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Eat Right to Stay Sharp Throughout the School Day

A few changes at mealtime can help you stay energized and focused from first period through the final bell.

Pop quiz! It’s Monday morning, and one of your colleagues brought in a box of bagels and doughnuts as a treat to start the week. Which do you choose?

a) A glazed jelly doughnut and black coffee
b) A plain bagel with cream cheese, plus a small carton of orange juice
c) A whole-wheat bagel topped with peanut butter, chased with a whole orange

You probably know to skip the doughnut, even as tempting as it is (although the coffee’s not bad—see below). But it might be a toss-up between the other two options.

If you want to keep your energy and concentration going strong all morning, choose “C.” Here’s why:

That jelly doughnut is packed with white sugar and white flour—refined carbohydrates your body will digest quickly. The result: Your energy and focus will surge, but you’ll crash by second period.

The plain bagel with cream cheese and a side of OJ may hold you a bit longer, but that combo is still high in refined carbs so you’ll still fade long before lunch.

But the whole-wheat bagel, peanut butter and whole orange offer a dose of complex carbohydrates and fiber so your body digests them more slowly to keep your blood sugar steady. That translates to sustained energy and concentration all morning long. The peanut butter also adds 8 grams of protein to help keep you satisfied and alert until lunchtime, and its heart-healthy monounsaturated fat is good for your brain. That’s a big upgrade from cream cheese, which has mostly artery-clogging saturated fat.

At mealtime, fill your plate with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, protein and healthy fats. This combo helps sustain your energy and focus, and you’ll ingest lots of nutrients that’ll nourish long-term brain health and prevent memory loss.

If that sounds like the same heart-smart diet that experts are always urging us to eat, you’re right. The same diet that keeps your blood pressure and cholesterol in the healthy zone also helps prevent dementia later in life. Researchers are uncovering a strong link between dementia and unhealthy cholesterol levels or hypertension.

Add these five foods to your menus for good mental focus now—and a sharp memory later:

  • Salmon. This cold-water fish is rich in protein and brain-nourishing DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Eating at least one serving of baked or broiled fish per week helps boost the size of your brain cells to reduce your risk of memory loss.
  • Coffee. If coffee is part of your day, that’s OK! Research shows caffeine boosts alertness, cognitive function and memory. Drinking at least 3 cups a day may slow cognitive decline in older people.
  • Olive oil. This heart-healthy ingredient contains a compound called oleocanthal that helps prevent nerve damage linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Chickpeas. These hearty legumes are a great source of complex carbs, fiber and protein. They’re also rich in vitamin B6, which helps your body produce neurotransmitters. Those are chemicals that help your brain run smoothly.
  • Chocolate. It does some sweet things for your brain. Chocolate is rich in antioxidants that help increase blood flow to your noggin to trigger the growth of new brain cells. Choose dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher), which has the most antioxidants, but go easy on it. An ounce of dark chocolate has about 150 calories.

Bottom line: For good concentration and sustained energy, choose complex carbs found in less-processed foods. Choose brown rice over white rice, whole-wheat bread instead of white bread, and whole fruit instead of fruit juice.

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