OK, let’s cut through the bee-ess. There’s no such thing as a “brain food,” if by that we mean something that will make you smarter. There aren’t Hemingwayberries or Richard Powers Grains or Sell Like Sebold Shakes. You’re already smart – smart enough to be skeptical. But the foods I’m going to describe help promote mental focus, a good, healthy energy, and most importantly, the function of your mitochondria, and thus, all of your body’s cells. I like to think of eating certain foods as a matter of not eating the wrong foods. You’re going to eat something, and these foods are the ones that will keep you from getting drowsy or lethargic as you polish your sterling prose.
Have you been feeling oxidant lately? You know, restrained, heavy, lacking energy? This may come from free radicals, which are caused by a reaction between some molecules and oxygen. In short, free radicals cause cell damage. With damaged cells, you do not feel well, and the defense is foods rich in antioxidants. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, pomegranates, and dark chocolate top the list of brain food here. Jamie Gold, who won the World Series of Poker Main Event in 2006, has been seen on TV numerous times eating a bowl of blueberries at the table, a far cry from chips or burgers preferred by his no-bracelet-having competitors. Below, I’ll give a link to hemp smoothies that can include all the antioxidant-rich berries. As for the dark chocolate—not milk chocolate—but chocolate that is 72% cacao or higher (I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything over 85%), my strategy is this: when I can’t find anything smaller than bars the size of those dogs all the celebutantes were toting in 2007, I break off just a little and leave the rest in my car. That way, if I lose self-control and walk out there for a fix, I’m at least getting a little exercise.
Easy on the Blood Sugar
Blood sugar is a pretty big issue, even if you’re not particularly sensitive to wild swings. The reason most people can’t do “brain work” within forty minutes of a meal is that their blood sugar is slamming into a ceiling and bouncing back down from all the carbs. Sugary foods, and simple carbs like white rice, potatoes, and bread not made from whole grains, are the biggest enemies. You may have time in your budget to wait while these foods go through their motions, but if you don’t, you need something you can eat at the keyboard without slowing down. (Also, healthy food is better brain food. What’s good for your physical life is good for your mental life). Grains like quinoa (it’s pronounced keen-wa, which is worth a loud verbalization even if you never ingest the stuff), barley, and couscous will keep your brainwaves steady rather than spiky. Flatbreads or crackers filled with barley, spelt, kamut, and buckwheat are good because they are low-glycemic, healthful, and low in or free from glutens, which means they digest easily. Buckwheat, that freak of nature, is not a wheat at all—it’s related to rhubarb. That means that buckwheat pancakes and muffins, which I eat all the time, are low-carb and gluten free. They’re not carb-free, but they’re lower on the glycemic index than whole wheat. Brown rice and beans are a great combo, both digesting in a way that usually makes me feel I can jump right into either reading or writing without fearing I’ll be knocked out. If you hate the taste of brown rice (even after using lemons, herbs, garlic, etc.), then white rice might work, but blood sugar spikes may do you in. Brown rice cakes are a great vehicle—you may try pureeing the beans in a food processor with some olive oil, lemon, and seasonings of your choice.
Seeds that sound like they should not be food
As we get into the section that sounds like it’s for people who carefully select the right kind of running shoe, let me make a point that is probably important since I’m writing to other writers. You know that one stereotypical writer, the guy in the fedora with cigarette smoke swirling over his head, a glass of straight whiskey his faithful companion? I’d love to be that guy. I would love to be that guy and not suffer from acid-reflux, not feel lousy and not be unproductive. If you are that guy or girl, and it works, what can I say? But please don’t think that good writing is caused by a diet meant to cause misery and angst. Eating brain food like nuts and grains and berries will not stop you from writing about Human Existence As Train Wreck. I know this only too well. A clear head and popping mitochondria (which fuel your cells) will only help you explore everything dark and brutally true. So, seeds. If you’ve ever heard of people eating chia seeds and wondered if those are anything like the things sold as Chia Pets in the 80’s, they are the very same thing. I am recommending you eat the thing you spread on the ceramic ewe (or whatever it was) to make it sprout. They taste just fine and have allowed me to write this article without pausing, standing, flinching or blinking. Chia seeds, perhaps cynically marketed as the food of the Aztec Warrior, are as nutrient-dense as anything dieticians have stumbled upon. They are good for Omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with good cognitive function. They contain a type of fatty acid called alpha-linolelic acid, which I hypothesize is a culprit in the focused, energized feeling I get from the seeds. Incidentally, supplements of alpha-lipoic acid, a powerful antioxidant I take to fight insulin-resistance, have given me a near-religious experience in which my concentration levels seemed pretty close to what I’ve heard Buddhists and Hindus describe in connection with sustained meditation. Anyway, flax seeds also contain alpha-linolelic acid, and are recommended by all doctors, always. Hemp seeds, available at your high-end market or health food store, are really beneficial for entertainment value if your mom or dad will think they’re a form of marijuana, and are also full of everything flax and chias are. An easy snack or small lunch or breakfast for writers is a hemp smoothie or some variant. I include chia seeds as much as my budget will allow. Alternatively (and if you don’t have a blender), a little bowl of chia, flax and hemp seeds steeped in milk or kefir (which is a drinkable form of probiotic-loaded Greek yogurt) is a weird, good breakfast.
Salmon and Kale
Salmon has to have the best fullness-to-calories-ratio this side of legumes. More to the point, it’s a great source of Omega-3’s. If your poaching technique is rusty, oil it up and have salmon twice a week, budget permitting. Kale, palatable raw only for a hardcore health nut, mellows out with cooking. Simply poach it in chicken or veggie stock with some olive oil until it’s to desired tenderness. It’s hardy and substantive, which means you may feel good after a meal of it and 4 ounces of salmon, with no need for a grain. You can also find recipes for salty-oily kale chips, which are like potato chips except for not having a taste or texture anything like them (they’re just salty and if baked right, crunchy). Kale is effectively a multi-vitamin you can put in soup. Also, try mixing it with spinach, wilting in a pan, mixing in some heavily-seasoned Greek yogurt, and throwing into a whole-wheat tortilla. Brown on both sides. Kale isn’t necessarily a brain food per se, except that it makes you feel good in general, and that allows the brain to do its work. None of these foods, if you ask me, is some sort of super-potion (except alpha-lipoic acid supplements, but I’m not a doctor, so don’t take pills solely on my advice). What they all do is fuel your body and mind toward their proper function. If you’re a writer, you’re smart, so having peak-performance mitochondria, an even blood-sugar level, and a healthy complement of key vitamins should clear the way for you to do what you do best.