You've heard it time and time again - perhaps even to the point of exhaustion - but it’s undeniably true: You are what you eat. It’s not just another old adage. The longevity of the phrase owes to the fact it’s essentially and without question accurate.
If you want to be a professional athlete, you have to eat like a pro athlete. If you want to train for a marathon, you are going to have to eat like you’re training for a marathon. Likewise, if you want to be a winning poker player you have to eat like a winning poker player.
Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean stuffing yourself to the point of distraction at the casino buffet or eating so many Doritos that your fingers are permanently tinted orange and your keyboard is perpetually encrusted in a gritty film. Nor should you rely on the good (and limited) graces of caffeine to keep you mentally alert.
There is a way to eat that can help you keep your brain healthy, focused and working optimally for maximum winning. Read on to find out how great poker and nutrition go hand in hand!
Food for Focus
It probably comes as no surprise to most of you that the very best way to keep the cogs in your noggin’ oiled and ready for action is to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Yep, no miracle diet or breaking nutritional news bulletin here. You just have to live well, which includes eating well.
What may come as a newsflash for many is that there are some foods that are veritable superheroes when it comes to boosting your brain power. No expensive supplements or excessive restrictions required, just eating a diet rich in certain foods will help you increase your concentration, focus and energy – and you need all three at the tables.
Before we get into what foods, exactly, you need to be consuming for optimal brain function, let’s look at how we feed our brains. This will help us understand why eating certain foods can yield incredible (and profitable!) results. (Consider it a little thought about food before your food for thought.)
Creating Open Roads
It’s important to understand that the very act of thinking is a biochemical process. Your brains cells require neurotransmitter chemicals to forge pathways and facilitate effective communication between cells. Acetylcholine, dopamine and serotonin are your three basic neurotransmitters. This trifecta supplies your brain with the proper chemicals to keep it healthy and active. The nutritional composition of the ‘brain food’ we’ll be mentioning promotes and stimulates production of these important neurotransmitters and as a result, you’ll have a big, beautiful brain buzzing with beehive precision and efficiency. (You’re also more likely to have a big, beautiful bankroll!)
Let’s take a closer look at our trusty transmitters...
This important neurotransmitter helps to store and recall memories. According to a 1998 study by P.J. Whitehouse that appeared in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, a lack of acetylcholine can be linked to the increased risk of Alzheimer's disease. Acetylcholine also helps with concentration, focus and muscular coordination.
To ensure your body is producing enough acetylcholine, it is important to eat foods rich in choline (a B vitamin vital in metabolizing fat), which synthesizes acetylcholine in your body.
Choline rich foods include:
- Brussels Sprouts
- Kidney Beans
- Black Beans
- Flax Seeds
- Sesame Seeds
TIP: Keep the choline by refraining from overcooking these foods.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of calm, focus, tranquility and bliss - and anyone who's ever sat through a white-knuckle showdown can tell you that you need as much bliss as you can muster.
Foods that help produce dopamine include:
- Lean protein (especially chicken and fish)
- Beans and legumes
Serotonin helps to increase energy, regulate mood and reduce feelings of anxiety, depression and stress – and let’s face it, nothing can be as distracting at the tables as feeling blue or being stressed.
Eat these foods which are renowned for encouraging your body to produce serotonin:
- Dark chocolate (as dark as possible to keep it as natural as possible)
- Whole Grains
- Lean Red Meat
- Fish (especially fatty fish like salmon, fatty tuna and sardines)
- Cooked Spinach
- Green Peas
- Collard Greens (B6)
*Note: Highly processed, starchy and sugary foods (white bread, pasta, pastry, candy) can also boost your serotonin and as a result, your mood, energy and focus, BUT the effects are short-lived. Within an hour or so you’ll experience the inevitable sugar crash and be more tired and irritable than before. You’ll also risk packing on the pounds, which is stressful to your body and mind. Stick to our healthier options if you want to keep the good feelings going strong for longer.
