Other than getting a good night’s sleep, there’s probably nothing that impacts your productivity and mood at work more than what you eat. Yet you probably give little thought to what you consume before and during work, defaulting instead to what’s convenient, cheap and tasty. When you do think twice about what you eat, it’s usually in the context of a diet that’s focused on losing weight rather than improving your cognitive functioning and energy level. Fortunately, there are a few basic food guidelines that go a long way toward achieving these latter goals.
Things you will need:
• A new food attitude: Carbs are not the enemy. Neither is fat. Eliminating certain food groups may hinder your brain functionality.
• A stash of snacks: To keep your brain well-fueled, you can’t get too hungry. Have a ready supply of trail mix, protein bars, low fat/sugar yogurt or apples with nut butter. The combination of carbs and protein in these snacks stabilizes your blood sugar, fills you up and keeps you energized.
• Willpower: Big meals actually reduce the supply of energy to your brain and leave you feeling sleepy for hours. Eat half of what you order, and take the rest home.
1. Balance what you eat
In 1956, the USDA introduced its “Basic Four” guide, promoting the daily consumption of foods from four main groups: meat, dairy, grains and vegetables. Today, nutritionists talk about a different set of food groups — proteins, carbohydrates (which produce glucose), fats and fiber — and a different way to combine them. Instead of having a few helpings from each group every day, they recommend eating something from each of the four groups every time you sit down to eat. Yes, that includes carbs, which certain popular diets restrict — specifically whole grain carbs, fruits and vegetables. The combination of carbs and protein (and to a lesser extent, fats and fiber) regulates your glucose levels and keeps your mood and mental ability on an even keel.
Moreover, each food group brings unique brain-boosting benefits to the table. Research suggests meals with more protein and monounsaturated fats are associated with better-sustained attention and focus, while carbohydrates provide a more calming and positive effect on memory. Cut back on any food group and you’re missing the benefits that food can offer.
2. Neglect carbs at your own peril
Cutting carbs may momentarily shrink your waistline, but doing so will shrink your brainpower, too. The popular low-carb and no-carb diets have the strongest potential for negative impact on thinking and cognition, and when carbs are re-introduced, weight gain typically occurs. In a recent study, dieters who lowered their blood sugar levels by cutting carbohydrates from their meals immediately performed worse on memory-based tasks than those who simply reduced total calories by the same amount. When they started eating carbs again, their memory skills quickly rebounded.
Brain cells require twice the amount of energy needed by any other cells in the body because they never rest. High-carb foods such as whole grain pasta, rice, bread and fruit produce the brain’s favorite fuel — glucose. Your brain can burn protein if it has to, but it’s like trying to run a gasoline engine on diesel fuel. I am not suggesting you eat a loaf of Wonder Bread. There are plenty of “good” carbs — fruit, vegetables, whole grains and brown rice — that will supply your brain with all the fuel it needs.
3. Pack in the protein
Proteins such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, beans and nuts slow the absorption of glucose so your brain gets a long and steady flow of fuel, rather than the brief energetic blast you get from eating carbs alone (think buttermilk pancakes with syrup — quick energy that quickly fades and leaves you in a slump). Protein also brings its own set of brain boosters to the party. Amino acids found in meats, poultry, fish and eggs help produce the neurotransmitters — serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine — that keep us focused, energetic and upbeat. Minerals such as zinc typically found in high-protein food (lean meat, seafood, eggs and milk) also enhance memory and improve attention span.
4. Eat smaller amounts of food more frequently
If you want to keep up your energy and performance levels, the last thing you need is a three-course lunch (or a three-egg cheese omelet for breakfast). The same goes for large dinners. Too much food — even if it’s well-balanced — is going to make you drowsy because it introduces too much glucose for your body to handle at one time. When that happens, your liver reacts by storing the glucose, resulting in your brain actually getting less fuel than it requires. Five to six small meals will allow you to perform better than three squares.
5. Fat is beautiful ... for your brain
You probably know that omega-3 fatty acids are good for your heart. They’re great brain food, too. Fat found in salmon, walnuts and spinach improves learning and memory. They also fight against depression, schizophrenia and dementia, according to a report from the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, by supporting the synapses in the brain where much of our cognitive functioning occurs.
6. Keep it in proportion
Portion and proportion play a big role in regulating glucose and controlling weight. Use your hand for portion control. Your fist is the size of one serving of carbs. Your palm is the size of a protein serving. Make an “OK” sign with your thumb and index finger for a serving of fat. Eat fruits and vegetables with wild abandon.
What have you got to lose, except weight and a foggy mind, by incorporating these tips into your work day? You’ve got three months to get your nutritional house in order, then it’s time to focus on the topic of my next column: water — not just drinking more of it, but incorporating water as part of your exercise routine.•
Sharon Buechler is an attorney with Riley Bennett Egloff LLP and a certified personal trainer, health fitness specialist, and life and wellness coach. Opinions expressed are those of the author.