Some days you just don’t have it—no one does. But what if you’re repeatedly finding lapses in decision-making, alertness, and performance at work and home. Is it possible that what you’re eating, or not eating, is causing the mental fatigue and confusion? Quite possibly. In fact, diet and productivity may be more closely intertwined than you think.
The Link Between Diet and Productivity
What you eat can play a significant role in mood, stress, fatigue, concentration, and overall productivity. And, although it isn’t the lone factor in general well-being, its contribution has been highlighted in various studies.
One such study, conducted in 2012, is particularly notable when it comes to diet and productivity. Looking at nearly 20,000 employees who worked at three large companies showed that diet played a significant role in productivity. Those that reported eating an unhealthy diet were 66% more likely to report drops in productivity than those who said they regularly ate whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Is a Calorie a Calorie?
When it comes to weight loss, studies show that all calories are not equal. The source of the calories makes a big difference in your body’s responses. And while making the wrong food choices can negatively impact your waistline, they can also weigh down your brainpower and ultimately make your days harder. For example, although you need carbohydrates to think effectively, getting them from a candy bar, soda, or donut will have a profoundly different outcome than if you get them from oats, apples, or whole-grain bread.
How Diet Affects Productivity
Carbohydrates are responsible for giving your brain the energy it needs to function properly. Thinking, concentrating, decision making, focusing, problem-solving, learning, and memory all rely on the availability of stored carbohydrates (in the form of glucose), to keep you alert and on top of your game.
When available glucose in the brain begins runs low and starts to empty out, mental fatigue sets in. And, it doesn’t just compromise decision-making and productivity. It can make you feel pretty fatigued from a general standpoint as well.
But your brain needs more than just glucose to function. It also needs plenty of vitamins and minerals, as well as fats, to keep intra-brain communications (by way of neurotransmitters) firing on all cylinders. These nutrients, like vitamin C, B vitamins, magnesium, selenium, omega-3 fats and amino acids, are all required to repair and restore brain tissue, combat stress, and stave off oxidation from free radicals.
Diet also affects mood, and it’s nearly impossible to be energized, productive, and motivated when you’re feeling down in the dumps. Numerous studies clearly indicate that unhealthy diets consisting of items like processed foods, added sugar, refined grains, and saturated fat could lead to increased feelings of anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, those who eat fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins, and whole grains have a substantially reduced risk of such moods.
What You Can Eat to Increase Productivity
Two factors in making sure you eat to stay energized throughout the day are maintaining stable glucose levels and choosing the right foods. Glucose tends to get utilized and drop every two to four hours, so you’ll want to have a meal or snack about every three hours. The meals and snacks should be a right mix of carbohydrates and proteins while being nutrient-dense.
Doing this will prevent a quick relapse in hunger and keep your brain pumping along. There’s one catch, though: the foods should be nutritious. So, eat foods like oatmeal, yogurt, nuts, fruit, and whole grain bread. These items are “complex” carbohydrates that send a steady, slow release of glucose to provide the energy your brain needs for an extended period.
If you opt for sodas, donuts, candy bars, or chips (all examples of refined carbs and sugary foods), the sugar is released quickly into your bloodstream, and you’ll feel a spike in energy and alertness. However, a crash will soon follow that will cut into your good mood and productivity. These two types of carbs—“complex” and “refined”—are metabolized completely differently.
If you want to keep your energy and brain power up to save you from poor decisions, sluggishness, confusion, and stress, you’ll need more than just carbohydrates. Protein and fat are also important because they provide essential functional nutrition. The fats you want to be eating for brain power include omega-3s from supplements and fish like salmon. Other healthy fat sources include nuts, avocado, peanut and almond butters, and olive oil. Protein sources that can keep you feeling full and alert include chicken and turkey breast, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, tuna, and virtually any cut of lean (or relatively lean) meat.
There are also data showing that people who eat more fruit and vegetables throughout the day report feeling happier and more creative at work. However, the sample size was relatively small, and the study may not have taken other lifestyle factors into account. That said, the nutrition derived from such items makes a sound case for its mental impacts.
Lastly, you will need to stay hydrated for proper distribution of all these nutrients in the body. Sip water throughout the day to improve your productivity, as well as to keep your brain and body firing on all cylinders!
A Sample Productivity Diet
If you’ve been sluggishly struggling through your days and want to start feeling better, get more things done, and ultimately improve health, here are some meal and snack ideas you can try. Please note that caloric requirements differ between individuals, so use this as a general guideline.
1. Breakfast (8:00 a.m.)
- 1 egg
- ¹⁄3 cup of egg whites
- Whole grain English muffin with peanut butter
- Some fresh fruit
2. Morning Snack (10:00 a.m to 11:00 a.m.)
- Whey protein
- 1 package of whole grain oats
3. Lunch (1:00 p.m to 2:00 p.m.)
- Chicken breast or tuna
- Whole grain toast
- Green salad or vegetables
4. Afternoon Snack (4:00 p.m to 4:30 p.m.)
- Greek yogurt
- Almonds, walnuts, or peanuts
- Celery sticks, sliced peppers, or carrots
5. Dinner (6:00 p.m to 7:00 p.m.)
- Salmon, turkey, or sirloin steak
- Sweet potato
- Broccoli, green beans, asparagus, or green salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar
6. Evening Snack (8:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.)
- Whey protein, cottage cheese, or Greek yogurt
- Berries or fresh fruit
- Peanut butt, almond butter, or nuts
- Green vegetables
- Air-popped popcorn
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