Boost Your Productivity at Work With These Healthy Brain Foods

Try eating oatmeal with a banana, blueberries and raspberries for your morning breakfast.
Are you looking for a healthy, affordable brain food? Try putting berries and a banana in your morning oatmeal. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Most of us experience a midafternoon dip in energy, causing us to reach for high-sugar snacks or highly caffeinated beverages. While coffee or candy might boost your energy in the short term, relying on them on a regular basis can be bad for your body and wallet.

As someone who works behind a desk in Cubicle City, I get it. Sugar-laden snacks are easy and don’t require much thought. Coffee is usually readily available in my office, though it typically tastes like feet. But what if there were foods you could eat to boost your energy and productivity so you can make it to the end of the day without pounding caffeine?

Luckily, these foods exist. And while it might take more forethought and planning than simply grabbing a cup of Joe, eating these foods will help you stick to your diet and budget.

Your Brain and Food

We tend to think of food as many things — comfort, a way to lose weight, a way to treat yourself after a particularly awful day — but as far as your brain is concerned, the more quality nutrients you consume, the better.

Harvard Medical School uses an easy-to-understand analogy to describe your body’s relationship with food: If you drive a luxury car that requires premium fuel but use only regular unleaded, your car will not perform its best.

Think of your body as a Porsche. If you fuel it with refined sugars and junk food, you’ll feel sluggish and won’t have much energy. But if you choose nutrient-dense options, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, you’ll find you have more energy and will be more productive throughout the day.

Flavonoids for Thinking Power

A photo of a container of blueberries and tomatoes
Foods like blueberries and tomatoes can help boost productivity and help the immune system. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

You probably already know that eating nutrient-rich foods gives you more energy and helps you stay healthier in general. So instead of telling you to just eat more fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins, I turned to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, which advises that eating flavonoid-rich foods can help boost your cognitive function and memory, thus allowing you to reach your full productivity potential.

But what exactly are flavonoids?

Flavonoids are phytonutrients (plant chemicals) found in almost all fruits and vegetables. They are potent antioxidants credited with helping out the immune system and acting as an anti-inflammatory.

I asked Debra Brunk, Nutrition and Integrative Health Practitioner at Radix Nutrition and Wellness, LLC, for her advice on the best budget foods to eat for productivity. She advised choosing brightly colored fruits and veggies, which contain high levels of flavonoids.

Foods like beets, sweet potatoes, berries and tomatoes all help give your brain a boost while also being great for your overall health. In fact, Wake Forest University found that the natural nitrates in beets help increase blood flow to the brain.

Eating more fruits and veggies in general — not just when you’re feeling lethargic — also has a secondary benefit: You eat less junk.

As Debra put it, “Usually when you’re adding something in, you’re taking something out.” In this case, you’re eating healthy foods in place of starchy carbs and sugar-packed junk foods, which can actually have a negative effect on your brain function.

Healthy Fats for a Brain Boost

Your brain is 60% fat, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, so snacking on healthy fats can also help boost its function and, therefore, your productivity.

Debra recommended avocados, which contain protein, carbs and fat in one tasty package. Avocados also contain oleic acid, which a study at the University of California, Irvine, discovered can help enhance memory and your brain’s overall function.

Other sources of healthy fat that Debra recommended include omega 3-rich fish, olive oil, flaxseeds and chia seeds.

Flaxseeds contain alpha-linolenic acid, which the University of Maryland Medical Center explains is important for brain health and growth. And Science Daily reports omega-3 fatty acids can help improve your ability to learn, strengthen your memory and protect you against mental disorders like depression, dementia and schizophrenia.

Afternoon Pick-Me-Ups

I asked Debra what her favorite pick-me-up food or drink is for that midafternoon slump. She said she likes to drink seltzer water, and eat crunchy vegetables and fruits like broccoli, celery and apples.

When we’re tired and hungry we tend to crave crunchy foods like potato chips, but it’s possible to satisfy that need to crunch with healthy options.

But she also mentioned that while an afternoon smoothie wouldn’t be as effective for her as something with crunch, some people might find a smoothie the perfect pick-me-up. The best thing to do is experiment with different foods to see what works best for you.

Eating Brain Food on a Budget

Spinach is both an affordable and healthy food that can help with overall brain function.
Spinach can be a great addition to daily smoothies. Try buying it and freezing it so it lasts longer.  Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

So, how exactly can you take advantage of these natural productivity boosters while sticking to a budget?

For me, it involves eating in-season foods. Raspberries, for example, are much cheaper in the summer months than in December.

Even if you don’t have a large family, you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables in larger quantities and freeze them for later. I buy spinach from Costco and freeze it to use in my smoothies for an extra punch of nutrition. A 1-pound bag of organic spinach costs $4.29 and enhances my daily smoothies for a few weeks.

Debra Brunk recommended checking your grocery store to see if it has discounted produce that is past its prime. You can easily freeze brown bananas or use them for smoothies, while you can also chop up slightly soft apples and add them to oatmeal or yogurt for a healthy breakfast.

As for buying higher-quality produce, Debra advised checking out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list and buying organic for the foods listed. For those not on the list, you can purchase non-organic to save some money.

Eating nutrient-dense food to fuel your brain doesn’t have to be expensive or take much planning if you know what to look for. Next time you’re at the grocery store, see what’s in season and on sale, and try something new — you might be surprised to find a new favorite to replace your daily granola bar.

Catherine Hiles is British writer based in Dayton, Ohio. In her spare time, you can find her running, eating, reading and chasing around her two-year-old daughter alongside her husband and elderly mutt.