The Connection Between Diet and Productivity

How Food Affects Your Productivity (& What You Can Do About It)

Have you heard the saying, “You are what you eat”? While this may seem to be a tired cliché, it is actually quite accurate. The foods (and beverages) that we put into our bodies affect our daily lives, including our productivity at work and in everyday tasks. It makes perfect sense when you think about how the digestive system of the human body works. The digestive system needs nutrients and energy in order to be able to perform its jobs. That energy and nutrients come from foods. Foods with certain nutrients provide longer-lasting, smarter, “better” energy than others. If you eat too much of one type of food during your workday, your productivity can be affected, either negatively or positively.

Filling your body with the proper nutrients and energy is akin to using “premium” gasoline in an automobile. If you knew for certain that your car would run more efficiently, giving you more miles per gallon, on premium unleaded fuel than on economy fuel, you would surely use the premium fuel over the economy version. Likewise, filling our bodies with the best nutrients and foods will help them to work more efficiently for longer periods of time. Food directly impacts cognitive performance. This is why many people experience an afternoon slump after they didn’t eat healthily at lunchtime.

Your diet can impact every aspect of your life, especially as it pertains to wellness. Eating the “right” kinds of foods will not only benefit overall health and prevent disease, it can also greatly affect workplace productivity. It is especially important to remember the tremendous impact diet has on your overall well-being and health if you are following a specific diet regimen. Whatever foods you put into your body, you should understand what effect they will have on your productivity in the workplace and in day-to-day life.

Foods That Can Boost Productivity

Foods that we eat are converted by our bodies into glucose, creating energy that powers our bodies and brains. When our bodies and brains are running low on glucose, we have trouble staying focused and concentrating (which is often responsible for the afternoon slump mentioned above). Not all foods that we eat are processed by our bodies at the same rate, either. Some foods release glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy that is followed by a rapid depletion of energy. Other foods provide more sustained energy, but require more work from the digestive system, which can reduce oxygen levels in the brain and leave us feeling groggy.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, which are one of the three macronutrients of the human diet, are our bodies’ main source of energy. They are found in various forms, like sugars and dietary fiber, and in a variety of foods, including whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Like anything, eating either too much or too little carbohydrates can have negative effects on our bodies.
Carbohydrates provide the energy our bodies need to carry out functions. They affect blood sugar and insulin levels as well as metabolism of fat in our bodies. They support digestion, and affect how nutrients are absorbed during digestion.

Simple carbohydrates are absorbed by the body and converted into quick energy. These include simple sugars and fruit juices. Complex carbohydrates are longer-lasting, producing energy at a slower rate. They are very beneficial for our bodies and for productivity, and they help to fuel exercise as well as our brains. Complex carbohydrates can be found in whole grains, pasta, and cereals. Additionally, complex carbohydrates have more nutrients and fiber and can help us to feel satisfied after eating them.

Not getting enough carbohydrates (often referred to as having “low blood sugar”) can make us feel weak, tired, and have problems concentrating. Low glucose levels in the body can even inhibit self-control, causing a lessened ability to stay on task and be productive at work (and, paradoxically, an increased likelihood of choosing unhealthy foods). (See the section on “Sugar” below).

Having too much carbohydrates in the body can also deplete productivity. Carbohydrate-rich foods cause the body to produce too much insulin, flooding the brain with hormones that make you feel tired (like serotonin and tryptophan).

Carbohydrates that can be beneficial to workplace productivity include:

  • Brown rice – has more nutrients than white rice and helps to fuel the body longer
  • Whole grains- these provide magnesium, which helps cognition
  • Dark chocolate – this contains flavonoids, providing antioxidant effects to the brain (choose chocolate that is high in cacao and low in sugar)

Fruits and Vegetables

Research has shown that eating fruits and vegetables throughout the day is beneficial to both mind and body. British researchers discovered that the more fruits and vegetables people ate throughout the day, the happier, more creative, and more productive they were. It is believed that this may be because the nutrients in fruits and vegetables stimulate dopamine production in the brain, which is responsible for engagement and motivation. Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables also improve memory and boost mood.
Some of the best fruit and vegetable choices for workplace productivity include:

  • Bananas – The potassium and carbohydrates found in bananas provide long-lasting energy.
  • Kale and Spinach-Leafy greens are rich in iron, carrying oxygen through your body’s cells to create energy and enhancing productivity.
  • Berries – Berries contain antioxidants, protecting the brain from damage and improving communication between neurons.

Protein

Made up of amino acids, protein fuels vital reactions throughout the body. Having too little protein in the body can lead to muscle loss and tissue breakdown. Having too much protein, however, can lead to its storage as fat.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say that women over age 14 need 46 grams of protein daily, while men age 19 and over need 56 grams. Ten to 35 percent of your calories each day should consist of protein.

Good choices of protein for productivity include:

  • Salmon – This fish is full of omega-3 fatty acids, great for the brain and for energy at work.
  • Lean meat – The leanest meat that you can get is best, as you want to avoid saturated fat.
  • Lentils – These provide a great source of protein and fiber, and almost no saturated fat or sodium.
  • Nuts and seeds – Plant-sourced protein is known to be low in fat and sodium and better for your body’s health, as well as the health of the planet.
  • Whole grains – Many whole grains such as quinoa, rice and millet contain higher levels of protein.
  • Poultry and eggs – These contain high levels of protein.
  • Dairy foods – Think yogurt, cheese, and milk.

