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Ask HN: What foods do you eat to optimise brain function/problem solving skills?
40 points by zabana on Mar 1, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

Your diet is only part of the equation.

Diet, sleep, and exercise are needed in combination. The highest performers across many professions tend to sleep the most. Exercise helps make better use of the foods you are eating and produces the hormones you need to think clearly.

As for supplements to help, examine.com has a bounty of information: https://examine.com/topics/Cognition/

> Diet, sleep, and exercise are needed in combination

This cannot be stressed enough. I have started to sleep at least 7.5 hours each day. But most of the days it is proving to be difficult and I am able to complete only 6 hours. Still having a routine comfortable sleep has worked wonders for my mood and productivity.

For me, cutting coffee helped me to sleep better and be less anxious.

If you have trouble sleeping, try going cold turkey on coffee. It will suck for a couple of days, but you'll feel better.

Alternatively, set yourself a cutoff time of day for when you stop drinking. My girlfriend can drink coffee an hour before bed, but I need to take my last sip at least 8 hours before.

Perhaps this is well known but I discovered this only two weeks ago - you can buy yellow-tinted glasses to block blue light. I wear them for an hour or so before bed (which my partner mocks me for) but it really seems to help me get to sleep. I'm not sure if that's the placebo effect of course but it does seem to work.

Every computer or phone I own has a screen display filter to rid those blues. Really helps reduce the artificial stimulation for me.

Once you get used to it, turn it back on sometime temporarily. It's incredibly blinding.

My tip: A short "siesta" (Nap in Spanish) after lunch is a time proven way to reset the system for a productive afternoon.

How do you avoid the mid afternoon slump? My afternoon are pretty much a write-off until the early evening. I have tried avoiding carbs and sugars for lunch and have a pretty good bowl of oats for breakfast. Ive just come to accept that its my Circadian rhythm and such plan my productive hours around the early mornings.

I switched to drinking tea instead of coffee, all day long. For the most part, I've noticed that I don't experience the afternoon slump as much. On the occasions that I do, a half cup of coffee usually overcomes it.

I've also experimented with intermittent fasting, only eating between noon and 8pm. That also, for me, helped eliminate the slump.

For me, it used to be bad. Watery eyes, lack of focus, nodding off while staring at the screen.

After I started morning exercise, I almost never get the afternoon doldrums, and if I do, it can be attributed to either poor sleep or poor diet. I feel solidly productive for the entire day now; though on lazy weekends, I'll take a solid long nap.

For more context, at a minimum I do 3 days of CrossFit at a competitive gym (meaning it can be a bit more than what you would typically find for that kind of exercise programming), normally at 5:30am. Food typically starts off with overnight oats and/or eggs, bacon, spinach, cottage cheese, and the like. Lunch bounces around, but often includes salad and/or rice and some meat. Dinner is usually similar but of better quality compared to lunch. And I try to be asleep before 9pm.

Snacking (or binging) on junk foods or lack of good sleep can sometimes bring afternoon slumps, but not very often. If those do hit, working from a different spot helps. Maybe standing instead of sitting, working from a couch instead of a desk, or working in the kitchen with coworkers milling around.

Oats are mostly starch, starch is how plants store sugar. A bowl of oats has a fairly high GI score.

Nothing beats a short nap after lunch to let the body (and mind) reset the system for a great afternoon. Many companies now days have special nap rooms, with mats and blankies. :)

I've taken to simply sitting with my eyes closed for ~10 minutes around 2-ish. It's a very pronounced feeling of shedding all the accumulated 'cruft' on my brain from the morning's work. I also plan less 'smart work' in the afternoon, so things like catching up on email or reading literature/learning.

Improving insulin sensitivity will help. Also look into the benefits of apple cider vinegar.

Don't eat pizzas or anything with too much carbs for lunch, never ever. If you did try eating half a teaspoon of cinnamon. (google cinnamon and sugar processing).

What foods are good to improve insulin sensitivity?

Resistant starch. I take Hi-Maize mixed straight into a glass of water. https://www.selfhacked.com/blog/resistant2-resistant-starch-...

