Nutrition to Optimize Occupational Output
We’ve all been there—that mid-afternoon slump that has us reaching for caffeine or sugar to get those energy levels back up again. Maybe you’ve struggled to stay awake during your morning meetings, or perhaps you’ve had to call in sick to work way more frequently than you (or your boss) would like.
While we may be quick to blame our never-ending workloads or those around us for getting us sick, what we may not realize is just how big of a role nutrition can have on our work performance. In fact, a growing body of research supports that improved physical health can lead to greater employee engagement, job performance, productivity, and ultimately, profitability. Notably, improved nutrition and dietary habits have been shown to impact each of these highly sought after areas of work performance.
So, what does the research say?
A 2011 review of 30 studies on the topic found that diet-related worksite health promotion may improve overall labour productivity by 2%, mainly due to reduced absenteeism and presenteeism (on the job productivity loss attributed to poor health).
Additional research has found that employees who ate a healthy diet were 25% more likely to have a high self-rated job performance than those who did not. Another large study of over 19,000 employees found that those with unhealthy diets were 66% more likely to report a reduced productivity, and those that rarely ate fruits and vegetables were 93% more likely to have a higher loss in productivity.
While these numbers may seem shocking, they actually make a lot of sense. Our food choices are intimately tied to many factors affecting our work performance.
Food, performance & productivity
Food quite literally provides energy and nutrients for our bodies and brain (calories are simply units of energy). If we’re not eating enough food, or healthy foods that provide us with the essential nutrients we need to function, it makes sense that our energy levels, concentration, problem-solving ability, and creativity will all be negatively impacted.
Proper nutrition is also necessary for maintaining a healthy immune system. Poor nutrition will compromise our immune response and our ability to combat stress, resulting in more sick days.
Similarly, poor nutrition is one of the leading risk factors for chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Living with a chronic disease can of course, directly impact work performance and lead to more medical intervention (and again, more sick days).
Finally, nutrition is now known to affect our mental health as well. Research shows that poor gut health and “Western” style diets have greater links to mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, both of which can in turn affect our ability to perform at work.
Fuel optimal work performance with food
Focus on a variety of whole foods.
Nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and proteins provide the building blocks for every cell and organ in our body. Eating an abundance of these foods helps to keep our brain, immune system, and the rest of our body to run optimally
What does this look like? Aim for diversity and variety in your meals. Load at least half your plate with colourful veggies, a quarter of it with protein (e.g. eggs, tofu, chicken or salmon), a quarter of it with a whole grain (e.g. quinoa or brown rice) and a serving of healthy fats (e.g. avocado, nuts, or olive oil).
Eat for blood sugar balance.
Eating in a way that causes rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar can leave us feeling tired, weak, shaky, and anxious—all of which impairs our focus and productivity. Instead, eating in a way that promotes a more elongated blood sugar curve allows us to have a more steady, balanced state of energy and feelings of fullness throughout the entire day.
What does this look like? Avoid simple sugars, refined carbohydrates, and skipping meals as much as possible. Instead, choose complex, fibre-rich carbohydrate sources and pair them with a source of protein and/or healthy fat. Fibre, protein, and fat all work to slow digestion and absorption of sugar into our bloodstream. Try to apply this principle for both meals and snacks.
Eat ENOUGH food.
In a world of restrictive diets, a culprit of low energy and productivity may simply be not eating enough. Calories are units of energy; when we don’t eat enough of them, it’s no wonder that our energy levels are low.
What does this look like? While calorie needs vary from person-to-person, and change from day-to-day, this may mean eating more regularly and tuning into your feelings of hunger and fullness. Hunger should not be looked upon negatively; rather, it’s a natural physiological signal that our body needs more fuel.
Adequate fluids play an equally important role in staying focused and productive on the job. Even mild dehydration can lead to headaches, fatigue, and irritability.
What does this look like? The easiest way to know if you’re adequately hydrated is to check the colour of your urine. It should be light-yellow to clear throughout the day, which for many of us means around 2-3 L of fluids per day. While it may seem like a nuisance to have to make frequent trips to the bathroom, this actually helps you get up from your desk for some movement!
Job-specific nutrition tips
Bringing a packed work lunch can save you time and money, while also helping you get through long hours of required concentration. Implementing a meal prep routine of cooking large portions of meals or different meal components each week can make a world of difference in your work performance. Need some inspiration to get started? Check out these 10 Healthy Lunch Ideas To Pack For Work.
Corporate traveller, or on-the-go entrepreneur?
While you may be able to pack lunches for the office, that’s not always possible if you’re constantly on the go. Planning ahead can be highly beneficial in these situations, to help you stick to healthy eating habits and also to reduce stress. Try to implement the principles discussed above to meals on the fly and snacks at the airports. This might mean googling some healthy fast-casual spots near your hotel, or purchasing simple whole food ingredients at the airport (like a banana and plain Greek yogurt instead of a coffee cake). Or, try packing your own no-refrigeration-required snacks to keep you going in a pinch. One of my favourites? Homemade trail mix!
Physically active job, like a fitness instructor?
The ability to refuel, repair, and replenish are critical if your job requires intense physical exertion. Before activity, you’ll want to make sure you have a source of easily-digestible carbohydrates to provide you with quick energy. Something like oatmeal or toast with nut butter are easy options. Post-activity, you’ll want to refuel your energy stores and repair your muscles with both carbohydrates and protein. For instance, a whole grain bowl with salmon or poached eggs can provide both of these macronutrients. Finally, adequate fluids are also essential to replenish fluid losses from increased sweat, so be sure to have your water bottle handy at all times.
Working night shifts is known to disrupt the circadian rhythm and lead to higher rates of chronic disease and fatigue. While unavoidable in some fields of work, there are luckily some tips to help combat this. Try to maintain a regular eating schedule just as you would if you were working a 9-to-5. Aim to eat a balanced breakfast within an hour before waking and a blood sugar-balancing meal or snack every 3-5 hours until bedtime. Having breakfast prepared in advance can help immensely with this. Some easy ideas? Both chia puddings or overnight oats require zero cooking and can be prepared the night before. Finally, while caffeine may seem necessary, try your best to limit your intake towards the end of your shift to avoid further disruption to your sleep-wake cycle.
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