TBI makes me the canary in the coal mine when it comes to focus, and nothing brings on brain fog faster than food. I’ve known which foods to eat for years, but it’s taken me longer to accept which foods not to eat and to develop a comprehensive strategy around my eating.
Last November I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in which hundreds of thousands of writers all over the world—from aspiring to published—commit to writing 50,000 words in one month. I knew if I was going to be successful I would have to rehab my eating. Not only was November my most productive month since my injury, I started losing weight.
Cut the Carbs. This means refined sugar, grain, and starchy vegetables. Sweets and bread vie for top offender.
Limit sugar to fruit and very small amounts of a raw honey, pure maple syrup, or dehydrated cane syrup. Any kind of corn syrup—now the primary sweetener used in commercial foods—is horrible and should be eliminated. Stevia is okay, if you like it (I don’t). There are a lot of issues around artificial sweeteners and studies that demonstrate they actually make you eat more to make up for the calories your body expected to get with the sweetness.
Wheat and gluten have been associated with brain fog, so it’s doubly important to cut back or eliminate wheat products. Sprouted wheat is acceptable. I buy Food for Life sprouted grain bread. (Bonus: their Ezekiel 4:9 bread is available at Costco). I keep it in the freezer and pop slices in the toaster whenever I need it. I’ll use it instead of a bun when I make a hamburger at home. No, it doesn’t have the same mouth feel, but I like it better. Especially after I’ve grilled it in ghee and spread it with pesto and mozzarella cheese.
My favorite pasta substitutes are spaghetti squash and raw zucchini noodles. I’ll bake a couple whole spaghetti squash for about an hour until the skin is soft, let them cool, then scrape out the “strings” inside. I package single servings in baggies and freeze enough for weeks.
Zucchini noodles are great because they are fast, fresh and raw. Raw foods are fabulous for health and energy. I have a device like an oversized pencil sharpener that allows you turn an 8 inch zucchini into a single serving of raw pasta in less than 5 minutes. Then you can top it with anything your heart desires.
I eat sweet potatoes instead of white. They’re still starchy, so I save them for the evening. I’ll microwave the potato and mash it up with ghee, walnuts and a touch of maple syrup. You could try curry and cashews instead of the maple syrup and walnuts for a savory taste. Bonus: The turmeric in curry is associated with cancer prevention as well as having a healing effect on dementia. Turmeric also helps manage arthritis.
If you must have a grain, quinoa is your best bet for a variety of reasons.
I don’t advise giving carbs up entirely because to do so is likely to cause rebellion and binging. Instead, schedule your once or twice weekly carb-y treats for late in the day when focus is no longer an issue.
I developed specific eating strategies to promote maximum mental focus that I pulled together . Happily, this strategy is also excellent for losing weight and I dropped 17 pounds over the holidays.
Control your potions. Overeating causes food comas. The average restaurant meal is twice the size of what your body comfortably handles. Yes, the average person can consume a quart of food without discomfort, but it is not optimal to do so. I’ve cut back my meals to a single item, no more than a pint of easily digestible food. I eat 4 – 5 times a day, saving anything heavy or carb-y for evenings.
The lighter your meals, the better your focus. People who fast one day a week report being very focused and productive on fasting days. Some day I will try this, but I’m not there yet.
An average day for me:
2 hard-boiled eggs in the morning followed by decaf coffee. I boil up a dozen at a time using either my Dash egg cooker or my InstantPot, so it’s easy to grab them on my way out the door to the dog park.
Mid-morning I make up a 1 quart smoothie (1 cup blueberries, ½ avocado-frozen for convenience, 1 banana, my assortment of superfoods and Silk almond milk.) I’ll sip on this over the few hours. It keeps me until 2-3 p.m.
Late afternoon I’ll have something that is heavy on vegetables with some protein. One of my favorite things is nuking chopped spinach and tossing in a handful of mozzarella cheese along with a mashed can of sardines. If I have something lighter, I’ll eat heavier in the evening.
Somewhere in here I may sip on 24 ounces of water with 2 tablespoons of chia seeds (I’ll make this in my water bottle a day in advance to give the chia seeds chance to soften and germinate) flavored with tart cherry juice and a little raw honey.
