Fitness, Nutrition

Nutrition and Productivity

How Your Food Impacts Personal Productivity and Performance

I shared this information via webinar for my employer. What follows is the content of that webinar in it’s entirety.

Before we get started, I owe you some context. I’ve been a healthy living advocate since 2009, learning through trial & error and tons of research while training for triathlon and trying to figure out my bothersome digestive issues. I started writing and sharing my personal healthy living journey around 2014 and have enjoyed coaching others to live their healthy best since then.

I’m passionate about helping people live their healthy best because I don’t want anyone to live their golden years like my dad did. He suffered all thru his 60’s with debilitating heart and lung issues in large part because of the choices he made about his health as a younger man. I’m convinced that no matter our age or health now, making simple lifestyle changes today will make a big difference in how we enjoy the rest of our life. So that’s why I do what I do, and why I’m presenting today.

But I get it, so this doesn’t seem like a thrilling topic to discuss. Before you lean back in your chair and just tune out until its finally over and collect your wellness points, give me a chance to share an unconventional performance hack that will make you better at your job. And the truth is, implementing some simple tips I’m about to share can dramatically improve your health and the quality of your work – and get this – without exercising or starving yourself! How does that sound?

Your Health is YOUR Job

Think about this with me for a minute. You have a job. You need it. You have to show up every day and give your best effort at your job, because if you don’t there will be trouble. With me? You won’t let yourself fail at work because you need the job and others are counting on you.

  • Job requires focus, consistency, and effort: You are focused at work; you do what needs to be done. In your work, you have proven that you are capable of focus, consistency over time, and hard work.
  • How healthy could you be with this mindset? What if you took even 1/2 of that focus, consistency, and effort and applied it to other areas of your life? Would you be a better spouse, parent, friend? What would your health look like with this kind of effort? I talk to people all the time who are good at their work, but their health is not so great. They don’t have time, or they are too tired they say. I say Baloney.
  • No health = No work: Listen, you need to take care of your health as if it were part of your job. If your health fails, can you work? If you are overweight, stiff, exhausted, or frequently ill you know your ability to take care of your loved ones is reduced. In other words, to be your best at the roles that are most important to you, you need to optimize your health.

“But I’m just a desk jockey”

I know what you are thinking. “But I’m just a desk jockey.” My health doesn’t really matter because I only need my brain to do my work. “Where’s the donuts?”

  • You have one chance: Please take your health seriously. You have one life to live, one chance to make an impact on this world, one chance to leave a lasting and positive legacy for future generations. Don’t be held back from being your best because you chose to be lazy with your health. You are better than that. And you know you can do hard things, because you prove it in your day job.  So treat your health like your job. There is your #toughlove
  • Many rewards & benefits to healthy living: Your body and mind will reward your efforts and your work will improve as well. You’ll be your best at life AND your job. There’s a ton of healthy living benefits including: boosts confidence, improves mood/ outlook, reduces stress, improves memory, strengthens immune system – you’ll also have more energy & strength, a healthy body weight, better sleep, and mental clarity to name a few.

Now that you are all fired up about the importance of taking care of your health, let’s drill down to look at nutrition and its impacts on your work performance.

Problem: Work Performance is impacted by food

Have you ever felt any of these symptoms during the work day?

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Reduced ability to think clearly
  • Higher levels of stress
  • Depression
  • Decreased productivity

These symptoms are all consequences of a poor diet. Chances are you’ve heard the old adage “you are what you eat.” The idea is that everything you eat affects the way your body functions and performs. When you eat healthy, your body processes the nutrients and maximizes them for optimal energy and performance.

Think of it this way; Your mind is a muscle. It is a professional athlete in the business world. Like all pros, you need to take care of yourself, recover, and be fueled properly.  When you are tempted to neglect your nutrition, consider the following ways it will impact your personal productivity and performance.

Poor nutrition is a primary contributor to these work related issues:

  • Productivity takes a hit: Science tells us that a typical high carbohydrate breakfast of cereal, toast, muffins, juice impact brain function – particularly mood and comprehension – and not in a healthy way.  High carb foods release their glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy followed by a slump. High fat meals (such as cheeseburgers & drive thru breakfast sandwiches) provide more sustained energy, but require our digestive system to work harder, reducing oxygen levels in the brain and making us groggy. We can’t perform our best when our brains are starving for nutrients. The energy crash or grogginess definitely impacts productivity.
  • Self control goes out the window: Don’t make a big work or life decision when you are hungry! Hunger can kill productivity and make you “hangry.” Our body converts food to glucose, which provides the energy our brain needs to stay alert. Consuming foods with a high glycemic index value cause blood sugar levels to spike. These spikes send your energy through the roof for a short time, then it’s crash & burn. Not only have you lost energy, but you will quickly be hungry again. This vicious cycle is how we get fat – eating the wrong foods for “energy” only to crash and burn, get hangry and repeat. 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.

