Author: Lote Steina
One of the most remarkable turns of events in the last few centuries has been humanity’s escape from the clutches of hunger. For thousands of years starvation and malnutrition plagued every society. Nowadays, however, we live in an era in which obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases seem to be a greater public health enemy than hunger. Indeed, now that food is so abundant and diverse we tend to see feeding ourselves as a means to an end not an end of itself.
If there is one thing to remember, it is that you are what you eat. Even if your goals are not nutrition-oriented, it is best to power the main goal achievement tools (your body and mind) with the things that are most likely to supercharge your batteries.
In this blog post I will outline some dietary principles that could significantly boost your productivity and overall energy levels as well as prevent rapid mood swings. I will also give a couple of examples of what productivity-boosting meals might look like.
Just a discretionary note before we start. I am not a nutritionist and if you have allergies, special dietary needs, or intense exercise regimens, you might want to consult an expert. In addition, not all of our bodies function or are built the same way, so there may not be a universal recipe. Nevertheless, the principles and good practice outlined in this article can serve the average reader well.
We all know the basics, right? Balanced intake of macronutrients (proteins, carbs, and fats) is at the foundation of a successful diet. While “If it fits your macros” fans may be vindicated by this statement, it is not that simple.
For your body and mind to truly prosper and perform above and beyond, you should also try to consume the right kinds of fats and carbs. For example, you can theoretically hit the right macronutrient ratios by eating white bread and eating deep fried steaks, but no dietary expert in their right mind would suggest such a diet. Instead you should try to take in all the necessary nutrients including minerals, fibers, vitamins, and water, as well as aim for the best types of carbs and fats you can get.
So what to remember for healthier munching? Here are the key principles:
Blame the carbs! While carbs are one of the key macronutrients, they are also the most problematic. Our diets are oversaturated with them as processed sugars and all sorts of dough seem to be ubiquitous. As we consume simple carbs, our insulin levels rise overwhelming our brains with sleep hormones. Ever thought why you feel so sleepy after pasta? What’s worse is that our busy work schedules seem to encourage us to grab a quick bite rich in carbs to get back to work ASAP only to end up being less productive and attentive, work longer hours, and continue eating easy-to-make carbs. A textbook vicious cycle. Don’t get me wrong – carbs are indispensable, but instead of constantly munching on pasta and recharging your afternoon batteries with fistfuls of M&Ms, eat fruits, veggies, and whole grain products (i.e. products rich in fiber that will keep your energy levels stable and yourself satiated for longer).
Breakfast matters. The necessity of breakfast has become somewhat of a heated argument. Regardless of whether you eat breakfast or not, it is more or less clear that it is better for your concentration, memory, and overall productivity to have a proper breakfast. The logic here is pretty straightforward – the brain is the organ that consumes the most energy. Without breakfast your body goes into energy saving mode and the good old brain slows down accordingly. It is not about whether you should or shouldn’t eat breakfast. All of that is up to you. It’s just that Biology 101 argues that it’s the best call if you have a mentally challenging day ahead.
Frequent meals. Following the same principle outlined above, don’t let your brain run out of energy throughout the day! Better to have small, frequent meals to top your brain up than two giant meals that are likely to end up overwhelming it and make you sleepy. As mentioned above, try to avoid the overuse of carbs during those meals (especially sugary snacks and bread). Veggies, nuts, fruits are the best options for your snacks between the three primary meals. Think about it like a bonfire – you light it up in the morning and add a small piece of wood and kindling every once in a while throughout the day to keep it burning.
8 glasses of water a day. Practically every life form out there requires water to survive and prosper. Just mild dehydration (1-3% fluid loss) will impact our moods and lead to significant reductions in memory, brain, and physical performance. Water maintains the balance of all bodily fluids which in turn help our bodies to digest, absorb, circulate, and transport nutrients as well as maintain body temperature. Given all these benefits (or potential problems) taking a regular sip from your trusty water bottle seems worthwhile.
Good fats for the win. Omega 3 fatty acids are key for various of our bodily functions, most important of which is the maintenance and proper functioning of our brains. Your brain contains tens of billions of cells and omega 3 fatty acids are their building blocks. The more omega 3 you consume, the better these brain cells operate and cooperate with one another. To help you concentrate better, aim for two to three portions of oily fish (salmon, trout, cod, herring) a week and include nuts, seeds, and green vegetables in your diet as much as possible.
