Nutrition and productivity: everything you need for a dynamic workday

by Jan 27, 2021

On a scale of one to ten, how productive are you on an average day?

If your perceived level of efficiency is less than you’d like it to be, you’re not alone. There’s no shortage of data about the overall unproductive state of the modern individual. According to a 2016 Inc. article, the average office worker is productive for only three hours a day.

And yes, a lot of that lost time happens due to distractions, poor planning, or procrastination. But, that isn’t to say there aren’t other aspects of our lives influencing our ability to do good work.

Nutrition, for example, is an essential component of cognitive performance. More than ensuring long-term brain health, a versatile, healthy diet can boost productivity levels by as much as 20%! Yet, it’s often the last thing people address.

So, instead of reaching for another cup of coffee or skipping lunch to get more done, it might be time for us to learn precisely how food impacts our brain. A great place to start are these most common myths about how a diet can help or harm our career goals.


Myth #1: Low-Carb Diets Are Good for Us

One of the most prevalent myths about nutrition is that a low-carb diet can help us achieve our physical and mental goals. In fact, we’re quick to believe that any type of restrictive dieting might give us an upper edge. Every year, there’s a brand new fad: low-fat, gluten-free, paleo, extreme fasting, you name it.

But here’s the thing: our bodies and brains need a wide variety of nutrients to function. If we want to be in prime shape, whether physically or mentally, we need to give ourselves every last bit of help.

In their essence, carbohydrates are a pure energy source that our brains can use to function well. Too little, and we become fatigued. Too much, and we’re spending precious energy on battling the consequences.

So how much do we need?

The current recommendation is that carbs should make up 45-65% of total daily calories, translating to approximately 225g. For weight loss and athletic performance, this number is often cut to 100-150g. Even if you are pursuing ketosis, you still need to include at least 30g of carbs per day to allow your body to function.

The key to finding the right balance is opting for high-quality sources of carbohydrates in our nutrition. Skip processed sources and go with fresh fruit and vegetables. When it comes to grains, opt for the types that have a low glycemic index. These won’t release glucose as quickly, and they’ll prevent you from suffering the consequences of glucose level fluctuations.

Applying This to Your Workday

For most people, the ideal time to consume a carbohydrate-rich meal is in the morning. A 2018 study showed that the body was more efficient at burning carbs after waking up, so if you want to get energised, start your day with a good breakfast.

If you’ve got a regular day of work ahead of you, add some complex carbs to your meal. You can experiment with whole grains, fruit, and veg, or even add legumes to your meal. If you’re preparing for a particularly difficult or long day, enrich the meal with fats and protein. This way, your body and brain will have sufficient energy until your next meal.

However, if you’re taking an exam, you might do better with a lighter meal. In this case, some oatmeal or avocado toast would be a better option than sugary cereal, a pastry, or a hearty diner-style plate of fatty goodness. Of course, don’t forget to pack a healthy snack, such as a banana or nuts, to have with you if you feel your energy start to dip.


Myth #2: All Fats Are Bad

Another consequence of modern society prioritising appearance over health is that we’ve been led to believe that all fats are bad for us.

And yes, the low-quality fats that most of us have access to aren’t exactly the best. Sunflower and canola oil are almost ubiquitous when eating out or purchasing packaged foods. And they’re chock-full of trans fats, the main suspect in most cardiovascular patients.

But, what people don’t know is that trans fats also hurt brain function. Studies from the past decade have shown that high trans fat intake causes poor memory and may even lead to cognitive deterioration.

With this in mind, those looking to become more productive need to step away from vegetable oils and processed fats and look towards healthier sources instead.

The first word of advice would be to ingest high enough amounts of DHA and EPA, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids most commonly found in fish, shellfish, and some algae. Sufficient intake of these fats has been proven to have a wide variety of health benefits, including a lower likelihood of mood disorders, as well as a higher chance of controlling the symptoms of ADHD.

Additionally, sufficient blood levels of omega-6 fatty acids, found in flaxseed or walnuts, also benefit cognitive health. They have been found to promote healthy aging, lower inflammation, and reduce heart disease.

