As a population, we’re now more concerned than ever about how we fuel our bodies. It’s impossible to avoid the swathes of products built to target the recent boom in self-care and wellness, with almost everyone now looking to make more informed choices about their diet.
Many do so for the health benefits, but it’s also becoming clear that what you eat can have a direct effect on your productivity, helping or hindering your focus at home or in the workplace. In short, when you’re battling a burgeoning workload, an overflowing inbox and a mad meeting schedule, that high-street sandwich and sugary drink isn’t exactly the high-octane fuel your body is asking for.
“Food fuels our body and brain, and can determine whether we experience a productive high energy day or a slow listless one,” says Lily Soutter, a nutritionist specialising in workplace wellness. “Like an expensive car, our brain functions best when it gets premium fuel.”
This explains why fast food and sweet treats can make us feel so sluggish or manic and, on the flip side, why we feel more energised and satiated after finishing a serving of nutrient-dense food.
“Balancing blood sugar by consuming slow release whole grains and opting for protein in little and often amounts, can help to provide sustained fuel to the body and brain,” says Soutter. “Ensuring that food choices are nutrient dense will provide essential vitamins – these vitamins are required to convert the food we eat into energy and will reduce fatigue.”
Fatigue is something we all deal with at certain times, and informs our diets more than we think. But it all stems from how we sleep. According to a recent survey of 2,000 people, the average man in the UK gets 6.28 hours of sleep a night, with women sleeping marginally better at 6.36 hours. Bleak findings, considering it's recommended that most of use sleep between seven and nine hours a night, but hardly surprising.
Yet this sleep deficit is costly. The UK loses around 200,000 working days a year due to absenteeism from poor sleep, an epidemic costing the country approximately up to £40bn annually. So how can our diet help us take back control?
“Late nights and broken sleep can leave us feeling groggy and craving quick fix foods,” explains Soutter. “Research has shown that when we have less than 7-8 hours sleep, our appetite stimulant hormone (ghrelin) increases and our appetite suppressant hormone (leptin) decreases.”
A University of Chicago study found that when we’re sleep deprived people tend to eat upwards of 330 extra calories daily and are up to 40% more likely to choose nutritionally-poor foods, such as refined carbohydrates and salty snacks. “This physiological response to a lack of sleep primes us to grab any quick-fix foods that we other otherwise may have forgone,” explains Soutter.
Predictably, one of these quick fixes is coffee. The coffee industry is currently worth almost $100bn (£77bn), but a three-a-day habit has no place in a cognitive shopping list. “Coffee in the short term can increase productivity,” says Soutter. “But too much caffeine can leave us feeling jittery and anxious. What’s more caffeine can lead to trouble falling asleep, and reduce sleep duration, particularly slow wave and REM sleep, which can increase day time fatigue.”
So, what’s the fix? And how can you avoid that dreaded 3pm slump without reaching for another cup of joe? With your brain requiring as much as 20% of all energy needed by the body, your food is the ultimate antidote.
“It requires a steady supply of glucose to function at its best. This is why fibre rich slow release carbohydrates within the diet are key,” says Soutter. “Healthy omega-3 fats can support the brain’s integrity and ability to perform, while essential nutrients such iron, zinc, B vitamins and iodine support normal cognitive function. Therefore a well-rounded and balanced diet full of nutrient dense whole foods is critical for optimal brain power.”
Oily Fish Your brain is nearly 60% fat, and the fats found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and anchovies) line each cell membrane helping to maintain their structure, says Soutter. For vegetarians, a combination of nuts, seeds and the much-touted avocado will deliver a good source of these healthy fats.
Berries “Exciting new research suggests that polyphenols found in mixed berries may help to improve cognitive performance, accuracy and reaction speeds for up to six hours post consumption,” says Soutter. Blueberries have also been found to be beneficial to combating high blood pressure by up to 6%, according to Florida State University nutritionists.
Matcha Green Tea Substituting your morning latte for matcha green tea can transform your morning routine, but it doesn’t mean you have to give up caffeine. “Caffeine withdrawal can result in headaches and low mood, which can wreak havoc with concentration,” says Soutter. Thankfully matcha green tea contains a much lower caffeine content and is rich in a compound called l-theanine. This provides a feeling of relaxation, clarity and alertness, without those jittery side effects.
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