stay in focus

True observation: I”™ve had quite a few class participants who were unable to focus for more than 30 seconds at a time. No exaggeration. It was particularly noticeable in rowing (it”™s easier to hide on a bike), and usually coincided with the fact that they were vegetarians.

Another rowing instructor told me that someone in his class “can”™t focus longer than 30 seconds.” When I asked, it turned out the man in question was a vegetarian.

Yes, I realize not every vegetarian lacks focus. However, the rowers who couldn”™t stick with the training for more than 30 seconds were invariably vegetarians.

The advice I gave to my students and to the other instructor was to increase protein. This has to mean “real” protein, so the tricky part is finding an acceptable form of protein that a vegetarian is willing to eat. When I explained to one participant the brain chemistry of protein and how it affects focus, he was willing to add fish and shrimp to his diet. Within a few days, things had turned around, and he had no difficulty focusing on the rowing workout.

Which brings me to that vegetarian beans-and-rice thing.

You”™ve probably heard it. Beans and rice make up an often-touted vegetarian meal that is said to provide Complete Proteins. For those who are unfamiliar with the idea of complete proteins, it has to do with the fact that proteins are made of amino acids, the Building Blocks of Protein, as they told us in 7th grade biology.

When we eat animal proteins — fish, poultry, grass-fed beef, eggs, yogurt with 18 or more grams of protein per serving, for example — we get all the amino acids necessary for human metabolic function. When we eat vegetable sources of protein, some amino acids are missing from the foods. Other foods can provide the missing aminos and complete the spectrum.

But neither rice nor beans contain much protein; both foods are primarily carbohydrate (starch). So beans and rice together provide the complete list of amino acids but still give us only a small amount of protein overall. Lots of starch, though. The effect of starch on brain chemistry is completely different from that of protein.

As mentioned in a previous post, protein increases production of dopamine and norepinephrine by providing tyrosine and phenylalanine, the amino acid precursors. Dopamine and norepinephrine are alertness and focus chemicals. Carbs tend to raise serotonin levels, which make us relaxed, drowsy, and even “spacey”.

Vegetarians no longer suggest combining proteins at a given meal; that concept is long outdated. But ignoring it can make things even worse for someone who tends to space out without animal protein.

It”™s not my place to tell vegetarians to stop being vegetarians. But I wish vegetarians would stop calling rice and beans protein foods.

If you have students who have trouble focusing — and I wonder if people who have the problem even know it — a good recommendation might be to add some form of animal protein to the diet.

If that”™s out of the question (obviously, people are vegetarians for different reasons), at least add a serving of high-quality vegetable protein powder to every meal to provide the complete amino acid spectrum.

Incidentally, vegans often have screaming cravings for sugar, and again the answer starts with protein. Cravings are a brain chemical thing. For vegans with cravings, vegetable protein powder might be the only road to a solution.

Joan Kent

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