Does instant custard work? Or is it special corn starch?

In addition, I take a b6 vitamin along with zinc and magnesium.

Eat less for lunch.

Especially anything sugary.

Make sure you are not diabetic. During diabetes and pre-diabetes blood sugar is higher than normal, even when fasting, more so when snacking. And high blood sugar does cause "brain fog".

Fasting, done right, can also improve mental clarity.

A ketogenic diet combined with intermittent fasting has put my brain into serious overdrive for the last 2 months. I also get better sleep and have much higher levels of energy (and constant throughout the day, too).

Congrats on the lifestyle change! Were you overeating before?

I've heard a lot of anecdotal stuff about keto and magical side effects, but I really wonder if it's effects are from losing weight/eating a better balanced diet. In my experience it's really easy to overeat with carbs. Sugar in particular gives me crazy cravings.

No, I wasn't. This is part of a progression I started 2 years ago. I was a hardcore case of skinny-fat ever since I was a kid. In other words, my BMI has always been normal, although my body fat % was probably through the roof (small frame, no muscle at all, quite a bit of fat).

First I started a "future food" liquid diet (Queal) together with running 5K 3 times a week. The change in diet (I was eating mostly precooked and fast-food) and the exercise worked pretty well.

Then I switched to other future food providers, but I was finding it difficult to gain muscle while not gaining fat. As it turns out, it's all in the macros. Most Soylent-like products are catered towards sedentary people who come from very crappy diets, or who don't mind having a less-than-ideal diet for convenience.

At one point I was already almost doing my own DIY powders (using one commercial brand as a base and adding my own fat and protein, to keep the carbs low). Then, after 3 or 4 months reading and researching the ketogenic diet, I decided to go all in and start my own DIY ketogenic powdered food diet.

I enjoy tinkering with pretty much everything, so coming up with a proper formula and tweaking it was and still is an amazing experience for me.

I encourage you to at least give keto a try. It's true that "whole food" keto is a bit hard, and it's also hard to keep track of all the micronutrients you need and where to get them. Either way, the benefits are incredible.

Apologies for the lengthy response.

Edit: Oh, sorry for not addressing one of your points. Actually, the amazing increase in brain function is felt quite early into the diet, when no weight loss (other than water encased in glycogen) has happened yet.

I've always been fascinated by things like Soylent, prepackaged food is so much easier but is either insanely expensive or insanely unhealthy. How cost effective is your DIY powder? My main turn off of keto is the higher grocery bills... carbs are so much cheaper.

>I was finding it difficult to gain muscle while not gaining fat.

If you're doing some kind of strength program, once you squeeze out your noob gains your progress will stall pretty hard unless you're eating a caloric surplus. It's an insanely frustrating dilemma: do I want to get stronger and fatter or lose some weight and get more muscle definition?

I am eating a calorie surplus* and losing body fat in the process. Keto + IF means my body is fasted / burning fat N hours a day, and spends the other 24-N repairing and building new tissue. My body of course prefers to burn fat during the fasted period as I have no serum insulin, so there is no catabolism of muscle to provide energy. In other words, calorie counting alone is pretty much useless.

Regarding my DIY, it's around 90 €/month for 2000 kcal with 90 g protein, 28 g fiber and all micronutrients covered. Of course, I'm from Spain, where EVOO is dirt cheap, and it accounts for all of my non-protein calories.

*: Or, rather, not a deficit. Calorie deficit/surplus stops making sense once you take hormone regulation and fasted/fed state into account.

It's not something I eat regularly, but I have heard (probably posted on HN) that turmeric can help improve brain function/memory.


I'm experimenting on this lately. Currently, I'm trying to eat lots of nuts, like 100g+/day. Seems more healthy than taking vitamin pills etc. I've put together a table comparing nutrition info on some nuts. I've also done blood tests and my mineral levels (iron, zink) did go up.

I do feel more energetic when doing sports. Not sure about my brain yet. :D


Costco recession special, ie, hotdog and soda with sauerkraut $1.50. Puts one in the happy place for afternoon coding.

Even better if I bike to/from but the greenway isn't ready yet so it can get real muddy.

