• Published June 17, 2024
  • 8 Minute Read

Foods & Habits That Fuel Your Brain Health

Adjusting the foods you choose and adopting healthy lifestyle habits can help you fuel your brain and perform at your best so you reach your full potential — as a person, and as a leader.
Published June 17, 2024
Older Caucasian woman making smoothie in kitchen as she considers how to boost brain health and leadership effectiveness

The Keys to Boosting Brain Health

When most of us think about the effects of our eating and lifestyle habits, we consider how certain foods help us slim down or bulk up, make us hungry for more, or leave us satisfied. But have you thought about foods and habits that fuel your brain and boost its health?

The brain is a blood-, glucose-, and oxygen-hungry organ. It requires 15% of our total cardiac output, 20% of our total oxygen consumption, and 25% of our total glucose use. The circulatory system is essential to maintaining good brain function. Factors that improve blood supply help the brain; conversely, factors that impair blood flow hurt the brain.

The brain is also a fatty organ, meaning it’s susceptible to the ravages of oxidative stress and inflammation. Food, sleep, and stress all play a role in helping or hurting the reduction of oxidative stress and inflammation. Your brain health is also linked to your overall health. And good health and leadership are connected, too, as health is key for effective leadership.

So what can you start doing now to improve how you fuel your brain to improve its function?

How to Use Food to Fuel Your Brain

Eat More Unprocessed Foods & Plant Foods

All plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and spices, make chemical compounds that enhance a plant’s ability to survive. When we consume plants, these compounds aid in combating oxidative stress and inflammation.

Some of the plant foods studied most for their positive effect on brain health include:

  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Grapes
  • Blackberries
  • Walnuts
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Green tea
  • Turmeric
  • Saffron

All of these have been shown to have beneficial effects, such as improving working memory, staving off or reversing cognitive decline, increasing neurogenesis, and boosting the ability to manage complex learning tasks.

Plants are also rich in antioxidants, which help to delay or prevent certain types of damage to cells. Studies have shown that antioxidants may help to counteract free radicals and delay and reverse some of the symptoms of aging, such as memory loss.

Antioxidant-rich foods include:

  • Dark leafy greens
  • Berries
  • Spices & herbs
  • Beans

Fiber has also been shown to be helpful for brain function by helping to regulate blood glucose levels. One study found the presence of fiber in the diet is associated with higher alertness ratings and less perceived stress.

Foods high in fiber include:

  • Beans and legumes
  • Cooked whole grains
  • Fruits and vegetables, such as apples, berries, broccoli, and kale

As we share in the “Fit to Lead” portion of our our Leadership at the Peak training for C-suite leaders, eating more unprocessed, antioxidant-rich, and high-fiber foods will fuel your brain and ultimately make you healthier and more effective.

Eat Fewer Processed Foods & Animal Products

Similarly, the closer we can get to eating foods in their natural form, the better. Many foods today are marketed as “healthy,” but can actually be highly processed and not ideal for us to consume.

When at the grocery, try to shop along the perimeters of the store where most of the unprocessed foods are kept; the inner aisles should be shopped sparingly. When buying packaged foods, look at the ingredient list to see how many ingredients the item has and make the best choice with your diet with nutrition in mind. It’s a good rule of thumb to fill your plate with as many fruits and vegetables as possible. These foods are nutrient-dense, fill you up, and will fuel your body to perform at its best.

Fresh fruits and veggies are great, but don’t be afraid of frozen produce! It’s often harvested and frozen at the peak of ripeness to maintain nutrients. They’re convenient to keep on hand and can provide the base for quick and healthy meals.

When you eat well, you feel better, and that can have a tremendous ripple effect into other areas of your life — including work and relationships. As you begin to replace processed, less healthy foods with wholesome, nutrient-dense choices, you’ll be amazed at how your mental clarity and overall outlook will improve, which are key for holistic leadership.

Other Things That Fuel the Brain

3 Additional Research-Based Recommendations

While healthy eating is a key aspect of helping our brains function at their highest capacity, it’s important to remember that there are other ways you can make time for wellness to increase your leadership potential. A lack of exercise or sleep, or too much stress, can all contribute to worsened cognitive performance in the short term and to weaker brain health and less effective leadership in the long term.

The same factors that increase our risk for heart attacks — elevated cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity — have also been shown to increase our risk for dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease.