Applying This to Your Workday

Considering the scientific data, there are two things you can do to boost your productivity and performance through nutrition.

First of all, be ready to nurture your brain with the right foods. Have fish at least once a week to get the necessary Omega-3s, or add a supplement to your routine. As you see fewer mood fluctuations, you’ll find it easier to become motivated to work to attain your professional and learning goals.

Secondly, think about timing your fat intake to get the absolute most cognitive benefits. For example, many people experience a significant energy dip in the afternoon. Often, they’ll reach for coffee or chocolate bars to get a pick-me-up. Yet, those are only temporary solutions. But, if you have enough healthy fats at breakfast, then top off your energy levels with protein at lunch, you’ll see fewer blood glucose fluctuations throughout the day. The simple fix will prevent you from feeling sluggish, making you more productive at school and work.


Myth #3: There Are Shortcuts to Boost Productivity

Finally, let’s not forget about the fact that nutrition isn’t just about what we eat, but what we ingest throughout the day.

A lot of students and professionals will look to caffeine and other nootropics to increase productivity. And although these can help the brain work more efficiently over a short burst of time, they can also have a variety of side effects: too much coffee or tea can cause jitteriness; nicotine, which causes alertness, is highly addictive; and, you may become adapted to ginseng, losing the desired result after prolonged use.

Another highly impactful factor in performance is hydration. Students who attend examinations with a bottle of water are likely to receive higher grades. In forest workers, a 1% drop in hydration caused a 12% dip in productivity. Another study looked at how memory, arithmetic, and decision-making abilities reacted to dehydration. It found significant deterioration in mental function ranging between 2-23%, further testifying to the importance of water intake.

But here’s the deal.

Most people don’t know that drinking water alone isn’t enough to keep us properly hydrated. In fact, drinking too much can even be detrimental, with excessive water intake causing hyponatremia, a condition that can lead to brain damage. So, instead of just drinking the prescribed eight glasses of water per day, try to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need, including electrolytes from sodium, potassium, and magnesium.

Applying This to Your Workday

The absolute best way to do great work is to learn how to listen to your body. If you’re really committed to boosting productivity with nutrition, you’ll need to roll up your sleeves.

For example, you might need to accept that coffee and nootropics aren’t always the best way to get a quick energy surge. You might do better with a quick workout. Similarly, you might not be good at tracking your food and liquid intakes. In this case, you can start a nutrition journal or set reminders on your phone to take a break and have something to eat.

Of course, no matter what changes you make to your routine, be mindful of paying attention to how you feel. Perhaps cutting some foods from your diet can help you work better, but it may also make you feel more sluggish than usual.

In the end, understand that nutrition plays a crucial part in keeping you physically healthy. Even if you don’t achieve the efficiency boost you were looking for, know that a wholesome eating regimen still contributes to your professional path. For example, if you know that businesses lose money and productivity due to illness-related absenteeism, you can take the necessary steps to prevent yourself from getting sick, thus having to miss work.


The Perfect Meal Plan for Productivity

There they are, the three most common myths about the way nutrition influences productivity. As you can see, the effect of what we eat and drink in a day has a much more significant impact on long-term than short-term cognitive performance.

With this in mind, it’s important to develop wholesome eating habits. For some people, this will require behavioural changes. For others, it will mean paying closer attention to their bodies.

Of course, if your ultimate goal is to become a mental super-performer, the main thing to focus on will be overall health. So make sure that you eat regular, high-quality meals, that you’re getting enough sleep, and of course, that you’re keeping up with your doctor’s appointments. After all, a simple blood test can give you plentiful information about the state of your body and brain. And, if you’re unsure what you should eat to stay productive, consider consulting a nutritionist. They’ll know how to prepare a meal plan that’s tailored to your metabolism, helping you attain your physical and cognitive goals without having to tap around in the dark.


Featured image courtesy of Unsplash

Natasha Lane

Natasha Lane

Natasha is a lady of a keyboard and one huge geek. She has a rich history of working in the branding, small business, and career growth related fields, so she is always happy to collaborate with awesome blogs and share her knowledge all around the web. To see what Natasha is up to next, check out her Twitter Dashboard.