When you are hungry your stomach releases the hormone ghrelin. Research has found that this hormone impacts impulsivity and decision-making capabilities. That means when we’re hungry, we are more likely to rush a decision, snap at customer or co-worker, or respond irrationally to a situation because we are at our lowest point in energy and self-control. And when deciding what to eat, all you can think is “gimme food now!” French fries and candy bars are a lot more appetizing when you’re mentally drained.

  • Exhaustion kicks into daily life: Dietary patterns and food choices can also influence nighttime sleep and recovery. To all the caffeine junkies out there I say resist the urge to consume that late afternoon cup of coffee or soda, because the caffeine will last 5-6 hours after you drink it putting a damper on your sleep quality. Consuming too much caffeine can lead to jitteriness and anxiety, distracting you from work and interfering with your sleep schedule. If you lose too much sleep, no amount of caffeine will be able to make up for your mental fatigue. At the same time, caffeine dependency can cause withdrawal symptoms if you miss a day. I’m not saying that coffee or caffeine is evil, just be mindful about your consumption. Also know that eating that big meal before bed can wreck your sleep as well. This is like telling your body it’s time to fuel up and keep going, not wind down to rest. Try to target 3 hours between your last meal and bedtime.
  • Low blood sugar wrecks performance: Almost anything you eat will raise your blood sugar in some way. So if your blood sugar gets too low, you’ll need to eat something if you want to achieve your optimal performance. However, not all foods raise blood glucose in the same way or in the same amounts. Foods higher in the glycemic index, like candy bars and white rice, will cause your blood glucose to spike, then crash shortly thereafter. Low glycemic index foods, like oatmeal and most fruits and vegetables, will provide a steady release over the course of hours.

By the way, you can find GI charts online- there’s also one on my website. Generally speaking, the more processed the food is, the higher the GI value and lower performance value. To be clear, carbs are not the enemy as some fad diets claim. It’s the quality of carbs that counts. The glycemic index is one way to measure the quality of the carb. Another simple way is to check ingredients. Eating real food in its most natural form is best, so look for foods with the fewest ingredients, as that usually means it has been less processed and stripped of its nutritional value.

How To Optimize Performance With Food

So that was the bad news. Now let’s talk about what you all came here for – how to optimize performance with food.

First let me say that we should never assume that better information will motivate us to change. For example: 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. Am I right?

Awareness is a helpful first step, but what we really need is an action plan that makes healthy eating easier – along with a mindset shift regarding the way we think about food. But before we talk about the mental side of healthy eating, let’s review some strategies to optimize performance with food.

  • Substantial breakfast of varied nutrients: Start your day off right with a substantial meal, full of proteins and complex carbohydrates. Eggs and whole wheat toast are a solid bet, or oatmeal with fruit & nuts. Breakfast is the fuel you need to start your work day, so don’t skip breakfast. Target a mix of the major food groups such as:

Fruits and vegetables: Fresh or frozen produce is best. You can also have fruit and vegetable juice or smoothies. Just make sure that the label says “100 percent juice.”

Whole grains: These can be found in certain hot or cold cereals, crackers, or bagels. Look for whole grain as the first ingredient.

Protein: Good examples for breakfast include eggs, peanut butter, lean meat, and plant proteins like nuts and seeds.

Dairy: Try skim milk, plain yogurt, real cheese, or cottage cheese.

  • Plan ahead and pack your lunch: Spend a little time at the beginning of the week preparing. The more you can do upfront, the less you have to do as the week rolls on. I do meal prep on Sunday – it takes about an hour for the whole week. I bake chicken breast, cubed sweet potato, and spinach egg cups. I’ll cut up melon or pineapple too. I keep lots of bananas & apples, baby carrots, whole wheat bread & wraps, and raw nuts stocked as well. 

Hard boil some eggs for grab & go. Eggs contain choline – a nutrient that improves memory and reaction time while providing a nice slow energy release to your system.

When you have easy to grab food on hand you are better equipped to make the right choices and stay productive. Banana is an excellent mid morning or afternoon snack choice.

