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The Productivity Diet: what you eat affects your productivity and concentration

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Nov 6, 2013

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You've probably heard the phrases "you are what you eat" and "healthy mind, healthy body," yet when it comes to being more productive at work, we're more likely to look at external factors, like how we plan and organise our work, rather than internal ones, like how we're fueling our body.

In fact, diet, along with exercise and sleep, is one of the most important factors when it comes to getting the most out of yourself. Like a sports car, if you want to achieve optimal performance, you need to put in the right fuel. If your brain is running on a diet of soda and junk food, you're never going to achieve your highest potential.

Savvy individuals and companies realised this fact long ago; Google is famous for its in-house eateries where employees can choose from a wide range of healthy meals and snacks all free of charge. It's apparently a small price to pay for a workforce that is healthy and able to concentrate and work to the best of their abilities.

The World Health Organization estimates that adequate nutrition could raise national productivity levels by 20% – a figure too high to ignore. So how and what should we eat for maximum productivity?

Breakfast

Skipping breakfast is an all-too-common habit in the U.S., but missing this important opportunity to refuel after the overnight 'fast' while we sleep could be costing us our productivity.

Starting work on an empty stomach means you have probably not eaten since 7 or 8 pm the previous day when you had your evening meal. If you start work at 8 am, this means you've gone 12 hours without food and you're trying to work with a brain that is literally starving.

Our bodies get used to our eating habits, so if you're not used to eating breakfast, you probably don't feel hungry in the mornings. But this doesn't mean that you don't need to eat: after going so long without food you will be starting to run dangerously low on blood sugar, making it hard to concentrate, sapping your energy levels and disrupting your thought processes.

A brain starved of glucose will work only at limited capacity, putting most of its energy into vital processes like breathing and pumping blood, rather than focusing on writing that report that's due at the end of the day.

A study into children's breakfast habits found that those who eat breakfast miss less school, achieve higher test scores and are even 20% more likely to graduate from high school. While it may be true that home life in general could have a big part to play in these statistics (an unsupportive family is less likely to provide a nutritious breakfast), there have been several other experiments that support these findings.

You wouldn't set off on a long trip without first stopping to fuel up your car, so why do the same to your body by starting the day without breakfast?

The best breakfasts provide a slow release of energy to keep your blood sugar levels steady until your mid-morning snack or lunch. Foods such as oats, bananas, eggs and nut butters are all good choices. High sugar options like donuts and many commercial breakfast cereals will cause a spike in blood sugar and then a crash, meaning that while your brain may receive an instant jolt of glucose, an hour or so later you may be worse off than you were before you ate.

Water

About 60% of the human body is water, so it's little wonder that the amount of water we consume can have a great affect on our body and mind. Even low levels of dehydration can cause a reduction in concentration levels, memory, and reaction time.

For a demonstration of how devastating dehydration can be to your performance at work you only have to experience a day of trying to be productive after an over-consumption of alcohol the night before. Dehydration is the major cause of the infamous hangover, and most people would agree that they are unable to work at 100% efficiency hungover.

Studies have shown that productivity at work can decrease by as much as 10% when workers feel even a mild thirst. Dehydration also causes fatigue and physical ailments, such as headaches and dry skin, which can have an indirect impact on work performance.

Most people need around 2-2.5 litres of water per day to stay hydrated. Getting into a healthy habit of drinking water regularly throughout the day could be a simple and easy way to improve your productivity.

Coffee

The jury's still out on coffee; half the studies claim it is damaging to your health, while the other half claim amazing health benefits. Studies aside, it's probable that a great proportion of the working world would grind to a complete halt if you took away their caffeine.

Caffeine is a stimulant, meaning it can be a great pick-me-up if you're feeling tired or sluggish, and some studies have shown that a small dose of caffeine improves mental performance, mood, and alertness.

However, as with many things in this world, you can definitely have too much of a good thing, and moderation is the key. Drinking too much coffee or other caffeinated beverages can cause jitteriness and irritability. Other studies have even shown that consuming too much caffeine has a negative effect on productivity.

When you can't get through the day without coffee, it's probably time to cut back. Caffeine is a drug, and as the body begins to rely on it, it will experience withdrawal symptoms, including mood swings, headaches, and restlessness if you don't get enough. That’s not exactly the recipe for productivity.

So if you enjoy your morning coffee and find it helps you get down to work, you can enjoy the productivity boost it gives you. However if you're relying on a constant drip-feed of caffeine to get you through the day, it may be time to rethink your caffeine habit and evaluate your sleep habits

Brain foods

If you're looking to improve your diet by adding foods known for improving concentration and mental awareness, try the following:

  • Oily fish – rich in omega-3, which is essential for brain function. Pregnant women are commonly advised to take omega-3 supplements to support the brain growth of the growing fetus.
  • Nuts and seeds – packed with vitamin E ,healthy fats and antioxidants, nuts can help improve brain function and prevent the negative effects of aging.
  • Blueberries – these little berries have one of the highest antioxidant levels of any food and have been shown to improve the symptoms of age-related conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
  • Avocados – another great source of healthy fats, avocados can lower blood pressure and improve blood flow to the brain.
  • Dark chocolate – as well as being naturally high in antioxidants, dark chocolate also contains caffeine, which can help to boost your concentration (if you're not already overdosing on coffee that is!)

Have you found that your diet affects your productivity? Do you need your morning coffee to get through the day? We'd love to hear more about your experiences with nutrition when it comes to getting work done. Let us know in the comments.

 

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