Think back to your most productive workday in the past week. Now ask yourself: On that afternoon, what did you have for lunch?
When we think about the factors that contribute to workplace performance, we rarely give much consideration to food. For those of us battling to stay on top of emails, meetings, and deadlines, food is simply fuel.
But as it turns out, this analogy is misleading. The foods we eat affect us more than we realize.
LOW BLOOD SUGAR
Just about everything we eat is converted by our body into glucose, which provides the energy our brains need to stay alert. When we’re running low on glucose, we have a tough time staying focused and our attention drifts. If you’ve ever heard someone say they have ‘low blood sugar,’ this is what they’re talking about.
Almost anything you eat will raise your blood sugar in some way; however, not all things raise blood glucose in the same way or in the same amounts. Foods higher in the glycemic index, like pasta, bread, candy bars, soda and white rice, will cause your blood glucose to spike and crash shortly thereafter. Other foods that are high in fat (cheeseburgers and pizza) provide more sustained energy, but require our digestive system to work harder which reduces oxygen levels in the brain and makes us groggy. Low glycemic index foods like oatmeal and most fruits and vegetables will provide a steady release over the course of hours. Try keeping fruit (or dried fruit) and raw nuts around as a snack to boost your energy midday.
CREATE A CAFFEINE BUDGET
Coffee is one of America’s favorite caffeinated beverages, with the average person drinking nearly 3 cups per day. Caffeine can have a positive effect on your productivity, since it brings more energy, reduces fatigue and makes you more alert. A cup of coffee has about 200 milligrams of caffeine, which is enough to suppress the adenosine in your brain that would ordinarily make you feel sleepy, and provide you with cognitive boosters like better memory and cognitive function. If timed right, coffee (and other forms of caffeine) can improve your performance in the short term.
But as you probably know, too much caffeine can run your body ragged. Consuming too much caffeine can lead to jitteriness and anxiety, distracting you from work and interfering with your sleep schedule; and if you lose too much sleep, no amount of caffeine will be able to make up for your cognitive impairment. At the same time, caffeine dependency can actually cause withdrawal symptoms if you’re ever left without coffee for a day.
Our solution? Create a budget for your caffeine consumption, so you don’t overindulge and interfere with your sleep cycle. Consider gradually shifting to decaf coffee as the day moves toward a close.
HOW TO FUEL YOUR WORKDAY
- Graze. Don’t save up for lunch and stuff your face. It’s better to graze steadily throughout the day on low glycemic foods to keep your blood sugar levels even.
- Keep healthy snacks close by. It shouldn’t surprise you that healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and lean meats are significantly better choices than fast food or vending machine fodder. Healthier snacks contain vital nutrients that foster the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the experience of curiosity, motivation, and engagement. They also provide antioxidants that minimize bodily inflammation, improve memory, and enhance mood.
- Don’t skip breakfast. Start your day off right with a substantial meal, full of proteins and complex carbohydrates. Eggs, oatmeal, veggie-rich smoothies, or homemade granola are a great place to start.
- Get some exercise. Though not directly related to your diet, consider getting some exercise in before or during the day. As little as 20 minutes of exercise can give you a short-term cognitive boost and reduce your fatigue. Even a short walk during your lunch break or afternoon slump will leave you feeling refreshed and revitalized.
The good news is that contrary to what many of us assume, the trick to eating right is not learning to resist temptation. It’s making healthy eating the easiest possible option.