You probably noticed that there are some foods that made the lists multiple times. This is because they do double (or triple) duty, helping to produce all three neurotransmitters.
Let’s take a look at them.
Fish, and fatty fish in particular, is an incredible source of Omega-3s. You’ve probably heard all about these cellular building blocks by now and how great they are for brain health. Well, thousands of studies don’t lie: omega 3s help your brain produce all three of the necessary neurotransmitters, setting the stage for better concentration, memory and alertness. Aside from being in fish, omega 3s can be found in hemp, chia and flax seeds and oils, walnuts, eggs and plant oils (like canola).
The recommended daily intake for omega 3s has not yet been determined. However, experts agree that your best bet is to eat a variety of omega 3 rich foods to get the best results. In other words, you don’t have to shove your face with salmon every day, but do try to eat one source of omega 3/day.
B is for Bananas
Bananas are one of the best brain foods. Part of the reason is that they are high in B vitamins, not the least important is vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 helps your body produce vital brain chemicals including serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. B6 deficiency is linked to confusion, irritability and depression.
Like all vitamins, your body cannot produce vitamin B6, however you can get plenty of this valuable vitamin from foods like spinach, hazelnuts, potatoes, whole grains, salmon and yes - bananas.
The daily recommended intake for vitamin B6 is 1.3 milligrams if your age is 14 to 50, and 1.5 to 1.7 milligrams if you’re older than 50.
The Whole Story on Whole Grains
Grains have popped up several times during our discussion of poker and nutrition and given the nature of our carb-crazed world, it’s important we give them a little individual and undivided attention.
In addition to being rich in B vitamins, magnesium and iron, whole grains are also an excellent source of glucose, which is your body's main source of energy for proper physical and mention function. Unlike their heavily refined counterparts, whole grains haven't been processed to the point of losing their important nutrients like fibre and protein which help keep you feeling full and regulate your blood sugar.
Understand, carbs are not the enemy here, they can actually help you. In fact, you need 50 grams of carbohydrates a day to support proper brain function. Some low-carb diets will have you on 30 grams or less, which is why it is difficult for people to sustain these fad diets long term. Granted, many people eat far too many carbohydrates (particularly refined carbohydrates) and could certainly stand to lower and readjust their carb intake, but the reduction should not be unsustainably drastic. Opt to eat whole grains like whole grain breads, brown rice, couscous, quinoa, steel cut or old-fashioned oats and sprouted grains.
Poker and Nutrition: Other Considerations
Keep portion sizes in mind!
While mentally exhausting, poker is a physically sedentary endeavour, so you don’t need to load up on a big meal right before a big game (in fact, particularly before a big game). Eating a heavy meal before sitting down results in vasodilation (when your blood rushes to your stomach to aid in digestion, leaving not as much for your head).
Much like sugar, caffeine can give some people a little kick, but it is temporary and will wear out leaving you more fatigued than when you started. You don’t have to give it up entirely, just enjoy your cup and move on to a more mentally lubricating bevy, like...
Most of us already know that a large part of our bodies are made up of water (around 60-70%), depending on gender and age. Our brains in particular are made up of about 70% water, so it is easy to see why staying hydrated is important for proper brain function. Drink at least eight 8 ounce glasses of water a day to avoid the mental fog and fatigue that comes with dehydration.
Along this same vein, if you are playing with the serious intention of winning, save the booze for after the game. Alcohol dulls the senses, leads to fatigue, impairs your judgement and dehydrates your precious brain as well as the rest of your body.
In the end, the link between poker and nutrition comes down to properly nourishing yourself with good, clean food. The brain foods we’ve mentioned will definitely help improve your game because they’ll improve your overall health – including your brain health. If you’re a practicing poker player who’s already eating a balanced diet, you’re probably also already enjoying the lucrative perks that come with being good to your body. If not, it’s never too late to start!