Nutrition & work performance: are you putting the right fuel in your tank?
Food is fuel for our bodies. We need a certain number of kilojoules each day to function. However, when the kilojoules we consume are low quality (such as processes foods that are high fat and low in nutritional value), our bodies can suffer. An unhealthy diet hurts our organs and weakens our immune system, leaving us vulnerable to illness and poor energy levels. Factor in a demanding work schedule to the mix with deadlines to meet and it certainly isn’t an ideal combination is it!
Let’s take a look at the type of foods that drain your energy. We should avoid high fat, energy dense food if we wish to improve and maintain good energy levels. Food that drains our energy should be reduced or eliminated altogether (this can be a gradual process!). These foods, loaded with simple sugars, causing a quick energy boost followed by a decline that is just as quick – often leaving you more drained than before.
Stimulants such as caffeine and sugar may provide a boost of energy in the short-term, but long-term they deplete our bodies of energy by continually drawing out minerals and nutrients. They can also be highly addictive! Stimulants include:
In contrast, there are plenty of foods we can consume that improve our energy levels.
Dark green leafy vegetables are a high-quality food source providing many of the vitamins our bodies need to stay healthy with sustained energy. These vegetables are often high in calcium, iron, zinc, folate, potassium and vitamins A, C, E and K.
Whole grains are an important source of carbohydrates – which is exactly what we need to be able to supply energy to the body in the form of glucose. Glucose is the preferred fuel source for the brain and central nervous system. Without glucose, we cannot maintain our health.
There are other types of food which are important for energy, health and performance too. Protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats and certain vitamins are all associated with brain function and mental performance.
Brain food – protein: protein is found in meat, fish, milk and cheese. It provides the building blocks for the body’s tissues, nerves and internal organs (including our brain and heart).
Brain food – carbohydrates: as we’ve already discusses, carbohydrate is an essential fuel source. Grains, fruits and vegetables are all healthy sources of carbohydrates.
Brain food – healthy fats: omega-3 fatty acids are essential to the optimum performance of your brain. You can ensure your diet is rich in omega-3 fats by eating plenty of oily fish including mackerel, salmon, sardines, tuna, herring and anchovies.
Brain food – vitamins & minerals: these are essential for the growth and functioning of the brain. The ‘B’ complex vitamins are particularly important for the brain and play a vital role in producing energy. Vitamins A, C and E are powerful antioxidants, which help to promote and preserve memory. Minerals are also critical to mental functioning and performance. Magnesium, for example is necessary for brain energy. Sodium, potassium and calcium are important in the thinking process and they also facilitate the transmission of messages.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look into some more specific strategies about how you can use nutrition to your advantage at work.
Studies suggest that cognitive abilities tend to peak during late morning hours – so tackle your most mentally taxing work tasks before lunch. Experts suggest that alertness and attention levels taper off following meals. This is why you might find yourself struggling to concentrate in those post-lunch work meetings.
Our bodies are primed to digest and utilise food for roughly an 8-10 hour period in the day. Eating outside of these hours can mean that digestion takes a lot longer, and we process fats and sugar less efficiently – which impacts on our energy levels.
Research has found that increasing your vitamin B intake could significantly reduce work-related stress. Vitamin B is found in whole, unprocessed foods such as meat, beans and wholegrains as well as milk, yoghurt and green leafy vegetables.
Tempted to skip breakfast? Studies have found that eating breakfast may improve short-term memory and attention. Those who eat it tend to perform better than those who don’t. Foods at the top of researchers' brain-fuel list include high-fibre whole grains, dairy, and fruits. Just don't overeat; researchers also found high-calorie breakfasts appear to hinder concentration.
In summary, if your diet lacks essential nutrients, it can hurt your ability to concentrate. Eating too much or too little can also interfere with your focus. A heavy meal may make you feel tired, while not eating enough can result in distracting hunger pangs. It’s also really important to stay hydrated, so if it’s been awhile since you had some water – go fill up your water bottle now!
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