As professionals, we face a world of possibilities and challenges every day at the workplace, where our mental fitness is tried and tested, time and again. Surprisingly, when we think about the factors that help contribute to our daily performance and productivity at work, we probably would not give “food” much thought. Yet, age-old wisdom and modern research both point to the positive effects of a balanced diet on the way we think, feel and work. Wouldn’t you agree that anything that can improve your brain health and mental functioning capabilities is literally some serious “food for thought”?
According to the teachings of Yoga, the ancient Indian philosophy, the ‘Annamaya kosha’ (our physical body) and our ‘Mana’ (mind) are a direct reflection of the ‘Anna’ (food) we eat. Modern research concurs with this ancient wisdom and is now telling us that what we eat, how we eat and when we eat, all affect our body and brain. Our diet influences not only how we look and feel but also our cognitive performance while taking decisions and executing plans, as this article in the Harvard Business Review points out.
Similarly, an article published by the Mental Health Foundation indicates that food plays an important contributing role in the development, management and prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer’s. The Foundation’s study showed that people who ate healthy foods on a daily basis had fewer mental health problems than those who preferred unhealthy foods (packaged food and takeaways). A balanced diet providing adequate amounts of carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water can contribute immensely to a balanced mood and feelings of wellbeing, the study asserts.
The temptation to eat junk food
To better appreciate the cause-and-effect relationship between food and our work performance, let’s understand the functioning of our brain in simple terms. The brain needs energy to perform its functions and be alert. This energy comes from conversion of the food we eat into glucose. When we do not eat well and allow the glucose levels to drop, our energy is drained which in turn affects our ability to focus. No wonder we often hear people say, “I cannot think on an empty stomach”.
Unfortunately, this is often when one falls to the temptation of unhealthy, junk food. Despite intuitively knowing the difference between “good” and “bad” food, it is quite common to succumb to the lure of unhealthy food choices that seem more appetising, cheaper and convenient.
How to Start Eating Right (healthy)
Thankfully, it is not too difficult to avoid falling into this trap: all you need is a practical action plan than can help you accomplish healthy eating goals. As the HBR article rightly points out, “the trick to eating right is not learning to resist temptation. It’s making healthy eating the easiest possible option.”
# Tip 1: Don’t wait to be very hungry
Advance planning of what to eat and when is quite an effective strategy to keep both hunger and temptation at bay. Regular intake of small amounts of the right food ensures that the glucose levels are maintained and the brain is not deprived of the energy it needs. Importantly, it also prevents binge eating which happens when one gets too hungry. So, it is perfectly ok for “healthy snacking” such as some nuts (peanuts, cashews and channa) or a serving of fruit.
# Tip 2: Eat slow and chew your food well
Whether you are getting your lunch dabba delivered to your office or you prefer the spread of the office canteen, if you don’t watch how fast and how much you eat during lunch, the post-lunch session can be quite a drag. If you eat too much and/or eat too fast, then the digestion of food consumes a lot of energy instead of the energy being supplied to the brain for other work. Lethargy sets in and productivity takes a serious hit! You can imagine the consequences when you have important meetings or presentations immediately after lunch!
# Tip 3: Add locally grown fruits and vegetables to your diet
Fruits and vegetables not only provide essential vitamins and minerals for our general well-being, but also are proven to contribute to some very desirable workplace attributes. A study by the British Psychological Society that monitored the food choices, consumption levels, mood, and behaviors of participants over a two week period found that people who ate fruits and vegetables were comparatively happier. This is because these provided a better supply of vital nutrients that fostered the production of dopamine, which plays a key role in the experience of curiosity, motivation, and engagement. As any professional working in an organization knows, these qualities are enormously valuable. The key is however to include locally grown fruits and vegetables as they have smaller food miles. The smaller the food miles, the better it is for your health!
# Tip 4: Supply brain-friendly food
There’s a whole range of easy-to-obtain foods that provide the brain with a range of nutrients that will aid in keeping your energy and productivity levels high. Ghee being rich in omega 3 boosts brain power and improves memory and cognitive function. For optimal brain health, try to include at least 1 tsp of ghee each into your main meals.
What we accomplish at work is a major contributor to our happiness and sense of well-being (or otherwise). Considering that we spend well over one-third of the day and have at least one major meal (for many in metros like Mumbai, it is two meals) at work, one can’t over-emphasize the need for healthy eating with a balanced diet at the workplace.
The next time you pack your lunch dabba (or get somebody to do it for you), make sure that you are getting everything your brain and body need to whizz through the day, with energy, enthusiasm and clarity.
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