While a number of things ranging from lack of sleep to problems at home can be to blame for your foggy, wandering brain, diet also plays a major role in how easy it is to buckle down and focus. If you already eat pretty healthfully, you might assume that your diet couldn’t possibly be to blame. However, a number of the foods that zap memory and focus appear completely innocuous. After reading what science had to say about some of the worst offenders, you may just consider kicking a few of these surprising focus-killing foods to the curb—or at least cutting back when you have a big work deadline coming up!
The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish—such as tuna—at least two times a week. Stick to their recommendation and you’ll be doing your heart and brain a favor. Put it on the menu too often, and you could do more harm than good. Why? Bigeye, ahi, albacore and yellowfin tuna are all high in mercury, and consuming too much of the heavy metal can cause cognitive decline. To stay safe, incorporate other types of fish into your diet like anchovies, wild salmon, or trout, which boast many of the same brain-boosting benefits but don’t carry the risk of excess mercury exposure.
Using a little bit of soy on your sushi may not seem like a big deal, but one tablespoon of the stuff has nearly 40 percent of the day’s recommended salt intake! What’s salty food got to do with your inability to focus? A lot, actually. According to a 2014 Neurology study, hypertension, often brought up on eating too many salt and sodium-packed foods—like soy sauce—can restrict blood to the brain and negatively impair focus, organizational skills and memory. High salt intake can also cause electrolyte imbalance and mild dehydration, which can make it difficult to keep your head in the game. When ordering Japanese, opt for low-sodium soy sauce or eel sauce (which tastes a lot like teriyaki) and keep the serving size small. Making this simple swap can cut your sodium intake in half, keeping your focus laser-sharp.
While we won’t deny that we’re pretty big fans of prosciutto wrapped melon, eating cured meats like prosciutto, bacon, capicolla and pastrami too often can make your brain foggy. When you eat salt and protein-rich foods, the body has to use more water to flush out the naturally-occurring nitrogen found in proteins and excess salt. This leaves less water in the body to keep you hydrated, upping the odds you’ll become dehydrated—and, according to a Military Medicine study, dehydration can diminish cognitive function. To keep distraction (and excess calories) away, don’t make salty meats your lunch time go-to, and be sure to drink a few extra glasses of water if you decide to indulge.
Popcorn made on the stovetop is a healthy, fiber-rich, whole-grain snack that can ward off crashes in blood sugar that can send your brain into a tizzy. But if you’re looking to munch on the snack at work and don’t have access to a stove, be wary of the microwave varieties with diacetyl-based butter flavoring. High levels of exposure to the chemical have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that causes memory loss. Although munching on a handful may not cause any harm now, it’s better to be safe and stick with varieties that don’t use the chemical. Your future self will thank you!
If you’ve ever treated yourself to a cup of ice cream in an attempt to beat the 3 p.m. slump, you likely caused more harm than good—and not just to your waistline. A cup of vanilla can have up to 10 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat and 28 grams of sugar and multiple studies have found that saturated fat and sugar-rich diets can diminish cognitive skills and verbal memory. In lieu of the ice cream, opt for Greek yogurt with some blueberries or strawberries. Both fruits have been associated with slower rates of cognitive decline and can help keep your brain in tip-top shape.
When the stress is starting to mount, opening a can of diet can make you feel like you can conquer the world—or at least the giant pile of paperwork sitting on your desk. In reality, it may make it harder to concentrate on your work. An animal study published in European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences found that aspartame, the artificial sweetener commonly used in sugar-free drinks, can have a negative effect on memory. While it may not have the sweet taste you’re looking for, trading in your cola for some seltzer or water is a better bet. Why? Guzzling H20 can ward off dehydration—one of the most common contributors to poor focus.
It may taste great with your afternoon cup of joe, but the average muffin carries a third of the day’s saturated fat and 74 grams of carbs—most of which are refined. Besides adding some serious pounds to your frame if you indulge in the pastry fairly regularly, it can zap your focus and lead to cognitive issues later down the road, too. A Physiology & Behavior study found that consuming saturated fats and refined carbohydrates is associated with the development of Alzheimer's Disease and can negatively impact cognitive function, too. To keep your focus sharp, trade your muffin for some oatmeal. The steady flow of energy you’ll get from the complex carbohydrates and fiber will help you get through your work in no time at all!