5 Foods To Avoid If You Want To Improve Your Focus And Concentration

Coffee may have the opposite impact on your focus as what you intended.
Coffee may have the opposite impact on your focus as what you intended. Getty Images

ADHD aside, sometimes concentrating long enough to finish a work or school task feels impossible. You sit down at your computer with the best of intentions only to end up toggling between 10 different tabs because your focus is anywhere except on the task at hand.

Anxiety, depression, not getting enough sleep and boredom can all cause trouble concentrating. But diet can also play a role. When it comes to this connection, registered dietitian Yaa Boakyetold HuffPost, “It’s important to remember that individuals have different reactions to food and could be dealing with underlying health conditions.”

With that disclaimer in place, there are some foods and drinks that scientific research shows can really mess with your concentration. Here, doctors and dietitians reveal the biggest culprits.

1. Pastries And White Bread

If you have a big muffin or slice of toasted white bread for breakfast, you aren’t exactly starting the day with brain food. Neurologist Dr. Arif Dalvi shared that simple carbs — like the aforementioned examples — can lead to a blood sugar spike, which in turn can cause trouble concentrating. Boakye agreed, explaining that when blood sugar is too high or too low, it can cause trouble concentrating, and simple carbs can jump-start this unfortunate roller coaster. 

Boakye explained that while glucose — a type of carbohydrate — provides energy to brain cells, when glucose is absorbed in the bloodstream quickly (which is what happens when you eat foods like pastries and white bread) it creates a blood sugar imbalance. Scientific research shows that a side effect of this imbalance is … yep, trouble concentrating.  

Here’s the good news: Boakye says you can still enjoy pastries and bread without worrying if they’re going to get in the way of your productivity as long as you pair them with a healthy fat and protein source. “Healthy fats and proteins mitigate the extreme effects simple carbohydrates can have on blood sugar,” she said. So pair your pastry or toast with some avocado and smoked salmon and you’ll be good to go.

2. Very Salty Foods

Blood sugar levels aren’t the only thing that can cause trouble concentrating. Dalvi shared that salty foods can, too. That means if you have instant soup, french fries, potato chips, or a sandwich with cold cuts for lunch, you might struggle to power through the afternoon. Foods high in salt “can trigger an electrolyte imbalance,” he explained. When this happens, it causes inflammation in the brain, which can interfere with short-term memory and concentration.

To avoid this from happening, stick to consuming less than 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day and remember it can creep up in surprising places, like salad dressings, condiments and processed cheese.

Your bowl of canned soup may contain enough sodium to affect your concentration.
Your bowl of canned soup may contain enough sodium to affect your concentration. Monalyn Gracia/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

3. Soda And Sugary Drinks

Some people reach for a can of soda for a jolt of energy, but the doctors and dietitians we spoke to all said this is one drink that’s bound to backfire in the concentration department. That is because it impacts the brain similarly to eating pastries, white bread and other simple carbs. 

“Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and juice can cause rapid increases in blood sugar, followed by a decline in blood sugar. So while these drinks initially flood the brain with glucose, which theoretically would aid in concentration, the subsequent sugar crash negates this brief benefit and actually makes it harder for us to maintain focused concentration,” said registered dietitian Claire Rifkin.

If you want what you’re sipping on to work for you and not against you in the brainpower department, Dalvi says not to overlook regular old H2O. Fun fact: Water accounts for 75% of brain mass. “When you’re dehydrated, you’re disrupting the electrolyte balance in the body as a whole, including within brain neurons, so not staying well-hydrated can certainly affect your concentration,” Dalvi said. Even being just 2% dehydrated can negatively impact brain function. To keep your concentration up, aim to drink between 11.5 and 15.5 cups a day, depending on your gender and activity levels. 

4. Coffee

Coffee is another drink many people turn to — even depend on — for brainpower, but Dalvi and Boakye both say that too much can make concentrating worse. “There’s certainly a U-shaped curve with coffee. If you drink a little bit, it can make you more alert, but if you keep drinking more and more of it, the benefits fade,” Dalvi said, noting this is because too much caffeine can make someone feel jittery or anxious. 

Boakye said it’s important to remember that caffeine affects people differently. For some people, even a small amount of coffee can cause them to become jittery, which can then cause them to have trouble concentrating.

5. Foods You Are Intolerant Or Sensitive To

If you’re eating anything that’s causing you to experience gastrointestinal issues, all the doctors and dietitians interviewed said that is bound to mess with your concentration. After all, dealing with diarrhea is pretty distracting. 

Dr. Kevin Cooke, an internal medicine doctor at Aviv Clinics, told HuffPost that one common culprit is dairy. “When someone with a dairy intolerance consumes dairy products, it can trigger an inflammatory response in the body. This inflammation may affect cognitive functions, leading to symptoms commonly associated with brain fog such as difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness and confusion,” he said.

If you experience gastrointestinal issues frequently and have a hunch that it’s food related but aren’t sure what the cause is, Dalvi recommends keeping a food diary, logging what you eat and how you feel afterward, including mentally.

When it comes to diet and brainpower, Rifkin and Boakye emphasize that maintaining a balanced diet is key. This, both explained, will help prevent the blood sugar ups and downs that can come with just eating simple carbs and also ensure the brain is getting enough nutrients to function. 

Dalvi added to this, saying that brain cells need energy to function just like the rest of the body does. When you don’t get the nutrients you need, you’re bound to have trouble concentrating. So if you’re hungry, eat! Just make sure it isn’t something loaded with sugar or salt, or something that will give you tummy troubles. That way, your food really does serve as brain fuel and not something that will slow you down.