Later in the evening, I’ll have a snack – a banana, a sweet potato, or Costco’s Mega-Omega Trail Mix. Another favorite snack is dipping romaine leaves into dressing, salsa or sauce.
You must have fats. Fats are essential for brain function and are a much better brain food than sugar. Not all fats are equal, and some of the most widely used are linked with health issues. There are exotic oils I have jet to experiment with, but the best and most readily available fats are coconut oil (for cooking, but I also make brain candy with it), Olive oil for salads, and my newest best friend, ghee, which is clarified butter. Butter is good, though ghee tolerates higher temperatures and the same country which brought us cancer-fighting curry has claimed ghee as a healer for centuries.
Ghee adds wonderful flavor to foods. I cook eggs in it. I grill sprouted-gran bread in it. I’ll add a large spoonful to soups and sauces.
Other sources of healthy fats are nuts—walnuts are a special brain food (not peanuts – they contain aflatoxin and should not be eaten), avocados, and oily fish such as wild caught salmon, sardines and anchovies. Bonus: canned sardines and anchovies are no only super convenient, they are caught young, before they have time to accumulate high levels of mercury, making them among the safest fish to eat.)
As for animal fats, this long reviled food has seen a rehabilitated reputation in recent years. Do your due diligence on this.
Eliminate stimulants. The more powerful the stimulant, the bigger the crash. Most Americans live in a constant cycle of consuming stimulants followed by crashes. Get rid of all of them. This includes carbs, especially sugar, and caffeine. That doughnut and coffee (or soda) you eat first thing in the morning is setting you up for a major crash.
People who crawl to their coffee maker in the morning don’t realize that they are in caffeine withdrawal. Their morning cup is necessary to make them feel normal. They often get started on this cycle because they don’t get enough rest and drink coffee in the morning to make up the difference.
Ditch the coffee or cola. If you must have your morning joe, switch to decaf. It will take less than a week to clear the caffeine out of your system (tough out the headaches they only last a few days.) Provided you get enough rest and aren’t taking medications that interfere with your natural rest cycle, you’ll wake up feeling rested and alert and feeling better than you have in years.
If you feel the need for extra focus, raw cacao powder (I put it in smoothies and make brain candy with it) and green tea will give you a boost but do not cause the extreme crashes of coffee and colas.
Avoid processed foods. They’re full of everything bad for you: high fructose corn syrup, wheat or other carbs, and a whole host of chemicals that do Heaven knows what to you. Instead, get bags of frozen vegetables (reasonably priced bulk frozen organic vegetables are available at Costco) you can nuke a serving at a time and top these with carefully vetted, preferably organic, condiments and sauces.
If you must have convenience foods, buy imported foods and check the labels carefully. Many other countries do not dump chemicals into their food supply the way we do. Some countries will not allow our processed foods to be imported for this reason. I do not profess to be an expert here. Do your due diligence. Tip: shop at culture specific groceries (Mexican, Asian, Indian) for great deals.
Forget fast food, or at least limit it to once a week, preferably less. It’s full of everything bad. You may, with careful research, find an item or two on the menu that is acceptable.
Eat lots of veggies. raw veggies in salads are excellent for focus. Frozen veggies that don’t contain extra sauce are good. Carefully vet canned food. Too much of it contains additives that aren’t good for you.
Keep it green. The greener the better. Kale and Swiss chard are the best of land greens. Romane lettuce is far behind but better than other lettuces and has the bonus of being raw. Seaweeds are fabulous. Some folks supplement their green intake with algae powders such as chlorella, which studies indicate has benefits for the brain.
Get your protein, but not too much. A high protein, low carb diet is optimal for brain focus. Keep your portions of protein small, a quarter pound or less. More can send you into a food coma. You can, however, have as many veggies as you like.
About alcohol and recreational drugs. Seriously? You have to ask this? No. Just no. Some folks say a glass of red wine a week is okay, but why torture yourself?
- Coconut Oil
- Egg yolks
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Green leafy vegetables
- Oily fish, Wild-caught salmon, sardines and anchovies