Eating for Cognitive Performance – 10 Top Tips


by George H. Glade, MC, MN, ARNP* –

Eating. Mostly we don’t think about it. We do it regularly – sometimes badly. Americans live life on the run both at school and at work. We’re in a rush. We trade good for fast. We trade healthy for convenient. Our eating habits are killing us. Eating well is about the pleasure of enjoying healthy food and feeling at our best physically and mentally.

Eating for Cognitive Performance

What do we mean by eating for cognitive performance? While it is important to eat so our bodies work at their best, it’s equally vital to eat so our minds function at optimal performance. Our minds are working all the time. We face constant thinking challenges, especially those of us with ADHD, and the mind uses energy even when we are asleep.

The brain places extraordinary demands on the body. While it represents only 2% of our body weight, the brain demands 25% of total body glucose use. To work at its best, this metabolic powerhouse needs fuel, and plenty of it. The brain is dependent on blood glucose as its source of energy. Our brains cannot store glucose, and the supply line needs to be fairly constant for our brains to work at their best.

A Brain Low on Fuel

Any shortage in this availability of glucose to the brain has adverse consequences on the its functioning.Even low normal levels of blood glucose can affect both non-executive and executive functions, such as decision-making, memory, sensory processing, psychomotor functioning, language and communication attention, vigilance, judgment, and complex task performance.

Keeping our brains fueled and operating at full power frees us to think better. There are strategies for eating that allow us to get the maximum out of our efforts. These are my top 10 ways of eating better to keep our ADHD brains well fueled.

Top 10 Ways of Eating Better While On The Run

  1. Breakfast

Don’t skip breakfast! People who eat breakfast increase their metabolic rate by about 10%. People who skip both breakfast and lunch tend to really load up on the calories for dinner. This is a pattern for gaining needless weight.

  1. Slow Food

If you’re out during the day, consider “slow food” versus “fast food”. Many Asian and Mexican restaurants have great lunchtime specials. You can generally eat there for the cost of going to a fast food drive-through. I’m always amazed at just how expensive fast food can be. With “slow food,” you will get an abundant portion, often enough that you could have a second meal. Is there any leftover from a fast food restaurant that you would want to eat the next day? Probably not. That is not the cast for many restaurants that have lunchtime specials. Oftentimes, you will get far more protein. And let’s not take away the simple fact of flavor! These meals just plain taste better.

  1. Hydrate

We all eat sometimes just for the sake of it, and not because we’re hungry. When I go to an airport, this is the worst culprit. Eating gives us something to do while we wait or take a break. We also have to “load up” for a journey, possibly because airline meals can be expensive and are generally fairly bad. If you aren’t hungry, just have a drink instead. It’s deceiving how dehydrated we can become particularly while flying. It also provides an excuse for you to sit down and relax.

  1. Snacks In The Car

Plan for keeping snacks in your glove compartment that won’t be harmed by the warm temperature of a car sitting in the sun. Trail mix or dried fruit fits the bill for this. I also like various sorts of complex carbohydrate granola bars. If you were able to plan on getting stuck in traffic, what would you like to have to tide you over?

  1. Start With Salad

If fast food restaurants are really your only option, start your meal with a salad. This will give you a greater sense of feeling full without loading up on hallow calories. Consider unsweetened iced tea or water for your beverage. The amount of sugar found in soft drinks is enormous. They quickly raise blood sugars, and then you crash with lower blood sugars.

  1. Grocery Stores

Grocery stores are surprisingly good options for eating on the run. We’re not talking about stopping at the deli counter and getting deep-fried chicken strips. You can get meat and cheese at the same deli counter. The rest of the store has yogurt, pre-washed salads and vegetables, and prepared or fresh fruit. Some gas station mini-markets are also starting to carry some of the same things.

  1. Snacks With You

It is easy to get into a pattern of the daily shopping for snacks with friends or coworkers. Keep some of the snacks in your drawer or in your backpack. At my office, I keep Ryvitas and peanut butter, rice cakes, muesli, pretzels, and mixed nuts. In the refrigerator, I keep string cheese, yogurt, and fruit. These can provide a backup meal as well as options for those in-between snacks. They can be kept readily in a backpack if you spend a day at school or in a small cooler in the back of your car.

  1. Keep Water Handy

Keep bottled water or a bottle to fill at the drinking fountain for water. I like to keep this in my car as well. It’s easy to mistake dehydration for hunger.

  1. Go For Protein

Fast food restaurants are starting to have more options of fruit and salads. You also have better choices in terms of grilled chicken as opposed to deep-fried, crispy chicken. These are better calorie choices and ways of getting the necessary protein load. Be mindful of portion control. A good homework assignment for everybody would be to watch the movie Supersize Me. This is a truly eye-opening expose on how the fast food industry is helping us slide down the path of obesity.

  1. Every Three Hours

Be mindful of eating something at three-hour intervals. A complex carbohydrate and protein boost will definitely increase mental acuity. It will also provide you with more energy. How much should you eat? A portion size somewhat smaller than your fist is generally the right amount. Keep in mind the notion of volume/caloric density. With things that are calorie-dense, you need to eat far less of them. A good handful of mixed nuts packs significant protein and may be enough for a good boost.

The brain doesn’t store glucose so we have to eat right to convert the food we eat to glucose to feed our brains. For those of us with ADHD, it’s event more important. Try these strategies for eating to get the maximum return from what we eat to keep our brains fueled and operating around the clock.

About the Author


*George H. Glade, MC, MN, ARNP, was named one of Seattle’s Top Doctors and Nurses in Seattle Metropolitan Magazine in 2012. Glade is a Member of the Board of Directors of ADD Resources and is the author of Eating for Cognitive Performance and The Stimulus Driven Brain: The Essential Guide for the ADD/ADHD College Student. Currently, he is developing the Coaching Access Project, which is due to be released in late 2015.

Reviewed by ADDR 5-31-2015 (mm)

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