Water

Our body weight is made up of 50 to 70 percent water. We are dependent upon water to survive. It’s no wonder, then, that water is the optimal way to hydrate during the day, especially to maintain productivity. It has been proven that even being dehydrated by just two percent can diminish cognitive performance, producing deficits in short-term memory, visual tracking, and arithmetical ability.

How much water should you be drinking a day? You’ve probably heard the standard “8 glasses of water a day” advice. This is average, with some people needing more and some, less. The rule of thumb is to drink when you feel thirsty. The U.S. Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommend that men drink 15.5 cups of water per day, and women drink 11.5 cups of water daily.

If you are drinking adequate water, you will not feel thirsty and your urine will appear colorless or light yellow. Most healthy adults don’t need to worry about drinking too much water.

Magnesium

Magnesium, which is found in leafy greens like kale and spinach, as well as in steak and dark chocolate, has been proven to reduce anxiety and stress. It also relaxes the muscles. Both of these benefits can greatly enhance workplace productivity.

Phenylalanine

Found in almonds and other foods, phenylalanine is an amino acid that stimulates the brain to produce dopamine. This may lead to enhanced mood and motivation, resulting in better workplace productivity.

Choline

Choline is a B-vitamin that has been shown to improves concentration and reaction time. It is believed to enhance the functioning of neurons in the brain. Choline can be found in eggs, which are also rich in protein.

When we eat matters almost as much as what we eat. Eating small meals throughout the day can help to maintain a constant level of glucose –i.e., energy—in the body. Maintaining consistent glucose levels prevent spikes and drops in blood sugar, which are bad for the brain and, thus, bad for productivity.

Foods That Can Negatively Affect Productivity

Foods containing certain nutrients or ingredients can have a negative effect on productivity, at certain levels. While there are no “bad” foods, there are foods whose intake should be limited in order to improve health and enhance workplace productivity.

Salt

Eating too much salt, or sodium, leads to dehydration, which, as we have seen above, can lead to decreased workplace productivity. Snacking on salty chips or pretzels throughout the workday can have negative consequences, and is not the best choice of snack to enhance productivity.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat no more than 2300 mg. of sodium per day, and are moving towards a healthier recommended sodium intake of 1500 mg. per day. You might be thinking, “I’m safe, because I don’t add salt to my meals.” Wrong! More than 70 percent of the sodium Americans consume comes from packaged, prepared and restaurant foods, not from the salt shaker. Be mindful of the amount of sodium in the foods you are eating throughout the day. Read nutrition labels and nutrition facts on the menu before ordering.

Saturated Fat

Foods containing high levels of saturated fats decrease productivity. They also increase fatigue, as they cause your brain to release the sleepy hormones of serotonin and tryptophan. The American Heart Association recommends that only five to six percent of your total daily calories come from saturated fat. So, if you eat a diet of 2000 calories per day, only 120 calories should be from saturated fat. That equals about 13 grams of saturated fat daily.

Foods with saturated fat that you should avoid during the workday in order to enhance productivity include animal-based foods, fatty meats, poultry with skin, butter, lard, cream, baked goods, fried foods, cheese and other whole-fat dairy products. Even reduced fat dairy products can add up to too much saturated fat.

Turn to monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats. One good source of fat for productivity is almonds. They contain vitamin E, magnesium and protein to provide long-lasting energy during the workday.

Sugar

Sugar is not necessarily the “bad guy” in our diets. It is required for a well-balanced, healthy diet and for survival. Sugar produces a source of energy so that our muscles can work. It powers the brain and nervous system. It helps to metabolize fat. It is also stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, a back-up energy source.

Limiting sugar too much can lead to hypoglycemia, otherwise known as low blood glucose. This may be indicated when one’s fasting blood sugar is less than 70 mg/dL. Symptoms of low blood sugar include fatigue, pale skin, sweating, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, hunger, and irritability. If left untreated, it can lead to confusion, seizures, blurry vision and loss of consciousness.
The American Heart Association recommends that men eat no more than 37.5 grams (nine teaspoons) of sugar daily, and women, no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar per day. Ideally, sugar should make up 10 percent or less of your daily calories.

The trick is to eat healthy sugars and limit unhealthy sugars. Natural sugars, such as those found in fruits and vegetables, contain fructose. Examples include apples, bananas, peaches, grapes, plums, and starchy vegetables.

Unhealthy sugars that should be avoided to enhance productivity include sodas, donuts, cookies, cakes, chocolates, and candy. Too much of these can sabotage productivity in a heartbeat.

Alcohol

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol is the most used and abused drug in the United States. It goes without saying that alcohol limits workplace productivity and should be avoided during the workday. Not only does alcohol interfere with productivity, it also fosters absenteeism in employees, and creates more accidents and on-the-job injuries. Delay consumption of alcohol until after working hours.

Caffeine

Caffeine is one of those confusing additives. Some people claim that caffeine enhances productivity, while others eschew it as decreasing productivity. A study from 2013 found that caffeine can help us to focus on a task, but can inhibit creativity. It can also help to focus discussions in meetings in the workplace, boosting involvement from participants.

The recommendation? Caffeine is fine in moderation, but you shouldn’t take in more than 400 mg. of caffeine per day (equal to four to five cups of coffee), per the FDA. Everyone is different, and only you know your own tolerance. Some people will become jittery and anxious after just two cups of coffee a day. To maintain productivity, know your own limits.

Final Thoughts

Fine-tuning your diet can have positive, beneficial effects on your productivity. Achieving the optimum balance among all dietary components and limiting those that deplete energy can enhance productivity. If you are concerned about balancing your diet to maximize workplace productivity, you might want to consult a nutritionist or health coach. You might even consider studying to become a nutritionist or health coach yourself!

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