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Fueling Your Brain to Maximize Focus

It is crazy to think that we are already well into October, meaning we are past the halfway point of the semester! I recently procrastinated doing homework by counting the number of zoom calls I have been on thus far – between classes, meetings, and discussions, I have been on over 100 Zoom calls in just 7 weeks! And as I’m sure everyone can relate, it is getting more and more difficult to focus. Some days it feels like my brain is just stalled out looking at a screen for hours on end. The theme of this week’s article really brings home our title of the semester – Living Well With Life Online – because today’s article discusses how we can eat to maximize our brain’s energy and focus.

As we now know all too well, this semester we have traded in our morning routines and work commutes for a quick 30 second walk to the kitchen and spending the day in pajamas. Sometimes this is nice – we certainly can’t always complain about breakfast in bed. But it’s also important to realize that we fundamentally thrive off of routines. And a major routine in our everyday lives is eating. While in some ways it might be fun to just snack all day, it can also be exhausting to make never ending trips to the pantry and always keeping food on our minds. Food is important, but it is not something that we want to always be thinking about, especially if this is due to unsatisfied hunger. Even more, if we fail to nourish our bodies (and brains!) properly, we only hurt our ability to focus. And if you’re anything like the rest of us and falling asleep in online class, you may want to think more about the connection between diet and energy levels.

Let’s first talk about what it means for both our bodies and our brains to be satisfied. When we think about what it means to be full, most people typically only think about the physical sensation of food in our stomachs. However, our mind also plays a major role in our satisfaction with food. If you have ever shoveled handfuls of food in while either standing up or on the go and wondered why you still thinking about food afterwards, it is because you never gave your mind the chance to acknowledge that you are eating. Instead, when we make food, put it on a plate, and eat without distractions, we give our minds the chance to acknowledge that we are eating and curb our appetite. This acknowledgement is what allows us to move our headspace past food and onto whatever we are working on. Just the act of eating meals alone – without even considering what you are eating – may actually increase your focus more in class if it helps you eliminate food as a constant background noise.

Anyways, beyond just the mental drainage that can happen from always snacking, eating full meals is better for our bodies (and brains!) as well. If we eat meals that allow us to get all of our macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fats – we give our bodies both the nutrients and the energy to perform all that we demand in a day.

In a perfect world, we would wake up and follow a perfect routine of mealtimes, always making sure to get our macronutrients and vitamins in. But that is not always the case. So let’s talk about ways that you can create a flexible routine for eating throughout the day. And whether you wake up hungry or not, the first meal of the day starts with breakfast! As I mentioned in an earlier article, eating breakfast in the morning and drinking water or coffee is actually a great booster for our metabolisms, as it essentially gives us the “turn on” system for the day. Without eating something in the morning upon waking, we go from dinner the previous night until lunchtime the next day without eating anything. This is such a long time period that our bodies may actually think of this as fasting, thus lowering metabolism and energy levels accordingly. Then, when we finally do eat lunch, it may not give us the energy and focus we are looking for. If you haven’t read my articles on Metabolism or Breakfast and the Brain, I encourage you to do so. There is definitely a reason why it is called the most important meal of the day!

Next comes the most awkward meal of the day – lunch. This is the meal with most flexibility, which is both a positive and a negative. Let’s also acknowledge that most of us have never had to think about regularly preparing lunch; before Covid-19, most people usually ate lunch out – either at school, work, or a local restaurant. Now, we are faced with the midday cravings that most of us have no idea how to satisfy. This is when meal prep can especially come in handy (if you haven’t already done so, read the earlier article on Meal Prep 101). If we make the common mistake of just snacking for lunch, we will fall into the inevitable trap of snacking all day long, never feeling full or satisfied, and always thinking about when dinner is coming. To avoid this, make sure you are getting the right balance of protein, carbs and fats in whatever meal you choose. Also, if you are looking to boost your focus and brain energy, it is especially important to create a break in your day to sit down and eat an adequate meal.

Finally, it is very important to eat a full dinner at night. Without an adequate nighttime meal, our bodies will only be more tempted to fall for unnecessary nightly sugar cravings. Of course, dessert is not bad for us (and I would even argue it’s beneficial for our overall health), but if cutting back on sugar is something you are working on, eating a big, balanced dinner will help you do so. Also, our bodies have a hard time falling asleep when we are hungry, so you might also benefit your shuteye hours!

The ultimate goal of this article is to help you realize that creating a routine for your food is a great way to benefit both your body and your brain. As we enter the period in the semester when we all get inevitably tired of the nonstop work and class, your brain needs the extra boost in fuel to help you focus. Even more, if you find that your mind is constantly wandering about what you are going to eat next, this might be because you are not getting the proper nutrients or quantity of food your body demands. Instead of always going back to the kitchen for only handfuls of snacks at a time, take breaks to eat complete meals. If you get the carbs and protein your brain needs to focus for long periods of time, coupled with healthy fats to satisfy and make you feel full, you will set yourself up for success. On that note, don’t sleep on breakfast (no pun intended) – eating and drinking in the morning is especially important if you are having a hard time waking up, need help focusing in class, or just want to help stabilize your body’s metabolism.

I will note that nothing about this semester and living life online is easy. It is somewhat counterintuitive but working and living in the same place can have many more distractions than we may have imagined. One of these is food. Hopefully this article can help you create boundaries and separate your meals from your work. We could all use a mental break from thinking about what’s next, and instead focusing on the moment! Wishing you well as we all work together to tackle these new and unusual routines.

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