The link between nutrition and workplace performance
In his 1825 book The Physiology of Taste, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin provides a series of aphorisms “to serve as a preamble to his work and a lasting foundation for the science of gastronomy.” The most famous, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are,” has even been condensed into a cliché you’ve heard countless times: You are what you eat. Clichés are clichés for a reason, of course. In the case of this one, science has only found more evidence linking nutrition to all aspects of health, including work performance.
During busy season, it’s easy lose track of the fuel you put into your body. You may skip meals entirely or grab whatever’s convenient to just keep plowing ahead. But opting for junk, skipping meals or eating erratically will decrease your efficiency, spoil your mood and hamper the quality of work. Instead, be mindful of what you eat, when you eat it and build nutrition into your day to ensure your brain functions at its best.
Garbage in, garbage out
In computer science, the acronym GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) refers to the notion that if inputs are bad, outputs will be too. The same principle is true with nutrition. We’re just beginning to grapple with all the implications of our industrial food culture. But it’s clear that our eating habits have a ton of room for improvement. Where to start?
There are a lot of fad diets. But there’s also some common-sense advice that will improve your diet quickly and easily. Professor and author Michael Pollan recommends three no-nonsense pieces of guidance to transform your eating habits: Eat food, not too much and mostly plants. “Today, much of the challenge of eating well comes down to choosing real food and avoiding industrial novelties,” he writes at the outset of Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, a short and practical guide to improving your shopping and eating habits.
Some people keep tabs on macros, meal planning and doing other levels of advanced nutritional tracking. While all of these activities are valid pursuits, they’re not essential to eating more mindfully and healthfully. Skip heavily processed foods with words you don’t recognize in the ingredient lists and opt for fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins. It’s not intimidating or complex advice, and it works. The easiest way to start is to eliminate sugary beverages, which are the definition of empty calories.
Eat early and often
In the same way that it’s beneficial to work in concert with your natural productivity rhythm, it’s helpful to eat alongside it as well. The easiest and most impactful way to do that is by eating breakfast. Starting your day with a nutritious meal has benefits for energy levels, mood, productivity and, believe it or not, weight loss. Skipping breakfast starts your day on the wrong foot. Those extra few minutes in bed are not worth the tradeoff.
Healthy snacking is another excellent way to keep your blood sugar levels consistent and your energy at its peak. Most nutritionists recommend eating small meals and snacks throughout the day rather than relying on three square meals. Rounding out your meal intake minimizes the difference between your highest and lowest glucose levels and thereby keeps energy levels from fluctuating too severely. If you are eating breakfast before you get to work, followed by having a mid-morning snack, lunch and maybe another bite in the mid-afternoon, you won’t find yourself so weary come quitting time.
The final piece of the puzzle is staying hydrated at all times. You can find an excellent infographic here that details some of the ways hydration affects our health and productivity. There are a number of apps that can help prompt you to hydrate.
You can’t outwork a bad diet
Your diet is fundamental to the way you do your job. At a time of year when you’re likely tempted to skip lunch, grab breakfast from a drive-through or rely on little more than coffee to get you through the day, it’s essential to remember how nutrition, productivity and wellness are connected. If you don’t eat well, you’ll perform worse. It’s that simple.
Eating may seem unrelated to your overall productivity and performance, but it’s actually intrinsically linked. Ignoring your nutrition won’t make more time for work; it will only make your work more stressful and less effective.
A better eating schedule
Drink a glass of water as soon as possible upon waking.
Eat a nutritious breakfast that includes fruits and vegetables, as well as either healthy fats or whole grains. (Smoothies are great when you’re crunched for time.)
Drink a cup of coffee if you want, or alternatively, a cup of green tea.
Pro tip: Drinking coffee after you’ve had water and while you’re having breakfast will make you both less likely to skip a meal and less dependent on caffeine.
Eating at work
Have healthy snacks readily available so you are not tempted to eat empty calories. Almonds, bananas, carrot sticks and other easy-to-eat whole foods make great snacks.
Eat a mid-morning snack before you’re starving. If you start to feel hunger pangs, odds are your performance is already suffering.
If possible, eat lunch away from your desk. You will eat better if you don’t rush through your meal in front of your workstation.
Bring a reusable water bottle and fill it up throughout the day. Your number of trips to the water fountain will let you know how much you’re hydrating.
Dinner for winners
Avoid convenience meals that feel like a relief after a hard day. You may get that burger in five seconds, but you’ll later pay the price.
When you can, cook at home. It will instantly eliminate additives in your food and get you more engaged in your nutrition.
Avoid eating two hours before bedtime or later. Digestion will disrupt your sleep pattern.