Brain Fuel: Food for Healthy Minds!

April 5th, 2013 at 8:08 am
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About two weeks ago, I jumped back into the world of textbooks, tests, flashcards, and vocabulary lessons because…I’m studying personal exercise training! Kind of exciting and something I never thought I would do. I never used to be interested in exercise, but since finding my path to good health and lasting energy through eating well, exercise has become an integral part of my life. So I’m excited to take the next step and really dive into the nuts and bolts of exercise physiology.


All this studying takes BRAIN POWER! After just an hour or two of studying, I can tell how much my brain is out of shape academically. It’s been years since I did any type of “textbook studying,” and I can feel it!

Which got me thinking about brain fuel.

Chances are, if you’re doing nothing except sitting or standing and reading this post right now, you don’t think you’re working very hard. Your body is at a relative state of rest. But without you even realizing it, your brain is actually hard at work triggering muscles to contract, your heart to pump, your hormones to fire, and so much more.

Now pretend for a minute that you’re not reading this post and instead you’re doing something much more mentally taxing, like crunching numbers, helping your kid with their chemistry assignment, doing something really techie on the web, entering tedious details into a spreadsheet, writing a book, learning a foreign language, rehearsing a speech, or memorizing a monologue.

Add to any one of these tasks all of the other things your brain does daily (triggering those muscles to contract, that heart to pump, those hormones to fire), and you’ve got yourself one busy and hard-working body part!

Our brains demand high quality fuel in order to work optimally. What we eat fuels every cell in our body, including the cells of our neurological system. When we eat refined sugar and carbohydrates (three bowls of unsatisfying cereal for breakfast, donuts at the office, pizza for lunch, fast food on the run for dinner, and soda mixed in throughout the day), we’re setting our brains up for functional failure. It’s no wonder we’re “fried” by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Where’s the high quality fuel?!

If you want to be sharp and stay sharp well into your old age, fueling up with nutrient dense energy sources is one of your best strategies (especially if you’re studying!). Skip the junk food. It’s doing nothing for you (except maybe adding to that stubborn waistline bulge). Fuel your brain with these healthy options instead:


Approximately 60-70% of human brain cells are lipid cells. What does that mean? In short, 60-70% (or more) of your brain is made up of fat! When you eat fat, your body breaks it down into chains of fatty acids which are then used as the raw materials to build the fats needed for various cells. Bear in mind, though, that both plants and animals alike store toxins in their fat cells. So if you’re eating low quality oils from GMO, pesticide-treated plants or factory-farmed, grain-fed animals, the quality of your fat will be very low and potentially very toxic as well, because you’re eating all the toxins stored in the plant or animal.

All the more reason to fuel that brain with clean sources of healthy fat, such as…

  • Avocados
  • Raw almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds (choose organic options when you can)
  • Whole eggs (preferably from pasture-raised, grass-eating hens)…and yes, eat the yolk. (For more on eggs/cholesterol and their role in heart disease, I highly recommend this book.)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Virgin or extra-virgin coconut oil
  • Sustainably-harvested cold-water fatty fish (wild salmon, sardines, mackerel)
  • Pasture-raised meat and poultry (mostly protein, but also contains some fat)


Have you ever been in the middle of a big research project or writing assignment and finally stopped to notice that you felt completely famished? Chances are you didn’t crave a piece of fruit or slice of toast. You probably craved a juicy burger, creamy milkshake or scoop of ice cream, or maybe even a few fistfuls of your favorite trail mix. See the trend here? Your brain is naturally crying out for fat when it’s working hard.