If you focus on improving your habits in these additional areas, you can better fuel your brain health, become a more resilient leader, and in turn boost your leadership effectiveness.

1. Exercise.

In our research, we asked more than 1,500 senior leaders if they think exercise affects how they perform. About 88% of leaders said exercise “clearly impacts” their performance, and 12% said it had “some” impact. Nobody said it had zero impact.

When asked how exercise impacts performance, respondents said it improved energy and helped with stress. Many of the responses also had to do with brain performance — clearer thinking, improved problem-solving and focus, increased alertness during the day, improved mental clarity and creativity, and better mental health were among the benefits cited.

People also said that exercise improved their mood, outlook, attitude, self-confidence, and sense of wellbeing.

You don’t have to aggressively train to see cognitive benefits from exercise — even walking a few times a week can make a difference. That’s why we say a leader’s best bet is exercise. But sessions of more than 30 minutes seem to have the most positive impact. And if you struggle to find time for exercise, remember that any activity that you enjoy that also gets your body moving is a win-win!

2. Manage stress.

What gets our brains into trouble is prolonged stress that’s measured in days, weeks, and months, rather than minutes. Stress and burnout stem from rumination, the tendency to let your mind churn over and over around emotional upsets.

Stress and its hormonal byproducts profoundly affect the brain. Protracted elevations of cortisol — which is released by your adrenals as a stress response — are detrimental to good brain function.

Probably the biggest moderators of distress are control and predictability. As control goes up, perceived distress goes down — and so does cortisol. The reverse is true: as your perceived level of control goes down, the distress and cortisol go up.

For leaders dealing with uncertainty and anxiety, coping strategies like mindfulness, relaxation, reframing problems and shifting toward more positive self-talk, and clarifying areas of control are even more important. It also helps to breathe correctly. You may have heard well-intentioned suggestions to “just breathe” when facing stress. But actually, you shouldn’t “take a deep breath” when you’re stressed, as in reality, your exhale matters much more than your inhale in managing stress.

3. Sleep.

Like exercise, sleep can make you a stronger leader for sure. Sleep is critical for good health, mental sharpness, and consistent energy. We can last longer and function better on no food than on no sleep.

Exactly how much sleep you need varies from person to person, but you’ve probably heard that the sweet spot seems to be in the 7–8 hour range. Only about 10% of the population can function optimally on less than 7 hours.

Getting a solid night’s sleep can certainly be an ongoing challenge with work, travel, and family demands. It can often come down to a trade-off between extra sleep and other healthy habits, but guard your sleep time as much as possible, because being tired at work is a roadblock to effective leadership.

Fuel Your Brain for Better Leadership

Start improving your brain function today by shifting your diet to be more plant-forward, while prioritizing other healthy lifestyle changes, and you’ll soon find yourself showing up as your best self, delivering at peak performance, and living with greater intention both at work and at home. You can start today by considering these questions:

  • Why is fueling my brain and boosting brain health important to me?
  • What can I do in the next 24 hours that will support fueling my brain?
  • What routines do I need to create to be successful, as a leader and as a person?

And remember, even small adjustments to your food intake and daily routines can help you boost your brain in ways that will pay off in all areas of your life. It’s all part of promoting wellbeing for yourself and others.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Healthy foods and habits can fuel your brain and lead to more effective leadership, as we share in the “Fit to Lead” portion of our leadership training programs. Give your organization’s executives highly personalized and holistic leader development with our Leadership at the Peak training for C-suite leaders.

  • Published June 17, 2024
  • 8 Minute Read
  • Download as PDF

Based on Research by

Sharon McDowell-Larsen
Sharon McDowell-Larsen, PhD
Exercise Physiologist and Adjunct Fitness Manager

Sharon is an exercise physiologist who consults on the fitness and wellness components of our Leadership at the Peak program for C-suite executives and manages its fitness coaches.

Sharon is an exercise physiologist who consults on the fitness and wellness components of our Leadership at the Peak program for C-suite executives and manages its fitness coaches.

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At the Center for Creative Leadership, our drive to create a ripple effect of positive change underpins everything we do. For 50+ years, we've pioneered leadership development solutions for everyone from frontline workers to global CEOs. Consistently ranked among the world's top providers of executive education, our research-based programs and solutions inspire individuals in organizations across the world — including 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 — to ignite remarkable transformations.