Costco lost my business ever since they discontinued the (apparently Chicago area-only) $1.50 bratwursts. I know the hotdogs are technically probably as good a deal in terms of protein and calories, but they are a mere shadow of what once was...

Always interesting to find 'local-only' chain things. For what it's worth, I think the brats are at the Milwaukee and Green Bay Costcos as well.

Well, you can get a whole package of bratwurst for maybe 3 dollars, so there's that.

...then I'd have to actually buy a membership (you can get in to the cafe without one). So I guess they never really had my business :p

I like to start the day with an enormous breakfast of proteins and fats with zero carbs that come from anywhere but green vegetables.

Growing up with American public school lunches, I never really became a lunch person. I just let breakfast carry me to dinner. Avoiding grains and sugars allows my blood sugar (and thus insulin) levels to stay constant throughout the day. I’ve found that if I spike blood sugar with grains and sugars I tend to be generally unproductive after I eat, and barely productive at all when I get the inevitable sugar crash.

I optimize for good stable long term mental function, not temporary boosts. It works for me.

My overall philosophy, divided by macronutrient:

* Lots of high quality protein (grass fed beef, free range chicken, tempeh, etc)

* Minimize high GI (glycemic index, meaning it spikes blood sugar and insulin) carbs

* Healthy fats (avocados, flax seed oil, etc)

Raw almonds are a good example of 2 & 3 combined

I'm not perfect but it takes a while to develop habits and I've gotten into a good habit.

Disclaimer: Not a doctor or in any medical profession, my opinion is formed from just general articles and (probably false) points I have generally read.

A few simple points I normally follow:

* Food takes energy to digest. Don't eat a lot just before you need to think, have a small snack instead. In general, smart your day with a small amount of food. If you eat lots for one single meal, assume you will need time to recover.

* Sugar brings you up fast, brings you down faster. If you do have sugar, caffeine seems to be good for keeping you up a while. Carbohydrates can also help keep you up for a while.

* Caffeine is generally good, but make sure to decaffeinate to bring down your tolerance occasionally.

* Protein seems to generally be good for brain growth and maintenance.

* Fats in small quantities are apparently needed for neural connections, but those can be got in many forms.

* Iron to prevent anemia (which a surprising number of people have).

In general, stuff that is good for the rest of the body tends to be good for the mind.

I'll reply to your points one by one:

* Postpandrial crashes are insulin-blood sugar crashes. Just keep the glycemic load in check and you're good to go.

* Carbohydrates can also make you crash hard afterwards. Unless you start snowballing them, but that's a horrible idea.

* Effects similar to that of caffeine can be obtained without having to resort to psychoactive drugs. Meditation, for one, can have a tremendous effect on focus.

* Brain growth? What is that?

* Some fatty acids are essential for survival as we cannot synthesize them ourselves. Also, why small quantities? Dietary fat is generally by no means a bad thing.

* Exactly. And I'd go further and add some electrolytes and other vitamins, too.

Edit: I'm also not a doctor nor a medical professional and this is all based on opinion, papers I've read and personal experience.

Thanks for the reply, I'll reply to the points here:

>* Postpandrial crashes are insulin-blood sugar crashes. Just keep the glycemic load in check and you're good to go.

Not had much success with this, but not experimented with it too much either. What would be an example where you do this?

>* Carbohydrates can also make you crash hard afterwards. Unless you start snowballing them, but that's a horrible idea.

I had foods like pasta/rice and bananas in mind. I think some high carb foods do act as you say, but generally in small proportions they tend to be beneficial. I think you only get a hard crash (like sugar) when you have too much.

>* Effects similar to that of caffeine can be obtained without having to resort to psychoactive drugs. Meditation, for one, can have a tremendous effect on focus.

I found meditation completely ineffective, but I already have my own form of reducing stress and putting everything into perspective.

Also, there have been plenty of studies done showing that caffeine in general has a net benefit. Other than people with existing heart issues, sensible consumption of caffeine tends to have a net benefit.

>* Brain growth? What is that?

I'm still relatively young and my reasoning is that I haven't stopped growing yet as far as I know, or at least my brain needs to replace this stuff when new connections are made. It's also generally good for every other part of your body.