Low glycemic foods like lean protein, rolled oats, sweet potatoes, and dark leafy greens can help you think clearly.

Sandwiches on whole grain breads, pitas, or wraps are a good choice, particularly when paired with spreads like hummus and fillings like tuna, sliced eggs, or lean meats like turkey or chicken. Salads pack well too if the dressing is kept separate from the leafy greens. Bring small containers of chopped veggies, almonds, granola bars, bananas, and apples for additional snacks during the day to keep your brain and body humming.

Packing your lunch not only ensures that you have the types of food you need, it also helps to avoid the temptations of skipping meals, hitting the vending machine, or joining coworkers for unhealthy fast food.

It also pays to plan ahead. Nearly a week’s worth of packed lunches costs the same as one lunch out.

By the way, the best way to avoid junk food is to not bring into your home. I would eat a bag of cookies every week if they were in my house. The solution is to simply not buy them. When planning your grocery run, scratch off the junk food. You will thank yourself later.

  • Graze instead of skipping meals: Eat like a Hobbit. Breakfast, Second breakfast, Elevensies, Lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper. HA! The point is don’t save up for lunch and stuff your face. It’s better to graze steadily throughout the day to keep your blood sugar levels even… as long as you choose healthy options. When you’re busy at work, it’s easy to skip meals in an effort to squeeze out more productivity. Don’t do it! Skipping meals will hurt you later in the day by lowering your energy and productivity.

Also, you may think that skipping meals will help with your waistline, but it won’t. Your body tends to compensate for the missing meals by lowering metabolism, storing fat, etc. Truth is, when you fuel with the right foods on a regular schedule you won’t feel starved at all. In fact, you can actually lose weight while eating more!

  • Budget caffeine: If timed right, coffee (and other forms of caffeine) can improve your performance in the short term, when consumed in moderation. Consider gradually shifting to decaf coffee after lunch, so you don’t interfere with your sleep cycle. Tea is another decent form of natural caffeine, but I highly recommend avoiding caffeinated sodas and so-called energy drinks. Most are a toxic chemical cocktail that will do your body more harm than good.

Drink More Water

  • Wake up. Hydrate: Sleeping dehydrates you. I have a big drink first thing in the morning (20 oz at least) to relieve dehydration, start my digestive system before breakfast, help me feel more full before I eat, and wake me up. Drinking more water is among the best bang-for-your-buck healthy eating tips.
  • Drink then eat: Drinking a big glass of water before every meal will help you to eat less because you will feel more full.
  • Handy water bottle: Have a water bottle with you at your desk or work place all day. Drink from it often. Target ½ your body weight in ounces of water consumed every day.
  • Color check: Be aware of your urine color. Clear to light yellow is good. Darker yellow means drink more water. Beware that certain medications or vitamins will discolor your pee for a few hours, so don’t freak out about that.

  • Listen to your body: Have a headache or feeling ‘hangry’ (aka: hungry/ irritable/ angry)? Drink a big glass of water first. Give it 10 minutes to see if it makes you feel better. Many times it will. The headache is your body telling you that you are dehydrated.
  • Other drinks are NOT water: Please do not replace water with soda, sports drinks, coffee, alcohol, juice, milk, etc. Your body needs water. While some juice, milk, wine and plain coffee may have some health benefits, MOST drinks are filled with artificial and chemical ingredients that do more harm than good.

Productivity Boosting Snacks

  • Target a mix of carbs and protein: An ideal snack for productivity should contain a mix of both carbohydrates and protein. Your brain and central nervous system run exclusively on carbs (sugar) found in foods such as whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit, milk and yogurt. You need protein such as meat, seafood, eggs, nuts, and seeds to sustain energy and fullness longer.
  • Apple & peanut butter: One of my go-to 3 pm snacks. Super simple and easy.
  • Hard cooked eggs & fresh fruit: Another option here is egg cups – baked in muffin tin. I add chopped spinach to sneak in another veggie serving. Perfect for grab & go. Nuke them for 30 sec.
  • Trail mix (nuts, seeds, dried fruit): Use pre-packaged trail mix with caution. Many have chemical additives, sugars, etc. Read the label. Make your own mix.
  • Yogurt bar (natural granola, trail mix): Yogurt can be tricky. Most flavored yogurts are full of added sugar. Look for minimal ingredients.
  • Real cheese & whole wheat crackers: Triscuits are a good cracker choice – minimal ingredients. Real cheese is healthy in moderation. Processed cheese is really bad. Kraft, Velveeta= skip
  • Smoothie bar (yogurt, frozen berries, banana, almond milk, spinach, peanut/ almond butter, etc.): Not all protein powders are created equal. In fact, some have a mile long ingredients label that reads like an alien language. Read the label. As with all food labels, if you don’t know what the ingredient is, or you couldn’t buy it on it’s own in the store, think twice about eating it. That said, Shakeology is my favorite.