So, taking into account the aforementioned principles, what would a brain power boosting meal plan look like? Here are a couple of suggestions for the main parts of your daily nutrition.
Breakfast. The most important meal of the day. Even if you usually don’t have breakfast, I suggest eating something to raise those energy levels and keep the blood sugar levels adequate. If you are a light morning eater, have something small and focus on a late morning snack or early lunch. If you don’t mind having a bigger breakfast, this is the one meal to focus on to prep yourself for the day ahead. Eggs, oats, berries, fruits, whole grain bread or cereals, granola, Greek yoghurt, nuts and seeds, milk, cheese, and meat. Drink wise, water is great, but tea and coffee will also do. So, for instance, eat a hardboiled egg, a banana, or a granola bar if you prefer a light breakfast. If you are willing to put in some time and effort, an omelet, fruit salad, granola with yoghurt, a sandwich, oatmeal, or any combination of these will do wonders. While all macronutrients here are important, this is the meal in which carbs shouldn’t be excluded as they will light that energy bonfire high. Just remember to make your carbs fiber rich so that they can release energy for the next few hours.
Lunch. This is the point when the day is either made or broken. Many stumble when picking lunch just because they make their meal decisions when hungry (not having had a proper breakfast or a nourishing snack) or just opt for the cheapest option (mac and cheese is more appealing price-wise than salads or grains). Keep your lunch light, focusing primarily on fibers (veggies, fruit, whole grains) with a possible addition of some proteins or fats. Avoid simple carbs (white bread, pasta, couscous etc.) as they will lead to a brief energy spike followed by a prolonged slump. Veggies and salads are rich in fiber leading to more gradual energy absorption plus they have tons of vitamins and minerals that will enhance your brainpower both in short and long term. Whole grains (brown rice, buckwheat, whole grain bread/pasta, millet etc.) also release energy more slowly helping you to avoid that wild rollercoaster of energy levels and moods. Fats and proteins are a useful addition as they help your body to process fibers more gradually.
Dinner. While it may seem that you are in the clear by dinner time and you can let loose, there are still some things to consider. First, a healthy and balanced diet is always advisable, regardless of the time of the day. Second, good night’s sleep is essential for a productive working day and binging is about the worst thing you can do before bedtime. I suggest avoiding an overly large dinner as it could make you sleepy without actually leading to better sleep (due to prolonged digestion). Carbs like rice, potatoes, and pasta are not a boogeyman during dinners, but I suggest not overdoing them considering the digestion question. Adding some fat (nuts, fatty fish) and protein (chicken, fish, lentils) is also a good idea as it will keep you satiated longer and help you avoid late night trips to the sweets cupboard. Green salads (spinach, kale etc.) and veggies such as broccoli or green peas are also wonderful to keep you sharp and satiated.
Snacks. Seeing how both lunch and dinner are supposed to be light, grabbing healthy and brain power boosting snacks in between is indispensable. This will help to keep your brain humming along throughout the day. Nuts, fruits, granola bars, veggies, and dark chocolate will return your concentration and give your body a much needed energy boost while also helping you to shun sugary treats, pastries, and energy drinks – all of which will do more harm than good to your productivity levels. My advice is to make healthy snacking easy and accessible. Bring fruit, sliced veggies, or whole grain granola bars to work with you so that you don’t have to resort to a vending machine.
One thing to remember for all of these meals – water them all down. Of course, having an occasional cup of coffee or tea is not bad, but water is the best choice. If you are striving for the best brain performance, sodas and other sugary drinks are to be avoided.
The principles outlined in this blog post are useful if you want to keep yourself sharp and productive. All that being said, don’t take this as a full-fledged repudiation of cookies, white bread, fast food and other staples of the 21st century diet. I myself am a great admirer of all things related to sugar and would be very unwilling to turn down the pleasure of munching on a freshly baked loaf of white bread. Keep enjoying the things you love, but remember these tips if you have a lot of work planned for the week ahead, an important exam coming up, or if you just have problems concentrating every once in a while.