>* Some fatty acids are essential for survival as we cannot synthesize them ourselves. Also, why small quantities? Dietary fat is generally by no means a bad thing.

I agree, but I think it's easy to have too much in a diet.

>* Exactly. And I'd go further and add some electrolytes and other vitamins, too.

My assumption is that most people are eating enough mixture of foods to get this stuff anyway. If someone was running low on a vitamin, I think it's more beneficial to eat an associated food.

Iron seems to generally be low for a lot of people from speaking to doctors, a lot of people are anemic and not even aware. Of course, eating green vegetables is a great way to get iron.

>Edit: I'm also not a doctor nor a medical professional and this is all based on opinion, papers I've read and personal experience.


> make sure to decaffeinate to bring down your tolerance occasionally.

That's the hard part. When I quit my daily coffee habit, I didn't even go cold turkey. I switched to tea. I still had a constant headache and nausea for two days.

Yeah it's tough, try bringing yourself down over a week with weaker and weaker coffees. It took a long time for me to properly recuperate but worth it.

Colorful Salads and Fruits, will start paying off after 2 days or so.

But don't eat until you are "really" full, stop 3 bites after you are not feeling hungry.

I like -and it is proven to be more healthy- to always keep food with me, and not eat just 3 BIG meals, but many small ones

Also Fasting in the the correct timing helps mental attention and clarity

In many primitive cultures certain chemicals were used. "modern" society has many subcultures that still continue to do so however.

Eg https://qualiacomputing.com/2016/12/12/the-hyperbolic-geomet...

Caffeine/tobacco are some modern less "powerful" ones.

The original Budwig Protocol is great for the brain. It's simply quark cheese and flax seed oil. It's important to keep in mind the flax seed oil needs to as fresh as possible because it gets rancid very quickly. At best buy you own press, the seeds cost next to nothing and you'll have the best quality flax seed oil on demand. Works fantastic against acidosis.

What worked for me is using 'smart drugs' to help my mind in critical periods. I experienced with a couple of offerings, but weirdly 'Lion’s Mane' and 'Cordyceps' mushrooms were the best. Your mileage may vary.

It’s most useful to think of all inputs (food, air, smells, visual and auditory information) the same way we think about food: they require digestion, they have a very practical impact, and the experience of consuming it is as or more important than what the thing actually is.

Along these lines, I maximize my productivity by paying most attention to my digital consumption, and avoiding the toxic, addictive, digital foods. Staying off of threads like this one is really, really useful. It’s far more useful than my diet of fresh fish, nuts, and other fatty foods alongside vegetables, legumes, and whole grains that are in all honesty less important than the company I enjoy the meal with.

The what is so much less important than the how.

In addition to whatever foods are most nutritious, how about what not to eat?

Sugar and caffeine both have a rebound effect, that big (tasty) sandwich and resulting afternoon hangover, etc.

short term: anything with glucose or caffeine

long term: varied but balanced diet (diversified portfolio strategy), the body likely takes care of all the messy details

Many others here mention sleep and exercise. Hydration should also be considered. I would strongly be in favor is someone suggested a causal link between quality of life and brain functioning. Just look at how long it takes you to die without {air, water, food, sleep, mobility, social interaction} and weigh their importance accordingly.

Is there objective evidence published in the scientific literature to suggest that the foods you eat impact your problem solving skills on a day-to-day basis?

A quick search yields this, for example: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S152550501...

That is in patients with refractory epilepsy, for which the ketogenic diet is a therapy.

And an improvement in productivity was a side-effect of said therapy. I fail to see your point.


The latter: https://xkcd.com/323/

Smart food. Justkidding, but having enough protein and staying hydrated greatly increases my ability to stay focused.

The bottomless bowl of Peanut M&Ms I keep within arms reach.

Whole plants, mostly starchy complex carbohydrates and legumes.

Whipped cream. 2.5dl instead of lunch

Is that.. decilitres?

Human pineal gland extract.

dark chocolate (I recommend 85% cocoa or more)

Brain Octane Oil by Bulletproof


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