Foods for optimal cognitive and physical performance

By Physician Sense
Published November 10, 2020

Key Takeaways

Medicine is not for the faint of heart or dull of mind. Health crises don’t adhere to a schedule and they aren’t always simple either. Often, doctors must be at their physical and mental best under less-than-ideal circumstances. Eating with optimal performance in mind makes this a bit easier.

For this post, we’re looking at three dimensions of optimal cognitive performance: attention, memory, and problem solving. And for optimal physical performance, we’re looking at foods that support endurance and strength. There are many ways of parsing cognitive and physical performance, but we feel these subcategories have the most direct application for physicians. Hope you’re hungry!

Eating for optimal cognitive performance

There’s no shortage of fad diets, many of which make numerous promises (some research-backed, others not) about cognitive performance. Furthermore, many attempts at these diets end in failure because adherence is near impossible. Let’s keep it simple. Research shows the following foods will help you stay sharp throughout the day.


For physicians looking to boost their attention, caffeine, derived from black coffee or tea is likely the optimal choice. A Psychopharmacology study found that caffeine boosts attentiveness for simple and complex tasks, and affects the executive control and alerting networks of the brain. “Evidence shows that caffeine has clear beneficial effects on attention, and that the effects are even more widespread than previously assumed,” researchers wrote.

Why black coffee or tea? Energy drinks are often loaded with sugar, or artificial sweeteners, which some researchers deem potentially carcinogenic. We’re also trying to circumvent the insulin spike and crash associated with the simple carbohydrates found in most sugar-derived sweeteners. If you can’t stomach it black, a splash of dairy-based creamer, or non-dairy-based creamer like almond milk, will cut the bitterness, and it may slow caffeine metabolism, reducing jitters. 

But be careful with caffeine. Though more mainstream and legal, caffeine addiction is real. And despite what you might have learned during residency, it isn’t a substitute for sleep.


If you’re looking for a memory boost, you might want to add blueberries to your diet. A Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study examined the neurocognitive effects of blueberry juice consumption in a group of 9 adults with “early memory changes.” Scientists have speculated that the antioxidant power of blueberries, derived from polyphenolic compounds, such as anthocyanins, may be beneficial for the brain. These compounds have been linked to heightened neural signaling in parts of the brain associated with memory, as well as enhanced glucose disposal. The latter may stave off neurodegeneration.

After 12 weeks of blueberry supplementation (juice, in this case), participants saw improved paired associate learning, word list recall, reduced depressive symptoms, and lower glucose levels.

So, while you won’t see an immediate memory boost from blueberries, adding them consistently to your diet may promote optimal memory over time. Word for the wise, not all fruit juices are created equal. Some contain barely any fruit and are loaded with high fructose corn syrup. We suggest eating blueberries fresh or frozen.

Problem solving

Dietary omega-3 fatty acids contribute to synaptic plasticity and cognition, research shows. One of the best sources of the omega-3 fatty acid, also known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is cold water fatty fish. Doctors looking to enhance problem solving abilities, and possibly preserve them over time, likely would do well to make salmon, tuna, and anchovies a part of their diet. 

Researchers say that the cognitive benefits of DHA come from its ability to keep plasma membranes fluid in synaptic regions. “Dietary DHA is indispensable for maintaining membrane ionic permeability and the function of transmembrane receptors that support synaptic transmission and cognitive abilities,” researchers wrote. 

Eating for optimal physical performance

We’ve known a few doctors over the years who get so busy they forget to eat. If that sounds like you, it makes it all the more important that when you do eat, you’re fueling your body for optimal physical performance. That means eating foods that will give you sustained energy and strength.


Many fad diets point to a single type of macronutrient, such as protein or fat, as a near-miracle source of sustained energy. While the research on many of these diets is incomplete or inconclusive, nutritional research has shown us that there are distinct energetic benefits to balanced diets based on whole foods. High-glycemic foods, such as candy bars, sports drinks, and many breakfast cereals, may often give you a short burst of energy, then leave you feeling tired later. Day-long energy requires slower-burning macronutrients. 

Doctors looking for day-long energy would do well to start with a bowl of oatmeal, which is high in fiber, low glycemic, rich in Vitamin B, and slow to digest. As an added benefit, you can add a tablespoon of peanut butter for some satiating fats and protein. Just be careful with peanut butter. It’s calorically rich, and more common brands are sweetened with sugar. You can fortify your oatmeal by making it with milk for an extra serving of protein. Add some banana for Vitamin B6 and some potassium.

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