“You are what you eat” may seem like a tired cliché, but it is actually quite accurate.
Foods that we eat are converted by our bodies into glucose, creating energy that powers our bodies and brains. When our bodies and brains are running low on glucose, we have trouble staying focused and concentrating (which is often responsible for the ‘afternoon slump’).
Some foods release glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy that is followed by a rapid depletion of energy. Other foods provide more sustained energy, but require more work from the digestive system, which can reduce oxygen levels in the brain and leave us feeling groggy.
Carbohydrates are our bodies’ main source of energy. They are found in various forms, like sugars and dietary fibre, and in a variety of foods, including whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. Like anything, eating either too much or too little carbohydrates can have negative effects on our bodies.
Simple carbohydrates are absorbed by the body and converted into quick energy. These include simple sugars and fruit juices. Complex carbohydrates are longer-lasting, producing energy at a slower rate. They are very beneficial for our bodies and for productivity, and they help to fuel exercise as well as our brains. Complex carbohydrates can be found in whole grains, pasta, and cereals. Additionally, complex carbohydrates have more nutrients and fibre and can help us to feel satisfied after eating them.
Not getting enough carbohydrates (often referred to as having “low blood sugar”) can make us feel weak, tired, and have problems concentrating. Low glucose levels in the body can even inhibit self-control, causing a lessened ability to stay on task and be productive at work (and, paradoxically, an increased likelihood of choosing unhealthy foods).
Having too much carbohydrates in the body can also deplete productivity. Carbohydrate-rich foods cause the body to produce too much insulin, flooding the brain with hormones that make you feel tired (like serotonin and tryptophan).
Carbohydrates that can be beneficial to workplace productivity include:
- Brown rice – has more nutrients than white rice and helps to fuel the body longer
- Whole grains – these provide magnesium, which helps cognition
- Dark chocolate (high in cacao and low in sugar) – this contains flavonoids, providing antioxidant effects to the brain
Fruits and Vegetables
British researchers discovered that the more fruits and vegetables people ate throughout the day, the happier, more creative, and more productive they were. It is believed that this may be because the nutrients in fruits and vegetables stimulate dopamine production in the brain, which is responsible for engagement and motivation. Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables also improve memory and boost mood.
Some of the best fruit and vegetable choices for workplace productivity include:
- Bananas – The potassium and carbohydrates found in bananas provide long-lasting energy.
- Kale and Spinach – Leafy greens are rich in iron, carrying oxygen through your body’s cells to create energy and enhancing productivity.
- Berries – Berries contain antioxidants, protecting the brain from damage and improving communication between neurons.
Made up of amino acids, protein fuels vital reactions throughout the body. Having too little protein in the body can lead to muscle loss and tissue breakdown. Having too much protein, however, can lead to its storage as fat.
Good choices of protein for productivity include:
- Lentils – These provide a great source of protein and fibre, and almost no saturated fat or sodium.
- Tofu – Plant-sourced protein is known to be low in fat and sodium and better for your body’s health, as well as the health of the planet.
- Whole grains – Many whole grains such as quinoa, rice and millet contain higher levels of protein.
It has been proven that even being dehydrated by just two percent can diminish cognitive performance, producing deficits in short-term memory, visual tracking, and arithmetical ability.
How much water should you be drinking a day?
If you are drinking adequate water, you will not feel thirsty, and your urine will appear colourless or light yellow. Most healthy adults don’t need to worry about drinking too much water.
Magnesium, which is found in leafy greens like kale and spinach, as well as in dark chocolate, has been proven to reduce anxiety and stress. It also relaxes the muscles. Both of these benefits can greatly enhance workplace productivity.
Found in almonds and other foods, phenylalanine is an amino acid that stimulates the brain to produce dopamine. This may lead to enhanced mood and motivation, resulting in better workplace productivity.
Foods That Can Negatively Affect Productivity
While there are no “bad” foods, there are foods whose intake should be limited in order to improve health and enhance workplace productivity.
Foods containing high levels of saturated fats decrease productivity. They also increase fatigue, as they cause your brain to release the sleepy hormones of serotonin and tryptophan.
Foods with saturated fat that you should avoid during the workday in order to enhance productivity include: animal-based foods, fatty meats, poultry with skin, butter, lard, cream, baked goods, fried foods, cheese and other whole-fat dairy products.
Turn to monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats. One good source of fat for productivity is almonds. They contain vitamin E, magnesium and protein to provide long-lasting energy during the workday.
Sugar is not necessarily the “bad guy” in our diets. It is required for a well-balanced, healthy diet and for survival. Sugar produces a source of energy so that our muscles can work. It powers the brain and nervous system. It helps to metabolize fat. It is also stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, a back-up energy source.
Limiting sugar too much can lead to hypoglycemia, otherwise known as low blood glucose. Symptoms of low blood sugar include fatigue, pale skin, sweating, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, hunger, and irritability. If left untreated, it can lead to confusion, seizures, blurry vision and loss of consciousness.
The trick is to eat healthy sugars and limit unhealthy sugars. Natural sugars, such as those found in fruits and vegetables, contain fructose. Examples include apples, bananas, peaches, grapes, plums, and starchy vegetables.
Ideally, sugar should make up 10 percent or less of your daily calories.
Unhealthy sugars that should be avoided to enhance productivity include sodas, cakes, chocolates, and candy.
Too much of these can sabotage productivity in a heartbeat.
When we eat matters almost as much as what we eat.
Eating small meals throughout the day can help to maintain a constant level of glucose –i.e., energy—in the body. Maintaining consistent glucose levels prevent spikes and drops in blood sugar, which are bad for the brain and, thus, bad for productivity.