Solution: Mindset Matters

Science, facts, and food lists are great, but they do little to change behavior. What we need is to change the way we THINK about food and our relationship to it. There is no escaping that we behave according to what we believe. So the first thing to do is think about what you believe. Do you believe that food impacts performance at work and life? Do you believe that you can kick bad habits and replace them with healthy ones? The answer is YES! Yes you can. Maybe the following mental floss will help you ConQuer Your Mind.

  • Determine your “Driving Force”: What is your driving force? What is your personal compelling reason WHY you want to eat healthy, break bad habit, start healthy habit, change a behavior? This is key, because if you don’t have this firmly ingrained to your mind, you will more easily quit when the change gets hard…and it surely will. Lack of a driving force is a main reason resolutions fail.
  • Take Baby Steps: Don’t try to fix everything all at once. You will fail. Instead, take baby steps. Small, reasonable goals are helpful. Make it a habit, then move on to the next step. For nutrition, maybe start with drinking more water. Then maybe replace soda or energy drinks. Then add more movement to your routine. One baby step at a time. Be consistent over time.
  • Think “Replace” instead of “Cut”: One of the big problems I have with diets is they are always cutting something out. Telling you what you can’t do or have. We don’t like being told we can’t have this or do that, especially when it comes to food. So dieters eventually cave for the thing they can’t have, get depressed that they failed, and quit. Instead, I want you to simply replace. Drink water instead of soda, eat whole wheat bread instead of white, choose a fresh fruit instead of a candy. This is a mental exercise to change the response you have to a natural trigger that launches your bad eating habit. For example, say it’s 3:00 and you are dragging, or maybe just finished a stressful conference call. These are triggers that might normally make you reach for a sugary snack or soda as a “pick-me-up” or stress reliever. You recognize the trigger and instead go for an apple or get up and walk around, have a big drink of water, etc.
  • Fuel vs. Friend: One of the hardest mindset shifts to make about food is this. Food is meant to be fuel. You are a highly complex machine that requires the right fuel to perform optimally. When you feed your body what it needs, it will do amazing things for you. Conversely, when you eat junk, your body responds poorly as we’ve already discussed. But we like to use food as our friend. The one who comforts us when we are stressed, bored, tired. The one we celebrate with when things are good. The problem is that in these instances, food is a lousy friend. When we go to food for comfort, to relieve stress, or to celebrate, we choose poorly, consume mass quantities, and are left with regret, digestive issues, and tighter pants. I’m all about enjoying food, but I’ve learned that changing my mind about food has been a game changer for my health. Over time you will find that the benefits far outweigh the consequences. For example. I’ve not had soda for over 20 years because I realize my body does not respond to it very well. I don’t even miss it. Same with fast food. Once I realized that it messed up my guts and made me feel bad EVERY TIME, I quit eating it. We can ALWAYS do better than traditional fast food.
  • Be Accountable: Ugh, accountability is too convicting. Perhaps, but it works. Especially if you regard it in a positive way. It’s meant to help you not punish or condemn. Lack of accountability is another main reason resolutions fail. Truth is, we are far more likely to stick with our goals and healthy habits when we share them with others. So tell others your plan and ask them to hold you to it. Better yet, get others to join you in your healthy pursuit. Post you plans & goals, along with your driving force, everywhere. Accountability is the glue that ties commitment to results. By the way, I almost always have a small group of people in a virtual or online accountability group because we know that we are better together. If being in such a group sounds interesting to you, connect with me separately for more info.

So there is the plan. Since you now believe that food not only impacts your health, but also your work, you are inspired to take action, right? I’ve given you a simple 5 step plan to follow and laid out ideas for foods you should be eating. Enjoy!

Resources & Content credits

First is my personal website where I share all kinds of healthy living content. Find articles about breaking bad habits, healthy eating, fitness tips, exercise programs and calendars, recipes, etc. Next is my favorite healthy eating site. Here you can learn how to eat real food without counting calories or starving yourself and still lose weight. Hundreds of recipes too. The rest of the list are others sources I used to help me research this topic. I don’t agree with everything in these articles, but they were very helpful.

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