When it comes to productivity, we often broach the topics of sleep, physical activity and mental health. While each of these factors certainly has a part to play in contributing to workplace performance, we rarely give much consideration to what and how we eat. For many of us, food is an afterthought that is simply meant to fuel us, when in reality they affect us more than we think. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), committing to proper nutrition can improve our productivity by as much as 20%1, in addition to the various health benefits that we can reap in the long run. Here’s why:
Linking blood sugar levels and productivity
The food we eat has a direct impact on our cognitive performance, which means that our food choices can have major impacts on our mood and activities. This is because most of what we eat is converted by our body into glucose, or what we call blood sugar. Glucose provides the energy we need in our day-to-day lives, including functions pertaining to our body and brain. The low levels of glucose associated with hunger is therefore one of the main reasons why we can find it hard to focus on an empty stomach.
In this sense, different types of food can have different effects on our bodies, since some are processed at higher rates than others. Carbohydrates like pasta, bread and cereal, for instance, tend to release their glucose more quickly, causing a sharp spike in our blood sugar levels and a burst of energy that is typically followed by a slump. In comparison, foods that are high in fats usually provide more sustained energy, though they are also harder to process. This means that our digestive systems will have to work harder to break down foods such as hamburgers and fries, leading to lower brain oxygen levels that can make us feel lethargic and sleepy. The ideal balance comes in the form of grains, fruits and vegetables. As compared to carbohydrates, these foods require more time to be processed, but they also do not require our body to work as hard as it does for high-fat alternatives. They are therefore ‘just right’ in their ability to provide us with stable energy levels.
Eating right for optimal productivity
When we are constantly battling a never-ending stream of meetings and deadlines, it can be hard to choose mindful eating over that of convenience and efficiency during mealtimes. Having an action plan to fall back on makes it less likely for these factors to get in the way of proper decision-making and healthy eating. Consider trying out the following tips to find one that is best suited for your needs.
Studies have found our actions often precede conscious thought, which means that many of our behaviours, including eating, are performed mindlessly2. Part of this can be attributed to a greater lack of self-control when we are hungry and simultaneously trying to decide what to eat. Unhealthy meal options also tend to be cheaper and faster than healthier alternatives, which results in a combination of bad scenarios that is all too easy to fall prey to. While it might seem like a good idea at first, these seemingly efficient decisions can lead to even more time lost over the course of the day when we experience the subsequent drop in productivity and work performance that is associated with a poor diet. Fortunately for us, countering this can be as easy as taking some time to plan ahead. Beyond choosing your meals a few hours earlier, consider mixing it up by opting to prepare your meals at home, trying out a meal subscription service, or even planning a group lunch with your friend and colleagues ahead of time. This can provide a foolproof way for us to eat better even on our most hectic days.
We mentioned earlier that different types of food can have different effects on our bodies. The frequency and size of our meals can have just as much of an impact on us too. For instance, not eating when we are hungry can lead to low blood sugar levels that can make us dizzy, irritable and inattentive. On the flip side, higher blood sugar levels can also cause hormonal imbalances, inflammation, and a decline in our brain functions. These fluctuations are both detrimental to our productivity and our long-term health, which means that it is in our best interest to keep our blood sugar levels stable. One way to do so is to eat smaller meals rather than indulging in a feast during mealtimes. The general rule of thumb is to only eat until you feel 80% full. Also known as hara hachi bu, this Japanese-originated practice has been linked to lower rates of illness from heart disease, cancer and stroke3. It also teaches us to listen to our bodies as well as to eat more intuitively and mindfully.
It is often tempting to walk out to the nearest convenience store or vending machine to get some chips or cookies when we are hungry. Healthier alternatives, on the other hand, tend to be less accessible to us. This is why having some healthy snacks, such as vegetables, fruits and nuts within or near our line of sight is a great way to prevent ourselves from succumbing to poor decision-making. Doing so makes it easier for us to pick these snacks over less healthy alternatives and helps us to increase our consumption of healthy foods during the day. Moreover, research has shown that consuming fruits and vegetables throughout the day is not just beneficial to the body but also to the mind4. Fruits and vegetables contain important nutrients that encourage the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps us experience greater curiosity, motivation and engagement. They also contain antioxidants that can minimise bodily inflammation, improve our memory and enhance our mood. As such, snacking is not always a bad thing, as consuming more of the healthy alternatives can enable us to be happier, more engaged and more creative.
Over to you
Our Whole Person Health and productivity levels are indubitably linked. If we are to look to encouraging better work performances, we have to ensure that every health-related aspect of our life is taken care of as well. Naturally, this includes making intelligent decisions about our food choices and taking the time to foster habits that will allow us to eat better. Fortunately for us, eating right can be as simple as taking the initiative to plan ahead.
1. International Labour Organisation. (2005). Poor workplace nutrition hits workers' health and productivity, says new ILO report.
2. Watkins, J. (2008). Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.
3. Albers, S. (2009). Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful.
4. Conner, T., Brookie, K., Richardson, A., & Polak, M. (2014). On carrots and curiosity: Eating fruit and vegetables is associated with greater flourishing in daily life.