Your body functions like a machine, so it makes sense that the fuel you provide that machine has the power to positively or negatively impact its performance. You already know that the foods and beverages you consume have the power to shape your body type, but what you may not realize is that your nutrition plays a significant role in determining your productivity habits as well.
This can play out in a number of different ways. The foods we eat have the power to give us a surge of energy when we need it most—or set us up for the 3 pm energy slump, which usually occurs when we focus too much on foods with quick-release energy in the form of refined carbohydrates. It has the power to improve our feelings of wellness—or cause us to miss more work due to sick days and long-term health conditions.
So just how does nutrition affect your productivity and focus, and what steps can you take to bring it under control?
Sugar and the Brain
Let’s start by digging into the complex relationship between sugar and the brain. Every cell in our body depends on glucose, a form of sugar, to function. Our brains consume glucose constantly, but demand it at higher rates when we’re concentrating or thinking critically. On some basic level, the harder you think, the more glucose you’ll use, and the less glucose you have circulating your body, the harder it will be to think. We’re not talking about a trivial amount, either; our brains are responsible for roughly half of all glucose consumption in the body.
Obviously, that means when glucose levels get too low, our brains can’t work properly. But studies also suggest that excessive levels of glucose are also problematic, with animal models linking excess glucose consumption to memory and cognitive difficulties. So instead of focusing on flooding your brain with glucose, it’s better to focus on providing your brain with a steady, consistent level of glucose throughout the day.
Okay, so what does that mean for your nutrition?
When you digest food, the body splits that food apart into its basic components. Some of those components, like proteins and fats, can be used for specific purposes in the body (like rebuilding tissue or dissolving micronutrients) as well as being broken down for energy. Other components, like carbohydrates, serve no purpose other than to provide energy.
When carbohydrates are broken down, they’re eventually turned into a basic form—glucose—that your brain can use. But different carbohydrates are broken down in different ways and at different rates. Simple carbohydrates (i.e., sugar) are broken down very quickly and rush glucose into your bloodstream. This gives you a strong but short-lived boost of attention and energy—sometimes so much that it’s actually distracting. Complex carbohydrates, which can be found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, take more time to be broken down and tend to release glucose steadily over the course of several hours—which is ideal if your goal is maintaining a steady schedule of work.
Fullness and Hunger
We also need to touch upon the effects of fullness and hunger. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that we tend to get distracted when we’re hungry. If you go too long without eating, or if you start the day without breakfast, you might get so distracted that you can’t perform optimally. Conversely, stuffing yourself with food isn’t a good idea either—eating too much in one sitting can leave you feeling groggy, and stick you with a shortage of glucose later in the day.
Again, the best approach here is moderation. You don’t want to eat too much or too little but remain satisfied throughout the day without major swings in your hunger or fullness.
The Power of Caffeine
Caffeine won’t influence the levels of glucose in your body, but it can affect your subjective feelings of energy and wellness. Caffeine works by “fooling” the adenosine receptors in your body, and by functioning as a stimulant. As you likely already know, it can make you more alert, more focused, and more productive.
There are downsides to caffeine, however. If you consume too much, you could suffer from feelings of anxiety or jitteriness, which distract you from your work more than providing a measurable benefit. And if you drink too much throughout the day, or drink too far into the afternoon and evening, it has the power to disrupt your sleep schedule. Once you start losing sleep, it becomes harder to concentrate and work efficiently during the day—leading you to consume more caffeine to make up for it, and feeding a vicious cycle. Consume your caffeine in moderation, and try to keep it confined to the early hours of the morning.
Long-Term Effects of Obesity
Obesity is complex, with many root causes, but if you consistently overeat without exercising, you’ll be at significantly increased risk for obesity. Obese individuals tend to take 3 to 5 more sick days per year than their normal-weight counterparts, and are at higher risk for a variety of health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes—all of which produce discomfort or otherwise create conditions that make it harder for you to do your job effectively.
Improving your daily nutritional intake is the best way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight (though exercise will help too). If you work from home, you may be tempted to visit the kitchen and snack frequently, and if you work with others, you may be constantly bombarded with invitations for birthday cake in the break room—but you have to indulge these temptations in moderation. Reducing the amount you eat by just 10 to 20 percent can have a measurable impact on your weight—and allow you to work more consistently and productively in the years to come.
While you’re at it, consider exercising on a more frequent basis, especially if you work in an office environment that requires long periods of sitting. Exercise will help you stay in better shape, reducing your susceptibility to illness, and can also give you a boost of energy you can use to get more done throughout the day.
Key Elements to Master For Improved Focus and Productivity Throughout the Day
Overall, there are four main areas of development to work on if you want to improve your productivity:
- Macronutritional Avoid consuming foods with high quantities of sugar or processed carbohydrates. Instead, try to eat more foods rich in protein, fats, and complex carbohydrates. Fruits, vegetables, meats, legumes, nuts, and whole grains are your friends, while refined grains, cereals, and sugary treats are problematic.
- It’s ideal to have a steady stream of glucose with which to work. That means timing your meals wisely. It’s ideal to start with a balanced breakfast and get snacks throughout the day. Going too long without some kind of intake can be bad for your focus and overall productivity.
- Portion control. You also need to pay attention to how much you’re eating at each sitting. Eating too much at once can leave you feeling bloated and sluggish while eating too little can leave you excessively hungry before your next meal. Aim to get several, small portions throughout the day. Portion control is also important if you’re consuming caffeine; again, regular, small doses are better than consuming large quantities all at once.
- Overall fitness. You also need to pay attention to your overall fitness. Eating healthy foods in moderation, while also maintaining a regular exercise routine, will help you stay in shape, reducing your vulnerability to many health complications (like obesity and heart disease), and give you the energy and wellness you need to do your best work.
What an Optimal Day Might Look Like
Knowing that, what could an optimal day look like?
- Your morning routine has a massive impact on your overall productivity, so start it the right way with a full breakfast. If you have the time, cook some eggs with whole grain toast for a balance of proteins and complex carbs. If not, make some oatmeal. Just make sure you eat something and avoid processed sugars.
- If you find it works for you, drink some coffee or tea in the morning—just make sure you switch to decaf by mid-afternoon.
- Grab a light snack between breakfast and lunch if you’re feeling sluggish, but keep your portion light. A handful of nuts or a piece of fruit can be perfect here.
- Don’t overdo it at lunch. If you go out to eat, half a typical restaurant portion is usually more than enough. Try to get some vegetables and other complex carbs to keep you going through the rest of the afternoon.
- Another light snack can help you close out the day. Again, keep it light—a smattering of raw veggies or some fruit would be ideal.
You don’t have to follow our productivity tips exactly to see an improvement in your overall performance; merely understanding the relationship between nutrition and productivity can help you make smarter choices and take note when your eating habits affect your work. Start paying attention to what you eat, and you’ll notice a substantial improvement in your productivity overall.