Making our food choices work for us
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 realise. 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. This explains why it’s hard to concentrate on an empty stomach.
Now here’s the part we rarely consider: not all foods are processed by our bodies at the same rate. Some foods – like pasta, bread, cereal and soda – release their glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy followed by a slump.
Others foods, like high fat meals (think cheeseburgers and BLTs) provide more sustained energy, but require our digestive system to work harder, reducing oxygen levels in the brain and making us groggy.
Most of us know much of this intuitively, yet we don’t always make smart decisions about our diet. In part, it’s because we’re at our lowest point in both energy and self-control when deciding what to eat. Chips and mozzarella sticks are a lot more appetising when you’re mentally drained.
Unhealthy lunch options also tend to be cheaper and faster than healthy alternatives, making them all the more alluring in the middle of a busy workday. They feel efficient. Which is where our lunchtime decisions lead us astray. We save 10 minutes now and pay for it with weaker performance the rest of the day.
So what are we to do? One thing we most certainly shouldn’t do is assume that better information will motivate us to change. Most of us are well aware that scarfing down a processed mixture of chicken bones and leftover carcasses is not a good life decision. But that doesn’t make chicken nuggets any less delicious.
No, it’s not awareness we need – it’s an action plan that makes healthy eating easier to accomplish. Here are some research-based strategies worth trying:
DECIDE BEFORE EATING
The first is to make your eating decisions before you get hungry. If you’re going out to lunch, choose where you’re eating in the morning, not at 12:30 pm. If you’re ordering in, decide what you’re having after a mid-morning snack. Studies show we’re a lot better at resisting salt, calories and fat in the future than we are in the present.
Another tip: instead of letting your glucose bottom out around lunch time, you’ll perform better by grazing throughout the day. Spikes and drops in blood sugar are both bad for productivity and bad for the brain. Smaller, more frequent meals maintain your glucose at a more consistent level than relying on a midday feast.
Finally, make healthy snacking easier to achieve than unhealthy snacking. Place a container of almonds and a selection of protein bars by your computer, near your line of vision. Use an automated subscription service, like Amazon, to restock supplies. Bring a bag of fruit to the office on Mondays so that you have them available throughout the week. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2014
Ron Friedman is the founder of ignite80 and the author of the forthcoming book The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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