The Science of Food and Work Productivity

Caroline Beaton

Eating the right food throughout your workday is as essential as filling your car up with gas. Without it, you get nowhere. Moreover, the quality of fuel matters. A poor diet is like filling your gas tank with sugary Pepsi.

In short, food affects not just how we feel and what we weigh; it changes how we work. Here are three tips to eat your way to a better workday, based on scientific research and real insights from employer reviews on kununu:

1) Breakfast actually matters.

Breakfast fuels the most energetic, inspired part of our workday. Research shows that alertness spikes right after breakfast is consumed. A good breakfast is the difference between a lethargic, unproductive morning, and one of those unstoppable, “in-the-zone” mornings.

 

What breakfast is best? High fiber, carb-rich meals are associated with the highest alertness ratings, as well as the most cumulative alertness between breakfast and lunch. In one study, breakfast cereal consumption was associated with lower levels of depression, emotional distress and fatigue as well as greater alertness, fewer cognitive problems, and fewer bowel problems. Researchers observed these effects after just one week.

Though high (good) fat breakfasts are popular in natural health circles right now, some research indicates that fat-rich breakfasts have a “weak satiating power” compared to other kinds of breakfast. If your breakfast tends to be high in fat, that might be why you’re rooting around your workplace kitchen at 10 a.m.

 

So even though breakfast is important, don’t overthink it: you don’t need a massive, perfect breakfast every day. Instead, shoot for easy but healthy: whole grain, high-fiber cereal, yogurt and granola, fruit and whole grain toast, or even a breakfast shake (as long as it doesn’t have more than about 10 grams of sugar). Hassle-free and nutritious is the key to consistent productivity.

 

2) Eating regularly matters just as much as eating well.

Only 35 percent of American employees say they almost always take a lunch break. 60 percent either eat at their desks or don’t eat at all, The New York Times reports.

 

kununu reviews echo these statistics. “At this facility I can never get a break or lunch because I’m so busy!” one Vibra Hospital of Charleston employee wrote. An employee at IKEA said the same: “If you came in the morning and had short hours you had only a fifteen minute break and no time to eat lunch until you would get home later.” Employees at CVS Caremark, Nissan and UnitedHealthcare agreed: there’s not enough time to eat during your lunch break, and/or taking lunch is frowned upon.

The mistake many 9-5 workers make is waiting until 2 p.m. to eat lunch, by which time they’re famished and craving fat and carbs. This method wastes productivity in two ways. First, the low energy caused by our hunger saps our motivation and attention. Our body converts pretty much everything we eat into glucose, which our brains use to think and stay alert. When we’re hungry, it’s hard to concentrate because our glucose is low. Not eating regularly can also make people emotional, which impedes productivity. Secondly, after we binge on a high-carb, high-fat lunch, much of our body’s energy goes to digesting the meal we just ate, rather than doing good work. This is what causes that afternoon slump feeling. Another trending technique is intermittent fasting which, despite its budding popularity, has proven to plummet mood and alertness at work.

 

Ideally, your workplace environment will support eating healthily and eating whenever you’re physically hungry (not just bored). Employees who eat at staff canteens are more likely to eat well and regularly compared with other subjects. One employee at Anmed Health wrote that “my cafeteria promoted healthy food which I appreciated.”  

 

But if you’re on a budget or your workplace doesn’t have a cafeteria, there are other ways to eat regularly. Just as you stock your home fridge with food every week, stock your work fridge. Services like Amazon Pantry and Instacart make this easier than ever. If you don’t have a fridge to use, one employee at Moncler Fashion suggests bringing high-glycemic snacks like bananas, peanut butter and honey on whole grain bread to give you energy throughout the day. Workers often resort to eating huge, expensive, unhealthy meals because the options they’ve brought themselves to work aren’t appealing enough mid-day. So step up your food game; your boss will thank you.

 

3) Stress messes with your eating habits.

 

Even slight changes in eating habits can generate stress equivalent to an increased workload. One employee at Spa Urbana explained, “Everyone was stressed due to regularly not getting an adequate lunch.”

Conversely, stress itself can change eating habits. One employee at Justifacts Credential Verification, Inc. noticed that “Managers get so stressed to get work done that they eat lunch at their desks or not at all.”

But stress doesn’t just reduce the time we have to eat; it physiologically changes how our bodies perceive food. When we’re stressed, our bodies release cortisol, which then interacts with two hormones called neuropeptide Y and leptin to stimulate our appetite for high sugar and high fat food. Moreover, when we’re stressed, good food stimulates an opioid release — your body’s natural version of heroin. An addicting reward cycle ensues: We get stressed, and comfort food quite literally, physiologically, comforts us, and then we indulge in it to alleviate our stress. Stress “increases the reward value of highly palatable food,” one study explains. Indeed, research suggests that stressed students are more prone to practice bad eating habits, like eating junk food. The more stressed we get, the more we crave and love high sugar, high fat food, and the more lethargic and less productive we become.

In short, eat regularly to reduce your stress, and reduce your stress to improve your diet.  

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What we eat is the foundation of our work. When we choose to eat well and often, we opt to invigorate our work energy and reimagine a productive day.

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Caroline Beaton (@cs_beaton) is kununu’s millennial career expert. She’s an award-winning writer and entrepreneur who helps ambitious millennials change their habits and behaviors to lead more fulfilling lives. Her writing has been has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many others.