting days and what to eat on normal days, because your schedules and personal preferences will be too variable. All I am going to provide are rough templates to help get you started.
I recommend doing some reading on intermittent fasting and finding a pattern that will work best for you. Then, give it a shot. If it doesn’t work for you, just follow the meal plans for a while longer without the fasting periods – they should still deliver some cognitive improvements.
Sample Meal Plans
Meal Plan 1 – The Busy Executive
Breakfast – Fresh organic coffee (with or without milk), 2 eggs scrambled in plenty of coconut oil, 2 slices wholewheat toast buttered with organic, grass-fed butter, and freshly squeezed orange juice.
Lunch – Large salad with smoked salmon, avocado, tomatoes, olives, and walnuts, drizzled with flax seed oil. Follow this up with a banana or two.
Dinner – Oily fish or lean meat, steamed fresh vegetables, and beans with some sweet potato. If you want to drink with dinner, I’d advise going for a glass of organic red wine.
Meal Plan 2 – The Student
Breakfast – Fresh organic coffee (with or without milk), eggs scrambled in plenty of coconut oil and served on wholemeal toast with organic, grass-fed butter. Orange juice or any other kind of fruit juice from a carton is optional, but always go for ‘not from concentrate’.
Lunch – Large salad with lean meat or cheese (halloumi or feta are the best options), tomatoes, beetroot, and olives and whatever nuts are cheapest. Drizzle your salad with extra virgin olive oil, flax seed oil, or if they’re both too expensive, any low sugar dressing will be fine. Follow this up with a banana or two.
Dinner – Burrito with mixed beans, avocados (as guacamole) and spinach, with steamed broccoli and carrots on the side. Frozen vegetables are cheap and still full of nutrients. Go for cauliflower, broccoli and carrots to get plenty of vitamins and fibre.
*Liver is an excellent option for poor students since it is crammed full of essential nutrients, and it is usually quite cheap. On a nutrient/weight basis, it is probably a more efficient option than lean beef or chicken.
Meal Plan 3 – The Vegan
Breakfast – Fresh organic coffee (with or without almond milk), tofu scramble cooked with plenty of coconut oil, wholemeal toast with enriched sunflower spread, and fresh orange juice.
Lunch – Large salad with avocado, tomatoes, asparagus, olives, beetroot, and walnuts, all drizzled with flax seed oil. Follow this up with a banana or two.
Dinner – Black bean burgers, sweet potato fries, spinach and steamed vegetables.
Above all else, the most important thing is to eat a healthy diet. A diet that is conducive to your long-term health and happiness is always going to be conducive to your long-term success.
I see very little merit in adopting a diet that you can’t stick to for the long-term, or a diet that simply makes you unhealthy and miserable. Enhancing your cognitive function should go hand in hand with being a fully functioning, well-balanced individual.
You can use these meal plans as a general guide, and they will help give your brain everything it needs to function properly, but you should always eat with your health at the forefront of your mind.