By pairing your fat with some healthy carbohydrates, you’ll get almost instant energy along with enduring hunger-kicking power. So let’s talk about those carbs…


While healthy fat is where it’s at when it comes to satisfying brain fuel, carbohydrates also play a helpful role. The body burns carbs as a quick energy source when needed. Choose carbs that are as close to nature as possible and as minimally refined as possible. My rule of thumb is if I can’t picture the food growing in nature, I don’t eat it. Options might include:

  • Fresh fruit (apples, pears, berries, peaches, plums, bananas…)
  • Small amounts of dried fruit (it’s easy to overdo dried fruit, so go with just a tablespoon or two per serving)
  • Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes and winter squash if in season


So we’ve talked about fat and we’ve talked about carbs. Doesn’t protein play a role? Why yes. I thought you’d never ask.


If you find yourself frequently experiencing brain fog, mental fatigue, crankiness, irritability, mood swings, and low energy, lack of protein in your diet could very well be to blame. Whether it comes from plants or animals, protein is an absolutely essential macronutrient that is critical in the construction and function of all of our cells.

I like eating a source of protein at my meals (especially breakfast for brain sustenance!), but you can work it into your snacks as well if you feel like you could be protein deficient. Remember, when it comes to animal protein, quality is far more important than quantity. It’s far better for you to eat 2-3 ounces of grass-fed meat or poultry than 8 ounces of a grain-fed, hormone-injected animal raised inhumanely. I eat a very plant-heavy diet with small amounts of protein, which is not only good for my health, it’s also a little less expensive.

Brain-boosting protein options:

  • Pasture-raised meat, poultry, and whole eggs
  • Wild-caught, sustainably harvested seafood (wild salmon, halibut, sardines, mackerel)
  • Nuts and seeds (not super high in protein, but a good plant-based option)
  • Beans and legumes (for vegetarians/vegans, but can be difficult to digest even if soaked and sprouted, so only eat them if they agree with you!)


What about protein powder?

Protein powder is one of those love it or hate it ingredients. People either can’t live without it (and rely a little bit too much on it in my opinion), or they can’t stand the stuff. If you decide to incorporate protein powder into your diet, make sure you’re choosing a very clean product with no additives, fillers, hard to pronounce ingredients, or sugar. Also check with the company to ensure that the quality of the protein is very high. Since protein powder is a concentrated, isolated nutrient, you want to make sure you’re getting the very best quality. (And if you find that protein powder gives you an upset stomach or some other side effect, please stop using it! There are plenty of other protein sources out there, so it’s not absolutely essential.)

Healthy Snacks for Brain Power

So in light of all this, what does a healthy brain-boosting snack look like? Well, when I’ve got my head in a textbook for a few hours and come up for air famished and tired, here’s what I reach for:

  • Piece of fruit with nut/seed butter, nuts/seeds, or a smear of avocado and cinnamon
  • Half an avocado with sea salt and honey
  • A few raisins or dried apricots with nuts or seeds or almond crackers
  • Half a can of wild-caught Pacific salmon or sardines mashed with mustard, carrot or celery sticks
  • A scrambled egg or two cooked in coconut oil
  • Smoothie with berries, avocado, coconut milk, and spinach
  • And sometimes…a super healthy cookie (or two)


As I continue to study exercise and also keep up with work, there’s no doubt that I’m going to need a lot of healthy fuel in the next few months to keep my brain sharp as a tack!

What are your go-to brain boosting meals and snacks?


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  1. Thanks for such a complete post. We think so much about being green and sustainable, yet we don’t translate to ourselves. What you have describe is a great reminder how important it is to think about long term body sustainability, not only in exercise but in our daily diets. What we are fueling with will affect my cells not only today but tomorrow. Thanks – great post!

  2. Thanks for this very informative post. I am sending it to my my son who is in his last weeks of the semester studying computer science at Brown. I wish I could send him a care package with everything you mentioned in it.

  3. Love this perspective of what fuel your brain needs! I guess it is like any other part of your body – when it is working hard, it needs more nourishment!

  4. I totally agree with you on all of this. I go weekly to a fantastic butcher just to get the best grass-fed meat possible…it tastes SO much better, and it’s so much better for you. Mmm…and an avocado with sea salt and honey…that seems like an intriguing combination!

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